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Action needed to reduce traffic

Unless you work for a car manufacturer or an oil company, why would you want to see more car use in cities? The comfort and convenience of driving are benefits that go to the driver alone; none of them goes to society.

The list of reasons to reduce car use in cities, on the other hand, is extensive. Cars poison the air we breathe, with engine fumes, harmful particles from brake and tyre wear, and noise. As a means of transporting people weighing tens of kilograms, a metal box weighing thousands of kilograms is fundamentally wasteful, both financially and in terms of the contribution to climate change that comes from manufacturing and using it.

Cars’ size in combination with narrow city streets makes them susceptible to congestion; in stark contrast to the freedom sold by advertisers, getting behind the wheel in a city carries the inherent risk of getting stuck in traffic, with a cost in stress, delay and pollution shared between all road users. But at the speeds they’re designed for, cars’ size makes them deadly; nearly 28,000 people were killed or seriously injured on the UK’s roads in 2019, more than a third of them pedestrians or cyclists.1

More than any other technology, cars have shaped the use of public space in our cities. Once a shared setting for public life, our roads have been systematically cleared of any other use other than transporting and storing cars. The inherent danger that cars bring to streets severs neighbourhoods, and restricts the independence of children and people with mobility issues. Faster vehicles haven’t given us more free time; they’ve just let cities sprawl over ever larger areas.

Car dominance is inherently unjust. In several London boroughs, a minority of households own cars, and so are gifted the lion’s share of public space for the enjoyment of their private property.2 Driving is expensive; the richer you are, the more likely you are to own a car.3 But it also traps the worse-off in a state of precarious dependency. Perhaps the most insidious consequence of car dominance is that, by making active travel less safe, and public transport less viable, it robs us of our freedom to choose alternatives.

How did we get here?

After the Second World War, mass ownership of cars was encouraged and accommodated in the belief that it would set city-dwellers free from drudgery and confinement. Roads must be widened in anticipation of an ever-increasing pace of life, just as slums must be cleared to make way for the modern. Over the years, our views about what makes cities work have shifted. Urban planners today value human connections and chance discoveries as much as speed and efficiency. But almost a century of retooling cities for cars can’t be undone overnight.

Current trends in car use are mixed. Vehicle miles driven by cars and taxis in London stood at 17.5 billion in 2019, an increase of 17% on ten years before.4 But this masks almost no change on major roads, and a dramatic increase on minor roads. Car ownership as a percentage of households has remained broadly stable over the last 10 years,5 and car trips have decreased,6 but van and taxi journeys have increased. Fuel efficiency in new cars is on an upward trend, and electric vehicles (EVs) appear to offer a release from cars’ contribution to climate change. But efficiency savings have been more than cancelled out by a trend for ever larger cars.7) Cars may be getting safer for passengers, but the increasing number of outsized SUVs on the roads, coupled with the weight of EV batteries, means that the danger posed to other road users is not going away.

Change in global CO2 emissions by energy sector, 2010-2018

Taking back the streets

So if we recognise that building car use into the heart of our cities was a mistake, what can we do to reduce car use? 20th-century traffic engineers who tried to reduce congestion by building more roads learnt to their cost that giving more space to cars just generates new traffic. Offered the prospect of a brand-new empty road, people are lured into their cars for journeys they wouldn’t have made otherwise, and soon the new roads (or lanes) are as busy as the old ones. A 2002 study of over 70 road closures suggests that the opposite is also true, and we can reduce car use by taking away car space.8

Road space reallocation, as this is known, can take many forms. In its simplest, it could just be removing a lane of traffic from a multi-lane road. But ideally it should give back the space to a preferred form of transport. Bus lanes are a good example, as are protected cycle lanes. Cycling has huge potential to replace car journeys – analysis by TfL suggests that 68% of London car journeys could reasonably be substituted by cycling, accounting for distance, encumbrance, etc.9 But this relies on overcoming existing barriers to cycling, foremost among which is safety fears. Protected cycle lanes simultaneously achieve two goals of road space reallocation: they make driving less attractive, while making the alternative more attractive.

Photo by Joe Dunckley

School streets and low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are two more road-space reallocation interventions that do this double duty. School streets create car-free zones outside schools during drop-off and pick-up times, targeting school run traffic and increasing pupil safety. LTNs make a neighbourhood impermeable to through motor traffic using filters that block cars but leave streets open to walking and cycling – making active travel safer and more pleasant, while discouraging short car journeys. TfL analysis suggests there is much room for improvement here: a third of car journeys in London are less than 2km – walkable in under 20 minutes; and another third are less than 5km – within 20 minutes’ cycle.10

Photo by Joe Dunckley

Lowering speeds may be a form of road-space allocation if it’s done by narrowing streets to make driving at a lower speed feel ‘correct’ for the conditions. But even if it’s only achieved with speed-limit enforcement, the effect is the same: driving becomes less convenient, and alternatives become safer (as of course does driving). Ultimately, as EVs become more common and tax revenue from fossil fuel cars dries up, we may see road space allocated through smart road pricing, whereby demand is managed by a higher price per mile on particular roads at particular times.

Fewer car journeys, fewer cars

One long-term result of reduced car use is a reduction in car ownership, as people hit a critical point where keeping a car is no longer worth the cost. Given that there will always be some journeys that are only practical to make by car, car-sharing schemes might be the thing to lure people away from owning their own cars; new housing developments can give residents a push by only offering parking for car-share schemes. The dominant car-share model is essentially short-term car rental; businesses such as Zipcar (and, increasingly, car manufacturers) operate a fleet of vehicles that you can access via an app, and pay by the hour or through a subscription. But the future might look more like AirBnB for cars, a peer-to-peer model where you rent a vehicle (or buy a ride) directly from its owner.

Car ownership can also be targeted directly, through policies that make it expensive or inconvenient. The topic of parking may not set the pulse racing, but it strikes at the heart of the current injustice of handing over public space for private car storage. There are 1.2 million cars kept on London’s streets, taking up 14 km²,11 and on average they are stationary 96% of the time.12 Controlled parking zones (CPZs) can be used to ration the amount of space available for residential parking, increase its cost, and also target particular vehicles, such as SUVs. At the other end of the trip, local authorities can impose charges on destination parking at shops and workplaces; Nottingham Council is using a pioneering Workplace Parking Levy to fund expansion of the city’s tram network.13

There is scope for encouraging different types of vehicle as well. Cargo capacity is essential to many businesses, but diesel vans are one of the worst culprits for air pollution, and their number is growing. Electric cargo bikes have potential to provide a greener, safer alternative for local businesses and last-mile deliveries for large firms. According to analysis by PedalMe, a cargo-bike courier and taxi firm, an e-cargo bike and trailer combination can carry a payload of 300 kg, and will typically achieve faster average speeds through Central London than a van.14 Standard electric bikes increase both the range and accessibility of cycling trips, while foldable e-scooters, when legalised for street use, will be combined seamlessly with journey stages on public transport.

Photo supplied by PedalMe

Bringing it all together

Finally, there are changes to how we build our cities that could dampen demand for car travel. Mobility hubs are an example of joined-up thinking on a district-level scale. Just as you’d expect to find a bus stop outside a train station, mobility hubs bring together a variety of public, shared and private mobility uses in one place, along with non-mobility features and public realm improvements. Think bus stop, EV charging point, e-scooter hire point, bike storage, parcel delivery locker and wifi point, all pulled together in one place with consistent signposting, and integrated into a network of other hubs.15

Transport planning is sometimes approached on the assumption that there is a fixed demand for mobility that needs to be met. But the fixed demand is for amenities; if they can be brought closer, the need for mobility is reduced. This is the principle behind the 15-minute city, a concept in urban planning that seeks to create dense neighbourhoods where all residents’ needs – from shops and schools to healthcare and entertainment – can be met within a 15-minute radius.16

The Mayor’s London Plan identifies 200 neighbourhoods that already meet a lot of the requirements for the 15-minute city, with clusters of amenities accessible by large populations via excellent public transport links.17 The work that remains is to make them truly attractive destinations for people to arrive at on foot and cycle, with well thought-out walking and cycling routes tying our high streets to homes and parks. Town centres themselves need to be safe and inviting public spaces, with wide, uncluttered pavements, kerbsides that aren’t dominated by car storage, and plenty of greenery built into the urban fabric.

The age of the car atomised our cities, dispersing the elements of our lives over wide distances. It would be fitting if, by gathering them once again in one place, we can bring the age of car dominance to an end.

Main image: Photo by Anouk Fotografeert on Unsplash

Picture of William Petty

William Petty

William works as a Commissioning Editor in children's publishing and in his spare time is a cycle infrastructure & low traffic neighbourhood campaigner.

  1. Reported road casualties in Great Britain: 2019 annual report, Department for Transport []
  2. Car Ownership Rates results, Healthy Streets Scorecard []
  3. Roads Task Force – Technical Note 12: How many cars are there in London and who owns them? Transport for London []
  4. Road Traffic Statistics – London, Department for Transport []
  5. Reclaim the kerb: The future of parking and kerbside management
    Silviya Barrett, Joe Wills, Mario Washington-Ihieme. Centre for London, 18 March 2020 []
  6. Travel in London: Report 11, Transport for London []
  7. Growing preference for SUVs challenges emissions reductions in passenger car market, IEA (2019 []
  8. Disappearing traffic? The story so far.
    Cairns, Sally; Atkins, Stephen & Goodwin, Phil (2002). Municipal Engineer. 151 (1): 13–22. []
  9. Analysis of Cycling Potential 2016, Policy Analysis Report, March 2017. Transport for London []
  10. Roads Task Force – Technical Note 14: Who travels by car in London and for what purpose? Transport for London []
  11. Travel in London: Report 12, Transport for London []
  12. Spaced Out Perspectives on parking policy.
    John Bates & David Leibling, July 2012. RAC Foundation []
  13. Workplace Parking Levy, Nottingham City Council []
  14. Why Cargo bikes? An empirical analysis of the Pedal Me fleet []
  15. UK Mobility Hub Guidance, 2019/20. CoMoUK []
  16. The 15-minute city: a London case study, October 2020. London Living Streets []
  17. London Plan Annex Two: London’s town centre network. Greater London Authority []

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