Car-free cities and what they tell us about the future

Mar 30, 2023

walkable car-free city

Imagine a world where cities are no longer congested with traffic and roads are replaced with bike lanes and green spaces. If you hadn’t already noticed, this shift to car-free cities is already happening.

In a conscious effort to improve air quality, slash emissions and nurture healthy habits like walking and cycling, civic leaders are implementing policies that limit car usage or even rule it out altogether.

Read on as we look at the cities that have taken action, the results, and what future cities worldwide will look like.

What is a car-free city?

A car-free city is an urban centre that prioritises walking, biking and public transport over personal cars.

The concept is simple, but there is a misconception that car-free cities completely ban car ownership. Car-free policies often involve reduced car usage or limitations in specific areas. Residents can still own and drive cars. But other options, such as public transport, cycling, walking and ride-sharing, are more accessible and actively encouraged.

A car ban on individual streets and neighbourhoods can improve safety, lower air and noise pollution and promote active transport methods. On a broader scale, car-free cities illustrate a cultural shift where we reimagine what cities can look like with fewer cars on the road.

Car-free cities 

A host of cities across the world has embraced car-free policies. Here are some cities leading the charge and consolidating their position as the best cities in which to live without a car: 

  • Ghent, Belgium
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Oslo, Norway
  • Hydra, Greece
  • Lamu, Kenya
  • Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Fes el Bali, Morocco
  • Venice, Italy
  • Helsinki, Finland
scooters in a car-free city

Why cities are going car-free

Environmental concerns are the main motivating factors behind cities going car-free.

Although the environment certainly benefits in terms of air quality and emissions, plenty of other advantages come with the adoption.

Lower emissions

Cars are culpable for a significant chunk of each country’s carbon footprint. In the EU, road transport alone is responsible for one-fifth of total CO2 emissions. So, as countries look for ways to meet lower emission pledges, cars are an obvious target.

Urban driving isn’t solely responsible for road transport emissions. But most trips in the city don’t require the use of a personal car. It makes sense for city centres to clamp down on these avoidable and wasteful trips — especially when other modes of transport are available.

car-free city data

Cleaner air

As urban populations have skyrocketed (alongside the number of personal vehicles), the increase in air pollution was an inevitable problem. Today, 99% of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds the legal limit set by the World Health Organisation. Air pollution is worst in cities.

Cleaning up urban air and noise pollution would be a welcome benefit to lower car usage in cities. This is exactly what’s happened in London: the city’s efforts to curb traffic have led to a 94% reduction in the number of residents living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen oxide.

Reduced traffic incidents

Road-related accidents kill thousands yearly in cities across Europe. With fewer cars on the road, it’s evident that public safety will improve, and the number of avoidable deaths will diminish. This has already been the case in walkable cities, like Oslo and Helsinki, where car-reduction policies have led to years without a single road traffic death.

More space

One car-related problem often overlooked is the space they take up. We frequently talk about other issues, such as pollution, road accidents and congestion. But the urban space taken up by cars is worth considering. Take Manhattan, for example — roads and parking occupy nearly 25% of the borough’s space.

Reducing personal car ownership can quickly ease the chronic space shortage felt in so many cities. We could see an increase in housing, green spaces and more liveable spaces if we returned even a small percentage of the land currently dedicated to cars back to cities.

Oslo has transformed over 700 parking spaces into bike lanes, parks, and benches. Similarly, Paris plans to remove 70,000 parking spaces in the city to make way for active transport lanes.

Active transport methods

By decluttering their streets of parked vehicles and congestion, cities can use the extra space created to build a strong infrastructure for active transportation. With sustainable transport closely tied to climate targets, encouraging walking, biking, and scootering is good for our health and our environment.

cycling in a car-free city

What a car-free future looks like

Pilot schemes across Europe show that car-less cities are possible. Despite small pockets of initial objection based on the perception of limits to freedom, communities gladly accepted car-free zones once given time to adjust.

The shift from private cars to sustainable transport methods has led to multiple benefits, including: 

  • reductions in air and noise pollution
  • a reduction in premature mortality rates
  • increased green space
  • higher levels of active mobility
  • and improved overall public health

Studies show that city residents have a positive attitude towards car-free areas. Having seen other cities take charge of car ownership, car-free zones are a hot topic for city dwellers.

More residents want to see their city improve liveability with green spaces, active transport routes, and mobility options that make it easier to travel without a car. It’s no surprise that the cities embracing this are rated among the best to live in. They’re also cited as being some of the best travel destinations.

Inspired by the success of cities that have pioneered reducing car use, more cities worldwide have pledged to adopt car-free schemes. Paris plans to ban private vehicles in the heart of the city by 2024, and New York City has proposed to turn 25% of car space into land for people by 2025.

While a growing number of destinations embrace car-free policies, it’s not simple to implement. Car-less cities only work if residents have alternative transport options. And it’s down to city planners to redesign streets to prioritise these car-free methods.

Bolt is helping car-less cities to thrive

At Bolt, we envisage a world where cities are built for people, not private cars. Most trips in the city don’t require a personal car. That’s why Bolt offers the freedom to use transport on demand, with flexible ride-hailing, shared cars, e-bikes, and e-scooters.

Using the Bolt app, you can choose whatever mode of transport is best for the occasion.

Bolt recently completed a research project in Berlin to determine the impact our multimodal app and public transport has on replacing private cars in cities.

The results show that Bolt’s alternative travel options can significantly reduce the number of private cars in the city and lead to a more liveable city in almost every way!

Learn how we could make cities car-free from our blog post about 15-minute cities.

Download the Bolt app today.

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