In 2019, Oslo, Norway recorded zero pedestrian or cyclist deaths. There was only a single traffic fatality, which involved someone driving into a fence. (For comparison, preliminary figures in London show 73 pedestrian and six cyclist fatalities in 2019; New York recorded 218 total traffic fatalities, including 121 pedestrian and 28 cyclist deaths.)
Oslo’s achievement means that it is just one step away from “Vision Zero”, an undertaking to eliminate all deaths on public roads. The foundation for reaching Vision Zero is to significantly reduce the number of cars on the road. Oslo officials have removed more than a thousand street-side central parking spots, encouraging people to lean on an affordable and flexible public transport network, and added more bike lanes and footpaths. Significant areas are closed off to cars entirely, including “heart zones” around primary schools. “The wish to pedestrianise the city isn’t a new policy, but it has accelerated now,” Rune Gjøs, a director at Oslo’s Department of Mobility, says. “The car became the owner of our cities, but we’re resetting the order again.”
Despite its success, Oslo’s initiatives have faced opposition from some people who don’t know life without private cars. There’s also a misconception that pedestrianisation hurts local trade, because the data has always been “patchy,” says Harriet Tregoning, director of the New Urban Mobility Alliance, a global group helping cities to integrate more sustainable transportation. But Oslo’s success contributes to a growing body of evidence that pedestrianisation not only saves lives; it’s also good for business. After reducing cars, footfall in the centre increased by ten per cent.
“The city centre is now a thriving area and all the top-brand shops want to establish themselves on the car-free streets,” Gjøs says. “This shows that consumers find these streets attractive, and they’re leaving as much money behind as if they were coming by car.” Demand for residential real estate has also increased, thanks to lower levels of traffic and pollution.
“It used to be that people take their families out of the city on the weekends, but now people are coming into the centre,” Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s vice Mayor for Urban Development, says. “They’re using the centre as a place for activities, not only shopping and business.”
The disruption caused by Covid-19 has catalysed pedestrianisation projects elsewhere. Cologne in Germany and Calgary in Canada are among cities that have closed off large areas to through-traffic to allow more room for pedestrians to social distance. City officials in Bogota, Colombia have extended its car-free Sundays to the whole week, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has banned private cars from the iconic Rue de Rivoli. Hidalgo has said that returning to a Paris dominated by cars after lockdown ends is “out of the question”. Milan will pedestrianise 35 km of roads indefinitely.
Rather than totally eliminating cars – the disabled and elderly, for instance, sometimes rely on cars for mobility – it’s likely that cities will seek to develop more public transport and set aside more designated areas for pedestrians.
Janette Sadik-Khan, a former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, refers to this remodelling as rewriting the operating code of the street. “I think we are in a watershed moment,” she says. “The smartest cities are not going to be the ones with the smartest technologies, but the ones where you don’t need a car in the first place.”
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