Banning Cars: Should Cars Be Banned from City Centers?

People walking in a street

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In Short…

The car-free debate has two prominent sides. Advocates argue for environmental benefits, improved public health, and economic growth, citing examples from cities like Paris and Copenhagen. Opponents raise concerns about community backlash, economic impacts, and accessibility issues. It’s a complex topic that requires a nuanced approach to address urban challenges.

What would happen if cars were banned from cities?

Cities around the world are grappling with growing populations, urban sprawl, and environmental concerns. 

One topic that consistently emerges in urban planning circles is the concept of banning cars from city centres. 

The idea is both radical and divisive, provoking strong reactions from all stakeholders—cyclists, motorists, business owners, environmentalists, and policymakers alike. 

In this article, we’ll delve into the intricacies of this debate, examining the pros and cons of such a drastic move. Our aim is not to provide a definitive answer but to offer a balanced view, drawing upon real-world examples like the Paris car ban, to help you form your own opinion. 

Should cars be banned from cities? It’s a complex question with no easy answers, but one that deserves thoughtful discussion and analysis.

The Case for Banning Cars from City Centers

Why should we ban cars?

Why Should Cars Be Banned?

Environmental Benefits:

One of the most compelling arguments for banning cars is the environmental impact. Cars, especially older models, emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. By eliminating cars, cities could see an immediate improvement in air quality. 

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), about 14% of annual greenhouse gas emissions globally come from the transportation sector, and 72% of those emissions come from road vehicles. The WRI has warned that “transitioning to zero-emission transport is a crucial step toward a livable future.”

Reduced car usage could also mean less reliance on fossil fuels, pushing cities to invest in more sustainable and energy-efficient public transportation options. 

Pedestrian-Friendly Spaces:

Winston Churchill ones famously proclaimed, “we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.” Transforming city centres into more pedestrian-friendly zones offers the opportunity to reclaim the spaces previously lost to cars. These zones would make room for broader sidewalks, public squares, and green spaces, enhancing the overall urban experience. 

Thejas Jagannath, Planner at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, writes on Medium; “An example of a successful pedestrian street encouraged by Jan Gehl is Stroget in Copenhagen which is a pedestrian car-free shopping area in Denmark. This has created an attractive place for people to engage in and create a sense of community so that people don’t feel isolated in cities.” According to Jagannath, “seeing other people on the street can bring about a sense of community and belonging. Stroget is also one of the largest pedestrianized streets in the world.”

Improving Public Health:

There’s also a health angle to consider. With fewer cars on the road, noise pollution would decrease, leading to less stress and better mental health for residents. The ban would also encourage more people to walk, cycle, or use public transport, thereby increasing physical activity. 

According to an article published by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), “living in a walkable place that allows for activity built into each day benefits every age group, and helps people to live longer. Walking to school also promotes independence among children.” It’s also been proved that physical activity, like walking and cycling, raises endorphin levels, and lowers stress-related cortisol which helps people to sleep better. 

Two men with bicycles in a car-free zone

Improving Safety:

Fewer cars mean safer streets. The risk of road accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists would decrease significantly, making the city safer for everyone. 

Urbanist writer Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, warned that unless kept in check, city streets would become “unwalkable”. Her book, published in 1961, urged urban planning systems not to prioritize cars over other modes of transport as this would “detach neighborhoods and public spaces” from one another. 

In an online report by Vox, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveals that  “about 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed on average each day in the US in 2018 — the highest since 1990”. 

The data indicates that most American streets are dangerous by design and not pedestrian-friendly at all. 

In summary, the case for banning cars from city centres is built on several pillars ranging from environmental gains to public health and safety. The idea is to reclaim the city for its residents, making it a more livable, breathable, and enjoyable space.

Economic Growth:

In a report written by Cambridge Econometrics, supported by Element Energy, on behalf of Greenpeace UK – a 2030 ban on polluting cars could create more than 30,000 new jobs and provide a £4.2bn boost to the economy. 

“Bringing forward the date from which new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars and vans can no longer be sold in the UK to 2030 could create 32,000 new jobs by the same year and increase GDP by 0.2% or £4.2 billion pounds.

“Increases in employment and resulting higher levels of economic activity from a 2030 transition to electric vehicles would provide the government with a £1.9 billion net increase in revenue by 2030,” the study found.

ALSO READ: Car-Free Cities Around the World: 12 Great Urban Examples

Success Stories: Cities That Have Implemented Car Bans

Covid Streets:

The devastating COVID-19 pandemic unintentionally created safe public spaces in big cities. According to a report by Bloomberg, some cities converted streets into pedestrian-friendly corridors with restricted vehicle access. 

“They became something else: an example of how readily urban space can be repurposed for mobility and play, and how quickly human activity can surge back when cars are removed.” 

Many cities decided to keep the temporary “safe streets,” “slow streets,” or so-called “open streets”. 

In America a survey by the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that most cities were making Covid-era traffic changes permanent. 

“At the end of April 2021, New York City passed a bill making its Open Streets program — the most extensive in the U.S. — permanent, and California is mulling legislation that would streamline that process,” Bloomberg reported at the time.

A car-free street in Paris

Paris Car Ban:

The city of Paris has been a forerunner in the initiative to ban cars from city centers. With the implementation of car-free zones and restricted traffic days, Paris has seen notable improvements in air quality and pedestrian safety. The move also gave way to a surge in bicycle and scooter usage, fundamentally changing the city’s transportation dynamic.

Henry Grabar writes about the drastic changes in the streets of Paris in an article on Slate titled ‘How Paris Kicked Out the Cars’. According to Grabar, Paris in the 90s had so little cyclists, that they recognized each other. “There were 3 miles of bike lanes; now there are more than 150. In October 2020, the number of daily bike trips likely surpassed 400,000—1 for every 5 inhabitants. And traffic in the city’s busiest bike lanes has grown by more than 20 percent since.”

Grabar adds, “Each rush-hour light change at the intersection of Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard Sébastopol, in the center of the city, brings a bewildering, silent dance of scores of bicycles. Paris is learning to ride a bike.”

Read more about the Paris Car Ban.

Parked bicycles in Copenhagen


The Danish capital, Copenhagen, has long been a pioneer in green urban living. With extensive bike lanes and limited car zones, the city serves as a model for how reduced car presence can lead to a more harmonious urban environment.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that in Copenhagen, bikes outnumber cars by more than five to one. “Almost one-third (29%) of all journeys across Copenhagen are done on a bike, and 41% of commutes (to work or study) are the result of pedal power. For people living as well as working or studying in Copenhagen that proportion is even higher – 62%.”

The main reason for for the popularity of cycling in Denmark is its sprawling network of paths, including innovative bridges, which form cycling superhighways across Copenhagen. 
Visit Copenhagen echoes this statement, highlighting infrastructure as the main reason behind the city’s cycling culture. “Copenhagen has demonstrated that with a network of simple, safe, and connected infrastructure, the bicycle can be a competitive mode of transportation for people of all ages and abilities.”

Creative bicycle racks in Oslo


Norway’s capital, Oslo, has taken bold steps by removing parking spaces and investing heavily in public transport and bike lanes. These moves aim to make the inner city almost entirely car-free, showing that it’s possible even in cities with harsh winter climates.

In May 2023, Oslo received the Road Safety Award at the second edition of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) Awards. The city was praised for making incredible progress towards becoming one of Europe’s safest cities for cyclists. 

“Thanks to the city’s ambitions and concrete actions, a 2022 public survey revealed that 31% of respondents now consider it safe to cycle in the city, a meteoric rise from only 9% in 2014. 

“Following radical changes to city streets, such as the implementation of 30 km/h speed limits and the removal of over 700 on-street parking spots inside the city’s inner ring road, this city became one of the first in Europe to achieve Vision Zero, with zero road deaths on its streets in 2019, and has since been leading the way with one of the fewest numbers of cyclist fatalities per year in Europe,” Travel Tomorrow reported. 

But Oslo isn’t the only Norwegian city making in-roads when it comes to making life safer and easier for commuters. 

CNN reported on 18 April 2023 that a three-kilometer-long (1.8-mile) cycling and pedestrian tunnel, named Fyllingsdalstunnelen, opened in Norway. 

“The tunnel is one of two tunnels in the new pedestrian and cycling path from the city center to Fyllingsdalen in Bergen. The path is 7.8 km long in total and takes about 25 minutes to bike,” Visit Bergen stated on its website. 

An aerial view of Barcelona


Barcelona’s “Superblock” model aims to reduce traffic by creating zones that are primarily for local access, with through-traffic going around them. This has led to increased public spaces and improved air quality in the implemented areas.

POLIS, a leading network of European cities and regions working together to develop innovative technologies and policies for local transport, explains the Superblock as “a 3 x 3 grid of 9 city blocks and restrict vehicle traffic to the streets on the perimeter. The interior streets then become available for walking, biking, and expanded green space.”

The project was developed by Salvador Rueda, City of Barcelona’s Director of Urban Ecology. “We want these public spaces to be areas where one can exercise all citizen rights: exchange, expression and participation, culture and knowledge, the right to leisure,” Rueda told The Guardian in an interview about the project.

Barcelona’s Car-Free Superblock Explained:

Each of these cities offers valuable insights into the potential benefits and challenges of banning cars from city centers. Their experiences provide a real-world framework for understanding what could be achieved elsewhere.

ALSO READ: Colombia’s Deep-Rooted Love for Cycling

The Case Against Banning Cars from City Centers

Why should cars not get banned

Why Should Cars Not Be Banned?

Backlash from the Community:

Andrew Kersley writes in a Wired article titled, ‘People Hate the Idea of Car-Free Cities—Until They Live in One’ that going car-free isn’t as simple as it seems. Often the biggest pushback will come from the community itself. 

Kersley writes, “when Oslo proposed in 2017 that its city center should be car-free, the backlash saw the idea branded as a ‘Berlin Wall against motorists.’ The plan ended up being downgraded into a less ambitious scheme consisting of smaller changes, like removing car parking and building cycle lanes to try to lower the number of vehicles”.

In London, the introduction of LTNs (Low Traffic Neighbourhoods) has also led to a massive backlash. “In the east London borough of Hackney, one councilor and his family were sent death threats due to their support for the program.”

This volatile reaction to change the way we commute in cities is largely due to the fact that most of society has built its existence around cars.

Economic Impacts:

While the environmental and health benefits of banning cars from city centres are compelling, there are potential economic downsides to consider. Small businesses, particularly retail and food service, could experience reduced footfall, leading to a decline in sales and even closures. Several taxis and drivers will also be at risk of losing their jobs as cars will be limited in the central business districts of cities. 

“The quickest way to make a city centre die is to stop people getting in there,” Hugh Bladen, of the Association for British Drivers, says in an article published by the BBC. According to Bladen, Britain’s declining high streets won’t be helped by restrictions on driving. “Some towns and cities get clogged up but that’s just because of poor planning; they should have better parking options,” he added.

Man taking a cab ride

Accessibility Issues:

A car ban could also have social implications. For individuals with disabilities or those living in “transportation deserts”—areas poorly served by public transit—cars may be the only viable means of transportation. Implementing a car ban without adequate alternative solutions could disproportionately impact these populations.

In a paper by Abigail Weizer, from the California Polytechnic State University, titled Planning, Preserving, and Increasing Accessibility: A Reflection on Going ‘Car-Free’, the negative impact of removing vehicles is also explored. “Cars offer a degree of access, freedom, and mobility with which no other use can currently compete. Cars provide freedom from scheduled and fixed route systems, a direct line to one’s destination, and a degree of personalization,” Weizer writes. 

Adding, “Going car-free, then, can potentially have a negative impact on the freedom, health, and safety of disabled drivers who can no longer use their vehicles to connect directly to their destinations.”

Increased Traffic in Surrounding Areas:

There’s also a risk of unintended consequences, like increased traffic in areas just outside the car-free zones. Drivers might opt for peripheral routes, causing congestion and potentially shifting pollution and safety risks elsewhere.

When roads are blocked off, it will disturb the flow of traffic. Many inner-cities were developed around cars and car lanes. Cutting off some of these routes could lead to backups or delays elsewhere.

Alternatives to a Complete Car Ban

Congestion Pricing and Low Emission Zones:

If a full-on car ban seems too radical, there are less extreme measures to consider. Cities like London have implemented congestion pricing, charging vehicles to enter busy areas during peak hours. Similarly, low emission zones, which only allow cleaner vehicles to enter certain areas, can also be effective.

To help clear London’s air the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expanded on 29 August 2023 to cover all London boroughs. The ULEZ operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, except Christmas Day (25 December). Drivers of vehicles that don’t meet certain emission standards need to pay a daily charge to drive in the zone. 

“Nine out of ten cars seen driving in outer London on an average day meet the standards meaning their drivers won’t be affected.

“For those who are, the Mayor of London has funded a £160m scrappage scheme to help Londoners, small businesses, sole traders and charities prepare for the expansion. Every Londoner with a non-compliant car or motorcycle is now eligible to apply for funding. Small businesses (fewer than 50 employees), sole traders and charities registered in London are also eligible for scrappage funding.  

“Temporary ULEZ exemptions are also in place until 2025 for community transport minibusSes, and until 2027 for people receiving certain disability benefits and wheelchair-accessible vehicles,” reads a statement on

ALSO READ: Has Cycling Increased in London?

Bus and Bike Lanes in London

Improved Public Transportation:

Another middle-ground solution is to invest heavily in public transportation infrastructure. By making public transit more efficient, accessible, and affordable, cities could reduce car dependency without needing to enforce an outright ban.

For citizens to use public transport instead of cars, public transport needs to be given priority on roads, customer satisfaction and safety need to be improved, and connectivity needs to expand to make traveling more convenient.


While the idea of car-free city centres can be attractive, it’s important to consider these varied factors. The challenges point to a need for a nuanced approach, one that considers economic, social, and logistical implications alongside environmental and health benefits.

Paris Car Ban: A Closer Look

Positive Impacts of the Paris Car Ban

Environmental Gains:

Paris has made significant strides in improving air quality since the introduction of car-free zones and restricted traffic days. Reduced vehicle emissions have resulted in cleaner air, which has immediate and long-term health benefits for residents.

Health Improvements:

Apart from cleaner air, the car ban in Paris has encouraged more active modes of transportation like walking and cycling. This has had positive ripple effects on public health, reducing rates of diseases related to sedentary lifestyles.

Urban Revitalization:

The restrictions have also led to the revitalization of public spaces. Streets once clogged with cars have transformed into pedestrian-friendly zones, complete with cafes, street art, and community activities, enhancing the quality of life in the city.

ALSO READ: How Did Paris Become a “Cycling City”?

Criticisms and Challenges in Paris

Legal Battles:

The car ban hasn’t been without its challenges. Legal hurdles, such as lawsuits from motorists and business groups, have been a significant obstacle. They argue that the restrictions infringe on personal freedoms and hurt businesses.

Social and Economic Pushback:

There’s also been criticism about the social and economic impact of the ban. Critics argue that it disproportionately affects lower-income families and individuals who rely on cars for work but can’t afford to move closer to the city center.

Rental bicycles in Paris

Implementation Issues:

Lastly, the logistics of implementing and enforcing the car ban has proven challenging. Questions remain about the effectiveness of fines, the role of law enforcement, and how to handle exceptions, like emergency vehicles.


Paris serves as both a success story and a cautionary tale. Its experiences offer crucial lessons in the practicalities and implications of imposing a car ban in a major city.

Balancing the Scales: Should Cars Be Banned from Cities?

Mixed Views and Lack of Consensus:

Public opinion on this issue is far from unanimous. Surveys and studies have shown a divided public, with some strongly supporting car bans for their environmental and health benefits, while others oppose them due to concerns over economic impact and personal freedom. This lack of consensus indicates the complexity of the issue and suggests that any policy decisions should take multiple viewpoints into account.

So, Should Cars Be Banned from Cities?

The debate on whether to ban cars from city centres is undeniably complex, requiring a nuanced approach that weighs various pros and cons. However, the compelling benefits of doing so are hard to ignore. From substantial environmental and health gains to the transformation of urban spaces into pedestrian-friendly, community-centered zones, the advantages are significant.

While there are concerns about economic impact and accessibility, these are challenges that innovative urban planning and policy measures can address. For example, robust public transport systems and targeted financial support can mitigate many of the negative effects on businesses and vulnerable populations. 

Cyclist sharing road with cars

Given the urgent need to address climate change and improve public health, leaning towards restrictions on car usage appears to offer more long-term benefits than drawbacks. Tailoring the approach to suit the specific circumstances of each city—perhaps through partial bans or low-emission zones—can serve as an effective compromise.

In conclusion, the potential gains from banning cars in city centres strongly argue in favor of taking such bold actions. While the decision should involve multiple stakeholders and be carefully planned, the overarching benefits make a compelling case for moving in this direction.

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