Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam… Modern cities full of charm. And how lovely it is to stroll with your bike without getting home with your face covered in dust from the car exhaust gas. However, how unkind it is to carry your new IKEA wardrobe or the groceries to your house door! There’s a huge debate both on the streets and in many parliaments about pedestrianisation of some European cities, that become emotional since it affects entirely people’s daily affairs.
A matter of perspective
To get started, a light vehicle spends over 90% of its lifetime parked and 10% burning fuel (for ICE). Over 65% of this latter is useless and produces pollution and noise and only roughly 10% produces motion. But the fact is that the average free-lancer, the transporter, the inhabitant of a satellite city or a badly connected village, and those who find expensive or simply uncomfortable commuting by public transport, will use their vehicles anyway to get to the city centre.
Plenty of good will, they go in the guts of the urban jungle to spend years of their lives doing not-so-rewarding things such as searching for a parking place, waiting in a traffic jam, a traffic light, or just driving around to avoid closed streets and bottlenecks. Nevertheless, the car seems to pay off the tantrum.
Meanwhile, the urbanites and the tourists face these aliens polluting the quality of life they should get from living in a modern metropolis. They breath unhealthier air (NOx, SOx, particles, ozone, etc.) and cope with noises mostly unbearable. Besides, moving on foot or by bike can be an adventure, and in some cases a major risk (try walking by the streets of Florence, for instance).
Is pedestrianisation an utopia for some cities? Is it always possible and advisable? Does it bring actual environmental benefits? We share some pros and cons to torch a bit more the debate.
A city belongs to its citizens
The environmental problems in cities make some people move to the outskirts – and so becoming new “aliens”! A pedestrian zone eases access to local commerce and services, has cleaner atmosphere and, in short, provides the quality of life expected in a city. It can reactivate commercial life and bring wealth and prosperity to areas time ago punished by traffic congestion.
Reduction of pollution and safer urban centre
Maths never lie: fewer cars equals less emissions and accidents. As simple as that.
Room for green areas
Gardens and trees are far cooler than parking areas plenty of cars. Not only creating these natural “lungs” in the cities improves the air quality, but also avoids the so-called heat island phenomenon (accumulation of solar radiation on concrete and pavement with subsequent temperature raise) causing some people to get into real trouble in summer owing to heat waves. Vegetation and shades depollute and contribute to thermal regulation.
In some big cities such as Kyoto, a vast megapolis with several million people, postal delivery men go by bike, and trucks are electric. It is arguable if we are only describing areas limited to the downtown or to the historical perimeter. But it is a good start. In Copenhagen there are more citizens commuting by bike than by car. There you go!
Gumming up the works to contractors and delivery men
Some days ago, my brother-in-law (a do-it-all contractor) came home exhausted from driving around to by-pass streets closed for maintenance or construction works. Diverted traffic is a nightmare and touches your wallet. So, if pedestrianization of a street is a permanent and irreversible situation, I suppose the alternative for him will be to carry materials (cables, paint buckets, solvents, tools...) and equipment by metro, bus, etc. to his client’s address.
Increase of traffic and pollution in surrounding areas
Private car drivers will be destined to ostracism and bring their pollution wherever they may roam (if no other solution is set). Then, the problem is not solved but redistributed from the centre to the outer areas. Apart from releasing the same (or more) pollution in a wider area, it gives rise to a more rancid debate: do citizens of the outer areas belong to a lower class? Do they also have a right to pedestrianisation? Aren’t they affected by air quality and noise? Who sets the pedestrian limits? Is it an environmental question or a question of status?
Collapsed access to cities
The lack of traffic fluidity takes the level of stress of these drivers to the limit, increasing the risk of accidents Without any other alternative (peripheral parking areas, reinforced and more accessible public transport, broader urban bike tracks, tramway, shared vehicles...) the bottleneck on the access to cities can lead to a daily traffic collapse, worsening the local environmental impact from transport.
What should I do with my new car?
If you just bought a car, you don’t want to hear you will have a limited use of it. You worked hard and payed your taxes (including pollution tax of your car) which, in return, they will invest into cutting the access to traffic. Ironic, isn’t it? But listen. This becomes even trickier. If the solution is to stop buying private vehicles, then the problem will be forwarded to the car manufacturing industry and transformed into a socioeconomic dilemma.
Only for even cities
I wouldn’t like to be the Mayor of cities such as Lausanne or Edinburgh and their steep cobbly streets, suggesting their citizens to leave the car to move on foot, by bike, or by skate. Although their public transport systems are well developed (metro bus, tramway, etc.) and quite demanded, there is still a huge dependence on private vehicles due to the exceptionally unevenness of the land. The size of the cities does not allow greater infrastructures. Steepness makes pedestrian daily life less comfortable.
I personally live in a pedestrian street and I’m obliged to park my car in a parking area around 5 minutes away on foot from my address. I think about this every time I’m carrying paper bags with the groceries and it rains, when I struggle to move furniture (that IKEA wardrobe, you remember?), or when I walk my daughter to the kindergarten in winter. I can’t just imagine how life would be like if instead of a village of 20.000 inhabitants it was a city with 5 million people.
We can prepare our children to live without the need of a car. But today, for many of us, a car is the only way to bring our kids to school. What a paradox! I want to have green areas, parks, safety for my family, clean air…but also freedom to commute. Not possible to have it all. Isn’t it?
The first step is to adapt the cities before the change, offering appealing solutions that seduce and persuade drivers. As the number of cars goes down, gradual pedestrianisation may be easier and less traumatic.
We hope Elon Musk launches autonomous cars soon or else the Hyperloop, which is even cooler. In the meantime, this debate will continue being more polemic and confront friends and families more than a derby football match.
What do you think? Are you in favour or against it?