Urban Utopias Planning Europe’s Car-Free Cities

Pedestrian zones, bike-friendly streets, and auto-free tourist towns are nothing new in Europe. But a carless metropolis? Oslo has committed to becoming the first, while other capitals are taking steps in that direction.
Biking is becoming the prime method of transport in places like Copenhagen.

For such a radical experiment in urban redesign, Oslo isn’t giving itself much time. The Norwegian capital plans to make its city center car free by 2019.

Oslo’s ruling coalition of Green, Labor and Socialist Left parties drew the world’s attention last year when they first unveiled their vision for an auto-free oasis by the end of this decade.

The car ban is the centerpiece of Oslo’s bold bid, codified this summer, to slash its greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2020 and completely eliminate fossil fuel emissions by 2030.

The “car-free city” initiative includes transforming a 1.9-square kilometer (470-acre) swath of the city core into a pedestrian zone and steadily driving autos further and further out of town.

While Oslo’s plans to create a car-less metropolis are the most advanced of any European capital, it is far from the only one with such Utopian aspirations. Fueled by the drastic surge in urban traffic – and associated air pollution – progressive city planners in other European capitals have shifted into high gear as well.

In a shot across the bow for carmakers, the Paris city council voted on Monday – the eve of the Paris Auto Show – to permanently ban cars from a busy motorway on the right bank of the river Seine.

Pending the approval of Paris’ police authority, which has jurisdiction over traffic issues, the 3.3-kilometer (2.1-mile) stretch will be redeveloped for business, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Car-free means, above all, that we create space for things other than driving. Marie Nguyen Berg, Oslo City Councilor

Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo already has prohibited driving in Paris on Sundays and is threatening to expand the ban to weekdays in four Paris districts. She also wants to invest €100 million ($112 million) into building infrastructure for bicycle traffic.

Paris’ latest action came just one day before the World Health Organization published a new report naming transportation as one of the main reasons 92 percent of mankind suffers from air pollution-related health issues, which cause an estimated six million pre-mature deaths each year.

But for automakers, such ultra-progressive urban-planning trends threaten to become a major market obstacle that block even their most aggressive efforts to clean up dirty tailpipe emissions by introducing more electric vehicles.

BMW-subsidiary Drive Now for example, operates a fleet of 400 electric cars in Copenhagen. The Danish capital offers subsidies for such zero-emission vehicles and has established 600 charging stations across the city.

Other European capitals, including Oslo, are incentivizing electric cars while simultaneously ratcheting up restrictions on petroleum-powered vehicles.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is steering Europe’s second-largest city in a similar direction as Paris and Oslo. In addition to expanding London’s low-emissions zones and pedestrianizing traffic-plagued Oxford Street, London plans to ban diesel motors.

Elected in June on the platform of creating “a greener, cleaner London,” the new mayor has blamed the city’s toxic air for his own recent contraction of asthma.

Even these prominent big-city examples aren't new. Anti-car efforts in Oslo, Paris and London are building on initiatives in smaller European cities. Italian tourist mecca Venice, for example, has long prohibited cars, while most of Sienna is also car-free – as are many walled medieval towns throughout Europe.

The times of privately owned cars with internal combustion engines are coming to an end in some cities. Bodo Schwieger, Head of consulting firm Team Red

In Germany, the southwestern university town of Freiburg, arguably the heart of the country’s environmental movement, has steadily pedestrianized since the 1970s, banning vehicles entirely from several districts. Bavarian cities Munich and Nuremberg each prohibit car traffic on several miles of city streets.

But bids to entirely blanket European metropolitan centers with car bans are something new.

“We stand before a turning point,” said Bodo Schwieger, head of Berlin-based consulting firm Team Red, which specializes in mobility.

“The times of privately-owned cars with internal combustion engines are coming to an end in some cities,” he added. “The view is growing that one cannot solve the transportation problems of metropolises with automobile traffic.”

The consultant sees many reasons for the trend toward car-free cities, including the heightened concerns of urban residents over air quality and noise pollution.

“They want clean surroundings and more space there for themselves and their children,” Mr. Schwieger said.

Scandinavian capitals are at the forefront of efforts to liberate urban centers from car traffic, outdoing each other with different visions for the mobility of tomorrow.

As Oslo moves ahead with its plan to ban cars, Helsinki is working on a mobile-phone app to help people reach every corner of Finland’s capital by rail, bus, bike, or rental car. Stockholm, meanwhile, in an effort discourage driving rather than banning it outright, this year imposed a €12 fee on cars entering the city center, similar to London's long-running congestion charge.

The model for urban redesign is Copenhagen, which years ago began to implement the ideas of pioneering Danish city planner and architect Jan Gehl, who once said, “To strangle the life out of a city, there is no more efficient means than autos and skyscrapers.”

Year after year, the Danish capital has reduced the number of parking spaces, subsidized local public transit and built bicycle highways.

That doesn't mean everyone is on board with the plans. Automakers are not the only stakeholders concerned over the trend toward car-restricted and car-free cities.

In Oslo, Marie Nguyen Berg, the city councilor responsible for transportation planning and environment in the Norwegian metropolis, is seeking amicable solutions with business owners, taxi companies, residents and the disabled.

One recent poll by online newspaper Nettavisen found a whopping 83 percent of Oslo residents opposed the car ban for the city center.

“One should instead make public transit free,” said art gallery owner Bjorn Mathisen, who is concerned his business will suffer.

Ms. Nguyen Berg promises to take the city’s accessibility into consideration.


Markus Fasse is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Munich focusing on aviation and the automobile industry. Helmut Steuer is a Handelsblatt correspondent for northern Europe. Garrett Hering, an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]