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Why it's time for London to host a car-free day

Bank Junction

Car-free days in Paris and Madrid have helped to change these cities for the better, argues Marco Picardi. Why can't London do the same?

In a parallel universe, a heavily trafficked junction in the heart of central London’s financial district is relieved of private vehicles. The results are astounding: fewer road casualties, improved air quality, faster bus journeys, and support from the business community.

But this isn’t fiction; these were the benefits of the first eight months of the City of London’s Bank Junction improvement experiment, a scheme that has restricted private vehicular access between 7am and 7pm.

While 1970s car-centric traffic engineering is being rolled back with the removal of guardrails and gyratories, road congestion keeps rising and emissions have not been reduced. London’s air quality continues to break EU emissions standards, and contributes to thousands of deaths each year.

Support to make the City of London’s experiment permanent can be interpreted as evidence of what the complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman called the ‘Adjacent Possible’, when ideas that are a step from what exists are achieved by reframing the existing.

In the same way that Tube strikes have been found to change commuter journeys in the long term, as people reconsider entrenched behaviours when they are forced to do something different, the 150 City firms backing the Bank scheme show us that experiencing streets devoid of traffic enables us to rethink them.

Surely it’s time for London to hold a car-free day to help us learn what we want our streets to be? Such days occur all over the planet; some London boroughs host them.

“In Paris and Madrid car-free days have helped form strategies to pedestrianise parts of both cities and improve public realm.”

A London-wide car-free day would build on falling car ownership and the growth of active travel, as well as the Mayor’s Healthy Streets agenda and the impending Ultra Low Emissions Zone. Londoners could enjoy activities that are usually unthinkable – and it could flag up public realm and green infrastructure improvements that fulfil local needs and aid the city’s overall health, happiness, and travel choices. They could be transformational in the parts of London that the commuter-focused cycle
superhighways have overlooked.

The Notting Hill Carnival, the London Marathon, and royal jubilees see cars removed from swathes of the road network. But why does it require a special event?

By early May, 8,000 people had signed a petition to the mayor calling for the first London Car Free Day to be held on World Car Free Day on 22 September. Now it’s up to him and Transport for London to decide if car-free streets should remain only in a parallel universe.

Marco Picardi MRTPI is an urban planner at Mott MacDonald and co-founder of London Car Free Day

Photo | iStock


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