Massive levels of congestion continue to be the scourge of any efforts to reduce air pollution in urban areas. The sight of morning gridlock has become a common recurring image in cities all around the world, and is one of the main reasons that most are having to contend with dangerously high levels of NOx and CO2 in the air.
This problem isn’t getting any better even in cities that have seen a general drop in car use and ownership. Rome, for instance, has seen a 6% decrease in car use in the last 5 years, yet is still the world’s fifth most congested city.
Most of the vehicles that contribute to congestion are driven by those commuting to work from outside the city, while those who live within the city centre generally prefer alternative methods of getting around such as cycling, walking, or using public transport.
This means that the people bearing the brunt of the worst health effects of air pollution are those who are contributing to it the least. Why should those who want a healthier lifestyle, or are seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, be the ones who are forced to suffer? This is an injustice that desperately needs addressing.
Many governments have plans in place to restrict or ban the use of petrol and diesel vehicles in urban areas, with the UK government’s target set at 2040. These plans, though, are painfully inadequate, and don’t do much to address the tens of thousands of people currently dying each year from issues related to air pollution.
The problem is that our cities in their current form are designed to be as easy as possible for vehicles to navigate, meaning there is little incentive for car users to seek alternative forms of transport. At the same time, those who cycle are forced to do so on the same busy roads, breathing in toxic fumes and in serious danger of being involved in collisions.
Some cities have led the way in creating safe-cycling systems that have had success, most notably Copenhagen, in which the use of bikes now exceeds that of cars. But this isn’t the case for most. Last year in London there were almost 4,000 instances of cyclists being killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents.
If we’re really serious about cleaning up the air in our cities then a radical approach may be required. What if we could flip the scenario on its head and redesign our cities to restrict the use of cars in urban centres? This wouldn’t mean a complete ban, which would be an extreme measure unlikely to ever be widely accepted, but certain roads, especially those in close proximity to residential, highly pedestrianised, and cultural areas, would be car-free.
Confining cars to the periphery would strip away the appeal of driving in the city and may force motorists into re-thinking their car use, potentially nudging them closer towards cycling and public transport as alternatives.
Apart from the obvious benefits to public health that would result from cleaner air and increased exercise, these measures may well create a domino effect that sees us more easily tackle some of the wider Urban Sustainability challenges:
- In addition to having cleaner air, cities would be cooler, making them more suited for inner-city organic agriculture initiatives.
- Such initiatives would create jobs, as well as cut down emissions from food transit miles by having food grown locally.
- Cycle-routes could be created in conjunction with new green spaces, bringing people closer to, and more connected with, nature.
- Would create a stronger demand for investment in new public transport infrastructure.
- Massive reduction in noise pollution, which has been proven to be detrimental to both physical and mental health.
So apart from the obvious positive environmental effect, restricting car use in cities would additionally provide social, cultural, and economic benefits. 70% of the world projected 9.5 billion people in 2050 will be living in cities, but if we continue polluting the air at the rate we do currently we’ll be in danger of rendering them uninhabitable.
We need to take action now if we want to prevent this, and massively reducing car use in cities is a way it can be done, and may even become the first step in revolutionising the way we live.