Research from our fellows

November 19, 2021

Car-free towns and cities

Professor John Whitelegg was appointed FIT Senior Fellow in 2020.

Road safety

The 10th November 2021 was ‘Transport Day‘ at COP26 in Glasgow. There were no transformational ideas or shifts in the overall view that car-based mobility and road freight are here to stay and will increase. What we urgently need is transformation, paradigm shift, and a completely new and totally integrated approach to transport choices and to the rich harvest of co-benefits that flow from reducing our dependence on motorised mobility regardless of the source of the energy used to move the overweight and heavily subsidised vehicle.

One example of transformation and paradigm shift is the car-free city. The case for reducing and eliminating vehicles in towns and cities has been made over and over again (Crawford, 2000), but we are still stuck with the dominant paradigm identified by granting priority to vehicles with all the well-documented consequences of that prioritisation:

  • Cars and vans take up too much space and this space can be put to better use for new homes, parks, gardens, trees, and community food production
  • Large numbers of vehicles, regardless of the technology used to move them, feed the political preferences for building new roads and bypasses and adding extra highway capacity
  • Large volumes of space-greedy, fast moving vehicles increase road traffic danger and the probability of death and serious injury when they hit a child
  • They generate climate damaging carbon emissions
  • They destroy the liveability of cities and diminish the amount of social interaction that can take place in heavily trafficked streets (Note 1)
  • They deter walking and cycling and this adds to the problems related to obesity, cardio-vascular disease and diabetes (Note 2)
  • They impose huge costs on society as a whole and these costs are not internalised. The polluter does not pay. The costs are imposed on the total population to encourage those who drive and discourage use of alternatives to the car
  • The costs imposed by current policies and preferences in transport and mobility are greater (public and private) than the costs of promoting alternatives to motorised transport (Note 3).

All these impacts and consequences are described in Whitelegg (2016).

Car-free towns and cities have been discussed for many years but national and international implementation has been absent. The subject received a great deal of attention in Colin Buchanan’s report Traffic in Towns in 1963 (Note 4) but successive national governments and councils have failed to take steps to eliminate through traffic and failed to create a calm, unpolluted environment that would promote the quiet enjoyment of wonderful buildings and streets and the footfall that is essential if local shops, cafes and pubs are to thrive.

My view is that Colin Buchanan did not quite get the story ‘right’, but he did recognise that accepting large volumes of vehicles in towns and cities was a huge problem and there was a need to sort this out. His blunt phrase still has a great deal to say about the situation in 2021:

“We have taken a bull into the china shop and to that old problem there are only two answers – shoot the bull, or, more creatively, build a new china shop specifically designed for bulls.”

I am not arguing for shooting bulls or anything else that lives and breathes but we must exclude bulls (vehicles) from the china shop (towns).

There are now signs that 50 years+ of neglect are coming to an end and we can exclude through traffic with multiple gains across a wide range of social, economic, public health, retail vitality climate, and local economy policy objectives. The declaration of a climate emergency also adds to the case for excluding bulls. Do we keep encouraging the bulls as we do in all UK towns and cities or do we exclude them?

There are plans to exclude the bulls (traffic). A recent national newspaper article quoted Pontevedra in Spain: “In car-free Pontevedra in Spain, population 83,000, the usual soundtrack of a Spanish city has been replaced by the tweeting of birds and the chatter of humans and climate damaging carbon emission have been reduced by 70%.”

Oslo (population 690,000) has also adopted a car-free policy, which covers a large area of central Oslo.

And here in the UK, York has adopted a car-free policy

What does a car-free plan look like?

A car-free plan is much more than a ban on vehicles within a defined area. It includes:

  • A significant upgrade in the walking and cycling infrastructure including bicycle parking
  • High quality bus access to the car-free area. All buses will be electric
  • Bus services at least as frequent and connected with train services as is the case in Switzerland
  • Car-share schemes at least as good as Bremen in Germany where one car-share car replaces 16 privately owned cars
  • Substantial reduction in city and town centre car parking
  • The complete abolition of on-street car parking.

Dealing with concerns

  • All residents in the car-free areas will be guaranteed access by car, one car per household and no on-street parking
  • All those with disabled permits will have the same parking and access opportunities as is currently the case. The car-free concept does not detract from measures to support disabled groups
  • A car-free area will be associated with a parcel and goods delivery plan utilising European best practice on freight consolidation centres. No HGVs will be allowed into the car-free areas and transhipment points will be set up to deal with the ‘last mile’ delivery issue. These will utilise electric cargo bikes and fully electric vans and deliveries will be permitted at set hours during the day.

What next?

If we were serious about net zero carbon we would immediately embark on a car-free city programme for every UK town and city. This is no more demanding than the Victorian achievement which gave all our cities clean drinking water and main sewage infrastructure, and it would produce dramatic gains in public health, quality of life, local economic success, zero death and injury in road traffic, and transport decarbonisation. Which of these things do we not want?


Crawford, JH (2000) Car Fee Cities

Whitelegg, J (2016) Mobility: A new urban design and transport planning philosophy for a sustainable future. Paperback – 25 Feb. 2016. ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1530227877


Note 1: Appleyard, D (1981) Livable Streets, Berkeley, University of California Press

Note 2: World Health Organisation (2020) Global Action Plan on Physical Activity

Note 3: Vivier, J (2006) Mobility in Cities Database. Better mobility for people worldwide. Analysis and Recommendations, UITP (Union Internationale Transports Publique), Brussels

Note 4: Buchanan, C (1963) Traffic in Towns and a BBC Radio 4 discussion between Colin Buchanan and John Whitelegg broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 25th August 1992

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