For the last sixty years, urban street design in cities across the UK and Europe has been led by post-war urban planners and engineers who have given sole priority to the needs and requirements of the car. This has paved the way for congested, unfriendly, bleak, and unattractive street environments, which are hostile to people and are dominated by the car.

The infrastructure of many urban city centres in the post-war period was reconfigured and redesigned to accommodate the vast and ever increasing ownership of cars. Ring roads, dual carriageways, and motorways have become familiar spectacles in the urban centre while railways, urban tram networks and bicycles have become subdued and neglected by the reign and age of the car.

Europe is the most urbanised continent in the world, where presently over eighty per cent of its population reside in urban areas and where car use is exponentially growing. Across the continent, half of all journeys in urban areas are less then three miles and a further third are less than two miles.

Traffic is predicted to double in most cities in Europe by 2025, resulting in evermore congested roads and polluted street environments.

The car cannot be the future of transit in urban centres, however the principle challenge for many European cities is to find holistic ways of removing the car from cities that have been designed to accommodate it. Today, the hegemonic reign and dominance of the car is being threatened and challenged by growing recognition for initiatives that require providing greater priority to pedestrians and sustainable forms of transport (public transport and cycling) that will improve the quality of life and the environment in urban centres.

Copenhagen, in Denmark, has adopted such a policy for many years, and with significant success. By 1962, all streets in the medieval city centre of Copenhagen were dominated by cars – city plazas and squares were even used as car parks. On 17 November 1962, Copenhagen’s principle thoroughfare, Strøget, was completely pedestrianised, a decision and conversion that was subject to significant scepticism at the time. Nevertheless, the pedestrianisation, and creation of a car free street in Copenhagen’s city centre improved air and noise pollution, restored the medieval streets and squares, and, most importantly, marked the beginning of an extensive but continuous transformation of the city.

In the city centre today, eighty per cent of all journeys are made on foot, and fourteen per cent by bicycle, making it one of the most environmentally, and pedestrian, friendly cities not only in Europe but in the world. Copenhagen has become a principle example of a modern sustainable city and has influenced many cities across Europe and the wider world.

Birmingham, like many cities across Europe, suffered significant damage from bombing during the Second World War, destroying the city’s historic centre. Birmingham’s post-war redevelopment welcomed the arrival of the car with the construction of expansive expressways, road tunnels, ring roads, and dual carriage-ways that surround and dissect the city, along with the implementation of traffic roundabouts and underpasses, placing the car above ground and the pedestrian below. Recently, however, Birmingham city council proposes to be the first British city to ban all private cars from the city centre, on account of the growing levels of congestion and air pollution, contributing to nine-hundred premature deaths per annum in Birmingham.

Under the Birmingham Transport Plan 2031, the scheme would lead to the pedestrianisation of many streets in the city centre, creating a contained ‘Clean Air Zone’. The scheme includes the construction of new cycle paths and enabling trams, buses, and trains to be the ‘backbone’ of a new transportation system for the car free city.

This ambitious and recent scheme in a car city may have been inspired by some of its European counterparts, such as Copenhagen, but nevertheless demonstrates a drive for car free city centres in Britain too.

The issues of pollution and congestion posed by the car face every city, however it is clear that there are holistic methods to mitigate these problems that not only reduce pollution but enhance the aesthetic quality of streets and buildings, and prioritise the importance and wellbeing of the pedestrian.

Cars will, for the foreseeable future, have an important place as a means of transportation. However it is clear from the approach of many cities around Europe for a sustainable and pollution-free city centre that the car is not welcome and the revival of trams, trains, buses and bicycles is the future of transit in the city centre.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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