Mayors around the world are grappling with how to reduce congestion, air pollution, greenhouse emissions and address public health crises of, obesity, inactivity and urban diabetes. Perhaps inspired by COP21, in 2015 many chose to experiment with car-free solutions
“Blue sky, such a rare sight in Paris!” exclaims my Parisian guide, as we walk along a jubilant car-free Champs-Elysees. I am surprised and saddened to hear that grey pollution is now the near constant background to this beautiful city; Yann also tells me the roar of engines from eight lanes of traffic on the Champs-Elysees is so deafening, it is impossible to hear the fountains. But on this sunny, autumn blue sky day we both feel inspired and optimistic, walking in harmony with cycling, skateboarding Parisians. Everyone seems so happy to be reclaiming the streets for people rather than cars.

On September 27th Mayor Anne Hildago cleared the roads of traffic, enabling a third of Paris to embrace a car-free environment. People picnicked on the streets, translating Edouard Manet’s famous ‘Le dejeurner sur l’herbe’ into ‘Le dejeuner sur les paves’; some took yoga classes and many promenaded on foot and bicycle.
This experiment is part of a more ambitious plan to ban diesel cars by 2020 and replace car usage with more accessible cycling infrastructure. “We might envisage days without cars more often … perhaps even once a month,” she wrote on twitter. And there is even hope for the Champs-Elysees, the current eight lanes for motor vehicles could be cut to a narrower central band.
Paris is hosting the United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) in November/December and the Mayor wants to be seen to be setting the agenda. Road transport is not just a major cause of air pollution but also a significant part of greenhouse emissions, contributing one fifth of the EU’s total emissions of carbon dioxide. Car-free initiatives could be at the heart of the United Nations Conference agreement, keeping global warming under control and addressing major health issues.
Immense health costs of private cars in cities
All over the world, city Mayors are finally waking up to enormous health and societal costs of allowing cars free rein. In September, the Mayor of London published ‘Health Impacts of Cars in London’ which reports on the public health crises of air pollution, obesity, inactivity and diabetes type 2.
New figures indicate that nearly 10,000 per year are dying from air pollution in London. Not surprising as the dieselgate scandal revealed that some small diesel cars are emitting more toxic pollution than a bus or HGV. The Supreme Court, in its response to a case brought by Client earth, has ordered the UK government to come up with plans to keep air pollution within EU limits by December 2015. Banning diesel cars will be crucial to cutting dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide.
So concerned are the Mayors of Paris and Madrid about premature deaths and illness that they have announced emergency car bans will take place on high pollution days. Tragically 80 people are dying from air pollution related illness in New Delhi every day.
Another worrying statistic is the sharp rise in diabetes type 2. In the London boroughs of Newham and Brent, 1 in 10 has diabetes. Urban diabetes is now understood to be a consequence of car centric cities, where safe walking and cycling has been subsumed by dangerous roads. Half of all Londoners are now overweight or obese and nationally 1 in 6 are dying from inactivity. This has enormous consequences for the National Health Service. The Chief Executive of NHS England has already warned “Get serious about obesity or bankrupt the NHS”.
In 2015 London accrued the unenviable title of the most congested city in Europe. Congestion is not only economically problematic but contributes to the stresses of noise pollution, space scarcity, and road danger.Many would like to drive less but feel trapped. Severance in communities, blighted by high density, speeding traffic, means even walking or cycling to the local shops can feel like you are taking your life in your hands.
Support for car-free days from both drivers and non-drivers
In October a YouGov poll suggested there is support for a monthly car-free day in London. With car ownership as low as 29% in some inner city Boroughs, Londoners want to see this reflected in road space reallocation, with pedestrianised streets and safe protected cycling lanes.
The Ecologist article Can’t drive, Won’t drive, want to drive less? highlights the 18 million UK adults who already don’t own a driving licence. Add this together with children, who could potentially travel independently and those who would like to drive less; this could be a powerful lobby to argue for car-free space for cycling, walking and public transport. Perhaps inspired? Cardiff announced plans to go car-free for a day.
The Netherlands was instrumental in creating car-free Sundays in the 1970s, partly in response to the oil crisis, but ultimately helping citizens reclaim their dangerous streets from a wave of child killings from motor vehicles. It helped the Dutch reimagine their streets. The result was road space reallocation to cycling and safer streets. This is now seen as a template for liveable cities around the world. The first ‘Mini Holland’ in the London borough of Walthamstow, opened in October, including a car-free Orford Road.
In New Delhi they cut air pollutants by up to 60% with a car-free day in October. Meanwhile in nearby Gurgaon, car free Tuesdays are now in operation. These are often referred to as a car-free work day, as they target commuter travel rather than Sunday leisure. It is hoped this will this encourage more cycling, walking and uptake of public transport but they also believe they can cut an average of 2.6 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per person per day.
Some cities planning to go permanently car-free
In June, Dublin announced plans to go permanently private car and taxi free in parts of the city centre by 2017. The city understands that projected congestion is unsustainable. Similarly, the economics of space in the narrow historic streets of Madrid and Rome mean they are heading along a similar trajectory.
Even more boldly, Oslo announced in October that it plans to permanently ban private cars in the city centre by 2019. “Cars take up too much space”, so no exemptions for electric. This is part of a package to reduce greenhouse emissions by 50%. CO2 emissions from cars are directly proportionate to the quantity of fuel consumed by an engine and fuel efficiency is known to be severely reduced in urban driving conditions.
The timing, leading up to COP21, presents an opportunity for climate action. Drastic cuts in driving can result in a significant reduction in our carbon footprint. Moreover car-free initiatives in cities can produce an immediate impact on carbon reduction; with viable alternatives such as cycling, walking and public transport ready to take up the slack. Whilst progressive renewable technology is gaining momentum, banning cars in cities is a vital tool for offsetting carbon emissions. Imagine if all US went car-free for a day, a possible reduction of 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions?
Cities represent only 2% of global land but account for 70% of greenhouse emissions. The appetite for car-free cities as a solution to climate change and future wellbeing is aspirational and timely.
Rosalind Readhead is standing as an Independent London Mayoral Candidate 2016 and founder of which campaigns for a car-free central London