Traffic-free v emission-free: what sort of city centre do you want?


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Traffic-free v emission-free: what sort of city centre do you want?

Posted 25 June 2009 14:20 by martin

A couple of recent pieces on the BBC and ecogeek have posed alternative visions for more sustainable urban living.

One where cars are banned and whole swathes of the city are regularly given over to pedestrians and cyclists, and another where we drive around in fuel cell micro-cars that emit no more than a few drops of water from their exhaust pipe.


It's tempting to think that the former is a bit idealistic, while the latter is more pragmatic.  We're always going to need cars, so let's concentrate on making them as green as possible.

The problem with this is that the hydrogen car has been 'coming soon' for decades now.  OK, it might be a little nearer to production-vehicle status, but even bullish projections wouldn't see more than a few thousand of them on UK streets before 2020.

All the while urban pollution will be leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths, accidents leading to tens of thousands of injuries and deaths, and cancers (and other diseases) associated with inactive lifestyles leading to tens of thousands of deaths.

So waiting until a notional emission-free future arrives somewhere mid-century seems just a little bit complacent, particularly as it's likely to have no, or marginal, impact on two of the three challenges above.  (And let's not forget that emission-free at point-of-use doesn't mean absolutely emission-free.)  Practical traffic-calming and traffic-eliminating schemes, while tricky to implement, are tried and tested and work.  Here and now.

Politically, of course, they can be a nightmare.  Huge numbers of vested interests – bus companies, cabbies, retail outlets, delivery companies – may object.  Residents and workers may object.  But the irony is that after we've gone through the painful, multi-year (sometimes multi-decade) consultation process, when faced with the result, most people seem happy, even delighted, with the outcome.

If you polled people in London's Covent Garden market, or Birmingham's New Street or Edinburgh's Rose Street and asked “would this area be improved if cars were re-introduced?”, how many would say yes (even amongst the retailers)?

While more radical area-wide street closures pose bigger challenges, if Bogota can do this on a weekly basis, is it beyond our ken to do it in the UK?  We can do one-offs – London's “The Sultan's Elephant” and  Liverpool's “La Princesse” being two particularly memorable examples – but they're exceptions that prove the rule: vehicles still largely rule in our city centres.

Of course this isn't a binary debate – we can have both more pedestrianisation and zero-emission cars.  But let's not pretend that the latter will solve all the problems or will be here any time soon in significant numbers.

How about this as a step in the right direction:  a UK city committing to a car-free city centre every Sunday during the summer months in 2010?  Any takers?

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  1. resort hopper says:

    June 29th, 2009 at 11:44 am (#)

    we had a summer parade recently in our local town and they closed off the main strip – it was lovely – quite, less fumes, definitely up for car-free sundays

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