European Cities Turn Their Back on Cars

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Green, Macroeconomics

A quiet revolution appears all across Europe, and I am not referring to protesters on the streets of Athens. Europeans, either via coercion or encouragement, have started to leave their cars at home and travel by foot, bicycle or public transport. On the whole this does not appear as an unpleasant experience. After all, cities certainly appear saner places without the noise, fumes and risk of speeding (or even gridlocked) cars. Traveling by tram or metro in most European cities, language aside, has a relatively civilized feel to it and the risk of bicycle collision excepted even walking gives one a certain smug sense of taking a little beneficial exercise and saving the planet in one step. So what, you may say? Most European cities,  were never designed for the automobile anyway. Even Baron Hausmann’s gloriously wide boulevards in Paris have more a feel of facilitating the control of the rioting proletariat than any prescient expectation of the needs of the automobile. A New York Times article explores how from Amsterdam to Zurich, European planners have poured billions into developing the once maligned tram into (relatively) quiet, ecologically friendly and affordable transport. Made more affordable when compared to the astronomic cost (and scarcity) of parking in many European cities, not to mention the cost of fuel – most Americans find it staggering Europeans can pay nearly $10/US gallon.

Planners have a host of carrot and stick options to encourage less car use in cities. Among the carrots – subsidized buses and trams, which have made a come- back in many cities, as have extensions to the underground metro system even when the economic case appears dubious. Many in Amsterdam for example question the point of building a metro system below the water table when the city has a perfectly good tram system. But not all cities have turned to major infrastructure solutions. London, Barcelona and Paris represent three of many cities that have introduced share cycling programs. They have even gone to the extent of collecting bikes (by truck, ironically) from areas of over concentration to re-distribute them to areas of scarcity during the day. Capital or principal cities notwithstanding, many provincial cities have introduced part and ride schemes encouraging both commuters and visitors coming into the city to park cheaply out of town and travel in by regular bus services.

Naturally enough the stick solutions gain the most comments and as the Times observes, the municipal Traffic Planning Department in Zurich has worked overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Drivers now find closely spaced red lights added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections – gone. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt. In some places cross walks and signs no longer exist forcing cars to move at a snails pace. For those insisting on taking their car, parking becomes the biggest problem once they arrive at their destination. Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, and three times the size of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Mall has only half the number of parking spaces. As a result, 70% of visitors get there by public transport. Planners in the UK have, for a number of years, limited the spaces available to new developments for cars. And surprise, we hear of discussion about applying a form of local tax on parking paces provided by employers at an employees place of work. Nor is London the only city to introduce congestion charging for car drivers wanting to enter the city center during working hours. Singapore led the way but other European cities have also adopted similar schemes.

Car ownership in Europe had the same upward trajectory as North America but in the last ten years that has reversed.  Today, the number of car-less households in Zurich has increased from 40 to 45% while 91% of the delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram (imagine that in DC). Even retail shop owners feared that the loss of the car would impact trade have proven unfounded. Banning cars from streets resulted in a 30-40% increase in pedestrian (i.e. shopping) traffic.

What impact will this have on car sales in Europe, one of the world’s largest car markets? It has inevitably dented sales. The changes appear slow to take effect and therefore hard to measure. But where families had two cars they may make do with only one. As we saw earlier, some do away with a car altogether, relying on the new car sharing schemes or hire cars when needed. Could this happen in the US? Certainly not to the same extent as Europe for a host of cultural and geographical reasons. Pedestrianization of squares or roads in American cities such as San Francisco’s Market Street seem isolated in occurrence and very limited in extent. But the move to smaller cars, which many American friends said would never happen 8-10 years ago appears a reality in the US today showing that some changes at least have become acceptable. More likely, adopters in crowded Asian cities with pollution from cars seem hungry for public infrastructure projects. Many consider Singapore more European than Asian, and therefore might not serve as the best example but who would argue that fewer cars in the center of Shanghai or Beijing would not be a good thing?

–Stuart Burns

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