Car-free cities are becoming a global trend, will the UK follow suit?

Parisians enjoying a car-free day (photo: Maxime Lathuilière / Commons Wikimedia)
Across the globe, political leaders are taking bold steps to tackle lethal air pollution. As Paris announces major plans while London breaches its annual air pollution limit before January’s end, will British leaders follow suit? Cycling UK’s Space for Cycling campaigner Tom Guha investigates

This week, the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo announced major infrastructure projects for the city’s roads in an attempt to halve the number of private cars. Making the announcement, Hidalgo said she wants to “reconquer the public space” for non-polluting forms of transport such as cycling and walking.

As part of her proposals, Hidalgo wants to close a kilometre of road along the river from Place de la Concorde to Pont Royal. She also plans to restrict traffic on two main roads running from east to west – the upper highway on the right bank of the Seine and the rue de Rivoli, where City Hall is located.

“The idea is to go step by step towards the pedestrianisation of the city centre. It will remain open to vehicles belonging to local residents, the police, emergency services and for deliveries, but not to all-comers,” said the mayor.

Faced with the scourge of pollution, I assume my responsibility

Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris

The projects also include the rolling out of a vast cycle network, including a 4km fully segregated cycle lane along the iconic Rue de Rivoli.

These schemes are an urgent move to drastically reduce air pollution in the French capital, which has routinely been in breach of EU limits. Paris’s performance last year was so poor that it was briefly the most polluted city in the world on two occasions!

“We say clearly that our aim is the significant reduction in car traffic, as all the world’s large cities are doing. We must constantly remind people: the fewer cars there are, the less pollution there is,” commented Hidalgo.

These are bold words from the Parisian mayor – if a little self-effacing. There has been a global shift in the attitude towards pedestrianisation, but Hidalgo’s striking political leadership certainly makes her a pioneer – by British standards in any case.

Shortly after Hidalgo’s announcement, the mayor of Madrid announced similar plans. And in recent months we’ve seen radical urban realm projects that favour low-emission travel announced in Barcelona, Oslo and Hamburg, to name a few. Earlier this week, a pilot pedestrianisation project was announced for New Delhi’s iconic Connaught Place, implemented for three months from February.

These projects are being rolled out because urgent action on air pollution has become imperative – and Britain is anything but an exception. Just five days into 2017, a road in south London breached its annual limit for air pollution.

We must constantly remind people: the fewer cars there are, the less pollution there is

Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has made progress in the battle against air pollution by pledging to pedestrianise Oxford Street, but he must go further. And, as ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews says: “This is a national problem which requires a national solution.”

Calls for a new Clean Air Act, backed by The Times newspaper, have gained ground to enshrine the right to breathe clean air in law. Under this proposed Act, Government must, among other things, lay down a national framework for effective Clean Air Zones that phase out diesel and accelerate the shift to zero emission transport.

A part of this strategy for any local politician must be large-scale pedestrianisation with cycle access and the rolling out of comprehensive cycle networks.

In May this year, a handful of English conurbations, such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, will be electing ‘metro mayors’. Let’s hope these new mayors take heed from their counterparts abroad and show the political leadership necessary to beat lethal air pollution once and for all.

You can find out more about Cycling UK’s views on how cycling can help improve our cities in our Air Quality briefing.