Can London go car-free?

Sadiq Khan announces biggest ever vehicle-free day in the English capital

London bus
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

More than 12 miles of London roads are to be closed this autumn during the English capital’s biggest ever car-free day.

Mayor Sadiq Khan is marking national Clean Air Day today by unveiling the vehicle ban initiative, which is intended to raise awareness of the “dangers of toxic air and to encourage city dwellers to explore London without the use of a vehicle”, the London Evening Standard reports. The capital will be just one of dozens of cities across the globe taking part in global World Car Free Day, on 22 September.

As well as banning cars from areas including London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the City and sections of 18 different boroughs, London will host awareness-raising events ranging from guided walks and treasure hunts to street performances and live music shows.

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“London is leading the way in innovative measures to improve air pollution and I want this year’s Car Free Day events to be the best of any world city,” Khan said. "This will be a great opportunity for us all to leave our cars behind and explore our streets by foot, or by bike.”

But is more action needed?

A number of smaller urban areas have embraced the “car-free” movement, which aims to reduce air pollution and improve safety among residents. Since 2007, cars have been banned from central streets in the small Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, which now consistently ranks as one of the greenest cities in Europe, earning the title of European Green Capital in 2016. And many other smaller cities have introduced similar initiatives.

But for larger urban areas, the challenge is far greater. Paris and London are among the cities leading the way in Europe when it comes to traffic modification, Business Insider reports. But the vast populations of these cities - along with the average volume of cars on any given day - means that progress is slow.

In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made it a “personal mission to improve pollution levels by imposing numerous restrictions on vehicles”, says the news site. Yet so far she has managed only to implement a ban on cars made before 1997 from the city centre on weekdays, with select streets to be accessible only for electric cars by 2020. Hidalgo also recently declared the first Sunday of every month car-free from 10am to 6pm in the city centre.

Given the logistical challenges of implementing car bans in major cities, Londonist argues that that “the biggest benefit of a car-free day is education”, rather than facilitating overnight change.

“It’s important that the public engages in the discussion to build support and allow for many voices to be heard,” the news site says. “It’s rare to find people who disagree with the statement that we should reduce pollution and congestion in London, but there’s not a consensus on how to achieve those goals.”

Progress in London has arguably been even slower than that in Paris. The number of daily vehicles entering central London has declined by a relatively modest 30% since the congestion charge was launched 16 years ago.

“It's unlikely that London will be completely car-free,” says Londonist. But with the ongoing “revolution in transportation, driven by data and technology”, many commentators “foresee a future where privately owned, single-person occupied vehicles will become a rare occurrence”, the site concludes.

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