Car free cities are the antidote to environmental injustice

by Rob Bryher.

Rob Bryher is the founder of Bristol Utopian Book Collective and campaigner for the climate action charity Possible. In this article he argues car free cities could bring about social and environmental justice, and shares his three favourite utopian reads. Rob was an elected councillor for the Green Party in Bristol (UK) and has an MSc in Urban Planning.

Car free cities as socially just utopias

The car free movement (and its accompanying literature) focuses on one of the 20th century’s most-feted – and now increasingly most-maligned – innovations: the internal combustion engine car. Globally, vehicle registrations have risen from 126 million in 1960 to approximately 1.4 billion today.1

The car free case is not just centred around the car’s increasingly negative impact on air pollution and climate change, but also on its inefficiency in moving large numbers of people around cities, its effect on physical health and its tendency to take over public roads, pavements and footways when not being used. This is not to mention the 1.3 million people killed globally each year by motor vehicle collision incidents.2

What do car free cities look like?

There are no known examples of the entire administrative area of a city being completely free of cars. Even Venice, long-cited as an example of a car free city, is not entirely car free.

Large car park in the supposedly car free city of Venice
Large car park in “car free” Venice

What we’re really talking about here is large areas of cities being free from traffic passing through as the predominant use of mobility space and the reallocation of road space (e.g. parking spaces) to other uses.

One of the best examples of this is Pontevedra, Spain which began pedestrianising its city centre in 1999 so that today motor vehicle access is only possible for residents and services. Car parks on the outskirts of the city centre allow for access to visitors by car and for residents to keep a vehicle. This measure has reduced carbon emissions by 65% in the central area.3 The centre is not dominated by trams, trains or buses either, but a public transport hub exists to the south of the city centre.

While this might be OK for a smaller city (the population is 82,000), a medium or larger city would need to include transport interchanges within the main central area and carefully plan how these modes interact with walking and cycling infrastructure to create a sustainable and user-friendly mobility system. These spatial changes may concretely improve emissions in one area, but do they create the conditions for those marginalised by various factors to access our cities?

Defining “car free” inclusively of disabled bodies

For a socially aware and just reading of the term “car free”, we must acknowledge that the term doesn’t mean that cities (or any place it applies – many existing car-free places are islands) have no motorised personal transport options at all. The charity I work for, Possible, puts it like this:

From the outset, let’s be clear – a “car free city” is a city which is free of the dangers, pollution, and emissions caused by mass private car ownership. It’s not a city with no cars at all. We recognise there are many people, including disabled people, who cannot get around without a car, and our campaign to reduce the number of cars in cities will make their lives easier too.”

Possible

Thus, the intersection between disability rights and car free campaigning is central to the entire discussion. In my experience, disabled people see the problems with the over-dominance of cars over the urban landscape. Impassible pavements/footways, inability to access parking close by to facilities due to general parking being the norm and road danger are all central concerns that need addressing.

The antidote to environmental injustice

The climate emergency calls us to consider the global effect of overuse of internal combustion engine vehicles, but in policy terms it is often far simpler to make a case for policy interventions on the basis of the effects of air pollution. The relationship between communities with low car ownership, high levels of air pollution and high levels of deprivation is closely connected.

A study by the Air Quality Management Resource Centre at UWE Bristol found that “households in the poorest areas emit the least NOx (nitrogen dioxide) and PM (particulate matter), whilst the least poor areas emitted the highest, per km, vehicle emissions per household through having higher vehicle ownership, owning more diesel vehicles and driving further.” This may seem like common sense, but the study also states that “areas with the highest proportions of under-fives and young adults, and poorer households, have the highest concentrations of traffic-related pollution.” Poorer people are paying in health (and premature mortality) for a problem they are largely not causing.

Poorer people are paying in health (and premature mortality) for a problem they are largely not causing.

The socially just car free utopian city

As already discussed (in the case of Pontevedra), interventions to create a car free paradigm shift tend to focus on the pedestrianisation of city centres. In policy terms, this change represents low-hanging fruit as, predominantly, city centres do not have sufficient space to accommodate residential parking anyway.

More crucially, the effects of vehicle-sourced air pollution are most prevalent in residential areas that lie just outside city centres. This is where low-traffic neighbourhoods (sometimes called livable neighbourhoods) can be an effective policy tool. LTNs are a way to prevent through-traffic from using residential streets. Counterintuitively, this does not mean simply passing the problem on. The evidence shows that removal of road space for motorised vehicles tends to lead to traffic evaporation or disappearance, rather than transference to surrounding streets.

Therefore, there is definitely a case to be made that residential areas with low car ownership, high air pollution and high income deprivation should be the first to be consulted on when LTNs are proposed in cities. This should be the first focus for climate and transport campaigners who want to create socially just car free utopian cities.

My three favourite utopian books

Le Guin conjures a stark and compelling portrait of an anarchist desert planet with a free-but-planned economy based around voluntary service.

I loved the way this very matter-of-factly proposed its political governance arrangements as a sort of streamlined “community vs capital” discussion.

The world has moved on from some of the cultural mores of this 1970s classic, but I still find it an interesting read for re-examining our contemporary understandings of what makes up a utopian city.

Notes

1 Stacy C. Davis; Susan E. Williams & Robert G. Boundy (August 2018). “Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 36.2” (PDF). Oak Ridge National Laboratory. https://tedb.ornl.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/TEDB_Ed_39.pdf#page=76

2https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/global-road-safety/index.html

3 https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/sep/18/paradise-life-spanish-city-banned-cars-pontevedra

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