BARCELONA, Spain — Last week, California’s Air Resources Board announced that the state would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars in 2035 to help fight climate change by encouraging the transition to vehicles that don’t depend on fuels. fossil fuels. Months earlier, the European Union made a similar announcement, effectively ending sales of new internal combustion engine vehicles across the 27-nation bloc that is home to 448 million Europeans, from the same year.

Cyclists pose for a photo on a car-free Sunday

Several European countries have instituted car-free Sundays. (Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But in Europe, the move is just one step in an ongoing transport revolution that aims to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and noise pollution, while increasing the liveability in urban areas, including the implementation of designs for “15-minute towns”, where daily necessities are located within walking distance of dwellings.

“We want to see massive change. We want fewer cars,” Gareth Macnaughton, director of innovation at the Urban Mobility Initiative at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which works with governments to accelerate the transport transition, told Yahoo News. . It’s not enough to switch drivers to electric vehicles, he said, pointing out that cities devote huge amounts of space to the car, from streets and garages to parking bays. “If everyone is switching from a car to an electric car today, it still takes up the same amount of space.”

Across the continent, urban centers are restricting car entry into certain parts of cities and imposing new fees. In Paris, which has car-free Sundays, only newer, less polluting diesel and petrol cars can travel in the city’s ‘low emission zones’; by 2030, only electric or hydrogen will be able to enter the French capital at all. In Norway, where 78% of new vehicles are electric, Oslo has removed most street parking in the heart of the city. The Belgian medieval city of Ghent limits vehicles in the city center by offering free shuttles from low-cost car parks on its outskirts. Drivers traveling to London during office hours must pay a congestion charge of $17 a day and an additional $15 entry charge just to enter “ultra low emission zones”; in some parts of the city, cars will soon be completely banned.

A London bus

A bus enters a new Ultra Low Emission Zone which has been instituted in London. (Frank Augstein/AP)

“Cities are easier to decarbonize when it comes to transport because they are very densely populated, distances tend to be smaller and public transport networks tend to be more developed,” said Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign, a London-based coalition. grassroots groups, NGOs and environmental organizations, Yahoo News told Yahoo News. “It’s easier to find alternatives to polluting modes, such as the car, to get around. That’s why cities are a very, very good place to start this transport revolution. The Clean Cities Campaign, which works closely with EU governments, pushes for zero-emission transport to dominate cities by 2030 and publishes reports that rate cities on their performance.

Increasingly, European city planners are modifying neighborhoods to restrict car entry — while encouraging “active mobility,” Macnaughton said, such as walking and cycling, and using public transport. The carrot and stick approach works best, he said, adding that sticks include “reducing access to city centers, removing parking spaces and imposing fees and penalties”. Carrots include the provision of cheap or free transit passes for workers and students, as well as attractive walkways and urban parks.

“Creating alternatives to car use, such as cycle networks, public transport and easy access to shared cars,” is also crucial, added urban planner Bart Claassen, senior project manager at the company. of sustainable planning Bura Urbanism based in Amsterdam. Claassen said most Dutch planners are now rethinking city design to largely reduce the emphasis on cars.

Elementary students

Elementary school students in Utrecht, the Netherlands, cycle on the world’s longest solar-powered cycle path on the day it opened, July 14, 2021. (Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

A neighborhood in Amsterdam has become car-free and in the Dutch city of Utrecht, a former industrial area, Merwede, is being redeveloped to accommodate 12,000 people in a car-free neighborhood, one of the largest in ‘Europe, extending over 60 acres . Plans for the area include a market hall, bike paths, shops, restaurants, an abundance of greenery, and ride-sharing hubs. The goal is “to create a neighborhood in which most daily necessities are nearby and can be reached on foot or by bike” in 10 minutes or less, said Claassen, whose company is involved in the design.

One of Europe’s most ambitious projects is taking place in Barcelona, ​​Spain. Across the city, lush green hallways help muffle sound, purify the air, and cool pockets of urban heat. The so-called superblocks – 3 square block areas of housing, markets, restaurants and shops – restrict access to most vehicles and are filled with playgrounds, gardens and places to hang out. Sit. Six superblocks have already been built and a mobility plan adopted in 2015 provides for 500 more. If completed, the plan would turn “virtually 75% of the streets into pedestrian streets”, said Salvador Rueda, a former Barcelona city councilor and director of the Barcelona Urban Ecology Agency, which invented the superblock concept. . If the project stays on track, it would result, he said, in “2,000 car-free streets” by 2030 while requiring only a 15% reduction in overall traffic.

The World Health Organization has studied the air quality around one of these superblocks that surrounds Barcelona’s Sant Antoni market and found a 25% reduction in levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide and a drop of 17% of the particles.

Sant Antoni superblock project in Barcelona

The Sant Antoni superblock project in Barcelona restricts cars to a commercial district of 9 blocks. (José Colon)

“We want to change the current uses of public space with the Superblock project,” Rueda said. “We want the city for the citizens, not for the cars.”

“There are also superblock projects in Valencia,” said Justin Hyatt, strategy and campaign coordinator for the Carfree Cities Alliance. He moved to this Spanish town for its Greenway – a 6-mile coastal strip for pedestrians and bikes that was built after locals opposed a planned motorway project there. He added that the Carfree Cities Alliance, an international non-profit organization working with citizens, planners and governments around the world, offers strategic advice and training to those planning other projects across Europe. , initiatives proposed in Berlin that would limit up to 80% of traffic in the core of German capital to similar models in countries ranging from the Czech Republic to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Private motor vehicles are very inefficient in terms of transporting people, especially in cities, so we need a better solution,” he said. And beyond the emissions that cars put out, there are car crashes that lead to an average of 3,000 deaths a day worldwide, according to the WHO, he added.

Even though urban Europeans aren’t as dependent on cars as Americans, Stoll would like to see their attitudes towards car buying change more quickly. “Owning a personal car is something we would like to see decrease in Europe,” she said, adding that car-sharing is an increasingly viable option. “There is no point in everyone having their own car, because 95% of the time cars are parked and not in use. They therefore occupy a huge amount of public space. If we could reduce the number of passenger car owners, and all of those cars are zero-emission electric, and those cars are shared, then automatically space can be reallocated – and reallocating space is the best way to get people out of their cars.

Car traffic in San Francisco

Car traffic in San Francisco. Air regulators in California have voted to approve tough rules that would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The decision to ditch cars in European cities is refreshing for Joel Crawford, a former social worker from California who wrote the book “Carfree Cities” 22 years ago. “It is now a vast movement [in Europe], supported by many levels of government, although it is moving quite slowly,” he said from his home in the Netherlands, where he walks and bikes everywhere. Across Western Europe, he pointed out, many cities are now blocking cars from entering their historic neighborhoods, resulting in a street-level vibration rarely seen in the United States.

“The average American will say, ‘If you take my car, I’m going to die.’ And for a lot of people, that’s actually not too far from the truth,” he noted. In European cities, however, “everyone knows you’re doing just fine without a car.”

He believes that given the status cars continue to enjoy in America, the United States will be the last place in the world to restrict automobiles in cities.

Yet as the world wakes up to the reality of climate change and high gas prices, that could start to change, Crawford said, and pointed to the transformation of Times Square in New York, where cars are banned. for more than 10 years, as a sign of what is possible.

“The car-free city is the cheapest to build and operate,” he said. “The car-free city is the cleanest to build and operate. And when you’re done, you have the city with the highest quality of life.

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