21 Cities Striving for a More Car-Free Future
It’s a feeling we all know. The dreadful, hellish feeling of being stuck in traffic or sitting in public transit that’s again delayed. It’s no surprise the worst congestion happens at some of the busiest, most populated city centers of the world, from Paris to New York City. But how are these mega cities dealing with the problem?
Some of these cities have been debating limiting or banning cars in certain areas in order to reduce congestion and get the economy moving again. Traffic congestion and slowdowns, when they exceed a certain threshold, can impede economic development, discourage businesses from expanding and affect productivity, and governments are taking notice.
They see other benefits, too, to supporting car-free cities, from curbing pollution to encouraging public transit use. Different municipalities are using different approaches, with some banning cars in entire stretches and some limiting cars during certain peak hours, like in Colombia. San Francisco is considering eliminating minimum parking requirements, while Brussels has designated historic parts of its city center car-free.
Here’s a look at some major cities around the world and how they are ditching cars.
In this Spanish city, only vehicles that meet zero emissions requirements are allowed to drive freely downtown. In 2018, Madrid was one of the first in Europe to push this policy in order to curb emissions and reduce gridlock. All petrol vehicles registered before the year 2000 and diesels registered before 2006 are banned in the city center, unless drivers are area residents or have another exemption. Its goal is to slash nitrogen dioxide levels by 23 percent by 2020.
In recent years, Paris officials have stepped in to crack down on pollution in a variety of ways. Cars registered before 1997 are banned from the city on weekdays, and the Champs-Élysées has monthly closures. In 2016, the highway along the bank of the Seine was closed off and will be turned into a pedestrian-only promenade. The city has also set environmental goals of banning diesel vehicles by 2025 and to double bike lanes throughout by 2020.
Many parts of this southeastern region of China are closed off to cars, including Discovery Bay of Lantau Island and Cheung Chau. To ease congestion, there are talks of another plan to remove cars and create more pedestrian zones in some of Hong Kong’s busiest streets. It’s also been testing out street closures in Central, a busy business hub, as it tries to catch up to its international neighbors’ standards on pedestrian-only zones and combating congestion.
San Francisco, California
Bay Area traffic has in recent years outranked some of the worst cities for traffic worldwide. In 2018, San Francisco officials started taking a look at getting rid of minimum parking requirements for new developments. If passed, the city would be the first major city in the U.S. to ban these parking requirements forcing developers to provide parking spaces as part of their building.
The city center of Ghent got rid of cars back in 1996 to ease traffic congestion and combat bad air quality. Ghent is the second largest car-free area of Belgium, and proponents of the ban say it opens up more potential for cyclists, public transportation and growing tourism. Public transit, taxis and permit holders can enter the restricted area, but cannot exceed 20 kph, or about 12.4 mph.
Like San Francisco, Minneapolis in 2018 decided to remove mandatory parking requirements. Officials hope that this will help encourage walkability rather than car ownership. Its bold 2040 plan includes goals to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and to reduce the local number of miles driven by 40 percent.
This Alpine town has been closed off to cars, allowing only electric and freight vehicles. Others can get permits that allow residents to drive and park at its outskirts. The town is located at the base of the Matterhorn, one of the highest summits in Europe, so preventing air pollution is important for visibility and environmental reasons.
Fes el Bali, Morocco
The entire medieval city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Only pedestrians, donkeys, cyclists and carts are allowed on streets, with a few accessible for emergency vehicles. With a population of 156,000, it’s considered the biggest car-free urban place in the world.
The image of gondolas everywhere should provide a hint: There are no cars in Europe’s most famous car-free city. Its medieval city Centro Storico is Europe’s largest car-free area, where walking and boating are the main ways to navigate its lagoons. Only the bus station has vehicles.
London has joined some of its major European neighbors in enacting tough emission standards. This British capital, like Paris and Madrid, is on its way to banning diesel cars by 2020. In 2017, the city instituted a daily charge on drivers with the most polluting cars. This year, that charge will be expanded to buses and coaches, as well as increase the coverage area beyond central London. There’s also a $1 billion effort on ramping up bike infrastructure by 2026.
This Norwegian capital wants to permanently ban all private vehicles by 2019 and invest in public transportation. Some 35 miles of roads for cars will convert to bike lanes and car-free zones in the city center. New this year, drivers will also be subject to rush-hour charges and a ban on parking spaces. Oslo is particularly prone to weather that pushes air pollution to ground levels, so there’s been a push to lower pollution levels by getting rid of diesels.
This Colombian capital decided back in 1974 to close off several central streets in the city, and it’s been expanding on that effort since. Every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., roads are closed to cars and people come out for Ciclovia, an event where an average of more than 1 million bike and play sports on the open streets every week. Bogotá has amassed more than 200 miles of bike-only lanes throughout the city, and the program encouraging active living and reducing pollution has prompted other cities to follow suit.
The German capital in 2008 created a low-emission zone that banned all diesel and petrol cars that didn’t meet their standards. The ban covers about an 88-square-kilometer area (approximately 34 square miles) of the city center and applies to about one-third of Berlin’s residents. The city also has future plans to install 13 all-new bike superhighways that will run separately from cars and pedestrians.
In 2016, Greece’s capital moved to ban diesel cars from its city center by 2025 in order to improve air quality. The mayor of Athens has said his eventual goal is to get rid of all cars in the city and promote electric vehicles and clean transportation. The effort is a part of a wider commitment among the mayors of Paris, Madrid and Mexico City to address the air quality in their cities.
Mexico City, Mexico
In 1992, the United Nations called Mexico City the most polluted city in the world. Joined by several other cities, Mexico City at the C40 Mayors Summit vowed to remove diesel cars by 2025. Leaders said they would increase investments in public transportation to help reduce air quality issues and curb emissions. Mexico City has been able to take some 2 million cars off the roads every day and has implemented a program that restricts certain license plates on certain days, but critics say the program isn’t really working.
In an ongoing effort to increase its pedestrian-friendly areas, Brussels started implementing car-free Sundays and replacing cars with more pedestrian areas throughout 2019. The city has also banned diesels built before 1998 and recently said public transportation will be free on days with high pollution. Wood-burning stoves and car speed limits have also been cut to improve the city’s poor air quality.
Copenhagen is already one of the most bike-friendly places in the world, with more than half of residents biking to work every day. Now this capital city is committing to go carbon neutral by 2025. Next on its green list is a 300-mile bicycle superhighway meant to connect its suburbs. An ambitious mayor said he wants to ban all diesels in 2019, so this is a work in progress.
Japan’s capital pledged in 2000 to ban all diesel vehicles, with the exception made for those installed with an exhaust-fume purifier. It was an important move to preserve the air quality and ensure Mount Fuji could still be visible to residents and tourists. Officials also urged businesses to join the effort by helping develop plans for switching to low-emission vehicles. Several shopping districts and train stations areas have been kept pedestrian-only.
Seoul, South Korea
South Korea has a nationwide goal to reduce air pollution and phase out diesel vehicles. In 2017, Seoul banned any diesels registered before 2005 that failed to meet emission standards. The regulation will expand to other surrounding areas by 2020, and drivers will be monitored via CCTV cameras.
The Finnish capital is developing a new plan to convert its suburbs into more walkable areas accessible from the city and increase use of public transit. It’s all part of a 10-year plan leaders have to convince residents to ditch their cars. A new “mobility on demand” system in the works will integrate all its shared and public transportation on the same payment network and make getting around easier than by car.
New York City, New York
The Big Apple is on a path to expanding its pedestrian-friendly areas in recent years, promoting alternatives like bike share, subway and bus options. Parts of bustling areas like Times Square and Madison Square Park have been made into pedestrian zones. In August, there’s also an open streets event every Saturday where roads connecting Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge are closed off to cars.