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Later this month the city center of London will be car-free for the day. More than 12 miles of roads in the English capital will be closed off from vehicles in an effort to encourage citizens to choose greener modes of transportation.
Though the car-free day is largely symbolic, London has joined other cities around the world looking at permanent ways to dramatically decrease the number of vehicles in its streets. Some have suggested eventually banning automobiles entirely.
Oslo, Paris and Montreal have experimented with a variety of ways to ban cars. Barcelona has created a handful of "superblocks" as part of an ambitious plan to limit vehicles in 70 percent of the city's streets. Leaders in some U.S. cities are also exploring plans to drastically cut down on cars and promote walking, bikes and other forms of travel.
Why there's debate:
Advocates for car-free cities see automobiles as a scourge of urban life. Cars, some argue, clog city streets while pumping noxious chemicals into the air, creating noise pollution and endangering pedestrians and bicyclists around them.
Between highways, streets and parking, cars take up an enormous amount of room that could be used to create more efficient and enjoyable living spaces for residents, some argue. Limiting the number of drivers on the road is also seen as a major step in fighting climate change.
Opponents of car-free areas say the plans are unrealistic, given the massive investment in infrastructure and public transportation that would be required to make them successful. Others argue they would unfairly benefit wealthy people who have enough money to live in city centers while making travel more difficult for less-affluent people in the suburbs.
Most of the early success stories of car-free areas have taken place in dense European cities that were designed before cars existed, leading some to question whether the idea would work in modern metropolises that were built to accommodate automobiles.
Large-scale changes that would make car-free city living possible would likely take years, if not decades, to be enacted. At each step, public sentiment and political will must be behind the movement, something that's already proving to be unreliable for some places. Barcelona may have support for its "superblocks" plan at the moment, but Spain's capital, Madrid, recently became the first European city to reverse car-reduction measures after a new mayor was elected.
Climate change will force cities to reduce the number of cars on their streets
"For cities, global warming yields two central challenges. They must reduce their carbon emissions while simultaneously becoming more resilient, better able to weather climate extremes. Both challenges mean reducing the number of private vehicles." — David Roberts, Vox
Cars are an inefficient way for people to get places
"A car-centered transportation system is simply at odds with the logic of a dense city. ... On the road, a lane of highway traffic can transport about 3,000 people per hour under perfect conditions, while a subway can easily manage 10 times that — and many do even better." — Ryan Cooper, the Week
Cars are the source of a long list of problems in cities
"Letting people in private vehicles run roughshod over the city causes crushing traffic jams, delays public transit, pollutes the air, creates noise, wastes public resources, and takes up an obscene amount of space in a city that doesn’t have enough of it. Oh, and there’s also all the people these automobiles kill." — Eben Weiss, Outside
Removing cars will improve the quality of life in cities
"The common thread remains the same: give the streets back to the people, in the interest of making the city more liveable." — Mark Wessel, Toronto Sun
It's better to pursue the possibly unrealistic goal of car-free cities than to do nothing
"Getting to a zero-emissions future sounds hard and is. But making increasingly crowded cities more livable has to become an urgent public-policy goal. Far better to set an overly ambitious target than to get left in the dust." — editorial, Bloomberg
Car bans are unfair to lower- and middle-income people
"For some it is a class issue, a case of urban eco-yuppies imposing their bike and scooter fads on suburbanites and country folk who rely on their cars." — the Economist
Auto infrastructure will still exist even if cars aren't around to use it
"But car infrastructure doesn’t just go away just because we realize we should be driving less." — Eve Andrews, Grist
Car-free policies won't work without massive investment in alternative forms of travel
"Congestion is wasteful and frustrating no matter where you’re trapped, but simply banning cars by fiat without making other improvements is all stick and no carrot." — Peter Lawrence Kane, SF Weekly
There are serious practical limitations to car bans
"Excluding cars entirely isn’t always practical — and can make life difficult for disabled people, as well as preventing access for ambulances, fire services and delivery lorries." — Kieran Smith, Guardian
The plans won't work unless the public backs them
"Above all, people want to be heard and involved in designing interventions that directly affect them. If people can own the vision and understand the benefits of the car-free city, then nothing will stand in the way of reclaiming the city from the car." — Richard Kingston and Ransford A Acheampong, Independent
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