7 Myths About Car-Free Cities DEBUNKED

A large car driving through a small street

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All over the world, cities are introducing measures to limit car use and encourage alternative, more sustainable forms of transport.

But despite the progress made, there are naysayers arguing that, for one reason or another, a car-free city is a fantasy.

In this article, we’ll debunk some of the top myths about car-free cities and give our two cents on why it’s a promising strategy.

Why Should Cities be Car-free?

The UN predicts that by 2050, more than two-thirds of us will live in cities, so it’s in our interest to make them as livable as possible.

Reducing the number of cars on the road has immediate and long-lasting effects on air quality.

But that’s not the only health benefit. As people look to other forms of sustainable transportation, active transport will rise, resulting in more cycling, walking, and running. This translates to a happier, healthier population.

And did we mention the noise? According to the WHO, noise pollution is almost as bad as air pollution when it comes to our health. The problems range from mild irritation and insomnia to heart disease or premature death!

We all know plenty of reasons why we should limit cars in urban environments, but what are some of the myths about why we shouldn’t?

Bicycles in a coffee shop

1. Myth: Car-Free Cities Are Bad for Business

The most popular and longstanding myth regarding car-free cities is that it’s bad for the economy and local businesses.

Some business owners are concerned that fewer cars mean fewer customers. Sure, that might be the case in an out-of-town shopping center, but that isn’t the case in an urban environment.

Studies consistently show that footfall increases when a street is pedestrianized, resulting in a rise in retail sales in some trial areas. 

Even better, in the era of online shopping, pedestrianizing an area can bring some life back to the high street.

According to Euronews, research also shows that even when parking spaces are taken away, people don’t really throw a tantrum and abandon the trip but instead look for alternative ways to get where they need to go. The bottom line? When people need to go to the shops, they will find a way, even if it isn’t by car.

tourists on bicycles

2. Myth: People Won’t Visit Car-Free Cities

Another frequent fib is that if a city stops cars from entering, then people won’t visit. 

On the contrary, car-free cities are not only more accessible but also a tourist attraction. 

The Greek island of Hydra is one example, where the lack of cars makes it a destination hotspot for those who are seeking some peace and quiet.

Looking for an example of a bigger city? How about Ghent? Introducing a car-free zone into the center has completely transformed the city, improving the overall attractiveness of Ghent as a major shopping and tourism destination. Looking at pictures of before and after, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

a bike on a train or bus

3. Myth: Car-Free Cities Discriminate

If a city wants to improve mobility, then limiting cars is a legitimate concern for the elderly or people with disabilities or impairments. 

Good, thoughtful design is crucial to planning a car-free city, and a well-designed one meets the needs of all its residents.

Public transport must be as accessible as possible, both practically and financially, to those who need it. This means everything from ramps on buses, trams, and trains to subsidies or free travel for those who need it.

Far from being ableist or ageist, well-designed car-free cities address accessibility issues, especially for those who are most affected. 

a woman with a bicycle in Amsterdam

4. Myth: Car-Free Only Works in Small Towns

Car-free initiatives are often disregarded as utopian and difficult to implement on any meaningful scale. Critics will say they’re only good for small towns.

If that’s the case, somebody should tell Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Oslo, whose largely car-free centers prove that with proper planning, education, and infrastructure, car-free cities are indeed very possible and functional.

Of course, there are many factors to consider. Sometimes, it can be as straightforward as adapting existing infrastructure, like how Helsinki has converted a disused railway line into a cycle superhighway. In others, it can require a drastic overhaul.

With size comes difficulty, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be worth working towards. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

a street in paris with a bicycle

5. Myth: It’s Too Late to go Car-Free

There will always be cynics arguing that it’s too late for people to change.

The fact is that driving continues to be a norm because cities facilitate it.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that “A man, who beyond the age of 26 finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. As Wired points out, it’s this kind of stigma which is preventing people from opening their minds to the alternatives to driving.

Research shows that when cities take action to reduce or limit the number of cars, they rarely go back. Everyone can benefit from city streets with fewer vehicles, even if they can’t all imagine it. 

A bicycle in a street

6. Myth: Car-Free Cities Are Expensive

One of the most frustrating myths is that car-free cities are expensive.

While the infrastructure indeed costs money, it will save or even make money in the future.

According to WorldCrunch, a study in Copenhagen showed that for every kilometer of bike lanes built in the city, €400,000 were generated in benefits through reduced transport, healthcare, and accident costs.

Compare this with the significant costs of maintaining road infrastructure and traffic management systems for cars, and it’s clear that car-free cities have some financial benefits.

Car-free bikes on top of car

7. Myth: Car-Free Cities are Anti-Car

And last but not least, we have those saying that car-free cities are anti-car. Well, they’re not entirely wrong.

Car-free cities are designed to make cities better places to live for everyone. Whilst cars are generally discouraged, they are usually not completely banned.

Those who need to use cars, such as people with mobility issues and emergency service vehicles, can do so. In fact, with fewer vehicles on the road, they can do so better than ever before!

The main theory is that people don’t need to drive as much as they do.It’s estimated that at least half of car journeys worldwide are under 5 km, a distance that for most people could easily be covered with a bicycle or public transport.

Cars in cities continue to create problems for residents, businesses, governments, and visitors,  but reducing the number of vehicles with a car-free city model is one urban planning strategy that could have some answers. 

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