Car Free Futures?

By Gareth Mogg

Cars are becoming a thing of the past! Well, at least in a handful of city centres. No, we aren’t experiencing the first in a wave of hover vehicles, nor am I talking about the rise of the self-driving autonomous automobile. Instead, some places are reverting back to traditional means of transportation … our feet.

This is at least the case in Europe, which is currently seeing a rise in car free commercial centres, or in the case of Paris, the recent possibility of a city wide ban on cars  . The Paris Mayor has recently talked of the bold plan to pedestrianise the city centre of Paris, with the intention to remove half of all private motor vehicle usage across the city. This is the biggest example of a pattern emerging across Europe of cities, such as Copenhagen, Oslo and Brussels, making a move away from car-centric planning and towards more pedestrian friendly urban environments.

The impetus for this can probably be found in our growing awareness of climate change and the increase of carbon emissions and pollution levels in major cities (no longer just an issue in developing super cities, but also in London and Sydney). Another instigator can be found in rapidly growing urban centres and levels of car ownership leading to increased city centre congestion issues. Although car ownership levels are dropping as a percentage, the actual number of people who own a car in urban areas has been growing.

Paris may be leading the way in terms of completely eradicating cars from its city centre, but what about the rest of the world?
Car free days are already celebrated in numerous cities across the world. September 22nd marks the day when World Car Free Day is celebrated (although this is similar to winning the World Series … hard to justify the title when the entire world doesn’t take part). It is growing steadily and promotes any alternative to using a car. This trend has already grown beyond European borders and has made an appearance in Jakarta, and Bogota as well as in North American, where Vancouver has several annual car free event as well as Portland.

So what about Australia? Car ownership levels are high in Australia, which is unsurprising given how the majority of Australian cities have sprawling suburbs. There is certainly room within Australian planning to incorporate more walkable elements into our city centres. Melbourne currently has Bourke Street Mall, Adelaide has Rundle Mall and Sydney has Pitt Street. These areas are always full of activity, including shoppers, diners and buskers. Melbourne has also recently pedestrianised the Acland Street activity centre in St Kilda in a move that has been met with both praise and criticism. They normally serve as a focal point for the city and form the backdrop in numerous city advertising campaigns to showcase the city’s vibrant nature. Yet, there are relatively few urban areas solely dedicated to pedestrian traffic in Australia and the notion of a car free centre, weekend, or even a day, has yet to take hold.

With the rest of the world moving (albeit slowly) towards less reliance on cars, there is the potential for Australian cities to consider alternatives to the car in the city centre and to alleviate congestion in activity centres.  Sure, there will always be a need for a car (at least in the immediate future) in order to travel between suburbs or other cities, or even to pick up weekly groceries. Yet the benefits of encouraging more pedestrian activity and removing cars in activity centres cannot be ignored.

Fewer cars means safer streets, a cleaner environment, more diverse and enjoyable public spaces … plus we all get a little work out!


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