In a multi-storey car park in the centre of Brighton, Peter Willcocks – on hand in a hi-vis jacket in case any motorists needed assistance – had two short words in response to the council’s plan to create a car-free zone by 2023.
“It’s crap,” he said. “This is a seaside town, it relies on visitors. If they ban cars, people won’t come. It will really damage the town’s economy.” The car park was “always busy”, he added, although he personally hadn’t driven a car for 25 years, preferring to use the “excellent” buses.
Traffic in Brighton was a big problem, said Victor Ribadulla, who drives his pizza trailer to the station forecourt every morning. There was no other way for him to run his business, he said: “Of course I worry about pollution. But there are just so many things to worry about. Maybe the ban is a good idea – who knows?”
Brighton and Hove council hopes to give Ribadulla an answer by commissioning a major study on the impact of a car-free city centre. Last week, Labour, Green and Conservative councillors unanimously backed the measure proposed by their youngest colleague, 24-year-old Amy Heley.
It is the latest in a wave of initiatives over the past year by councils around the UK to cut congestion and air pollution, and to reclaim urban areas for pedestrians and cyclists. The trend has led some transport analysts to argue that the 2020s could herald an end to the supremacy of the motor car in the minds of the public and planners.
This month, Birmingham announced proposals to ban motorists from driving through the centre – an extraordinary move from a conurbation which gave the world the phrase “spaghetti junction” to describe its complicated interchange of roads and flyovers – and the ancient city of York said it planned to ban private vehicles within its medieval walls within three years.
Earlier initiatives from Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester, among other places, include designating certain days as car-free, banning diesel vehicles, blocking off zones to traffic for certain hours of the day and imposing charges. “There is no consensus – we are in a time of experiments as we redefine what is important to our lives in cities and towns,” said Peter Jones, professor of transport and sustainable development at University College London.
At a micro-level, a change in public mood is also evident. Last year, Walton Street in Oxford, a rat run for city drivers, was closed for repairs. Now, after some residents reported improvements in air quality, safety and noise, the council is consulting on whether to make the closure permanent. Hammersmith Bridge in west London was closed to vehicles indefinitely last April after “critical faults” were discovered. Instead of spending funds – estimated at up to £120m – on repairing the problems, some locals are campaigning for a pedestrian and cyclist-friendly “garden bridge”.
Many councils considering curbs on traffic are seeking ways to fulfil pledges to become carbon neutral against a backdrop of rising anxiety about the climate crisis and demands for action on individual, local, national and global levels.
“There aren’t a huge amount of things a local authority can actually do but transport policy is one of the few areas where they have discretion,” said Tim Schwanen, director of the transport studies unit at Oxford University’s school of geography and the environment.
“And, in terms of air quality hotspots, this kind of intervention really does have an effect. From a carbon point of view, it’s largely symbolic rather than making a material difference. But it may be a first step in helping to shift opinion.”
The new trend was “the beginning of a wider realisation of the folly of allowing free rein to the motor car in cities and towns”, according to Christian Wolmar, a writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. “At the beginning of the last century, cars were fairly marginal but by the 1920s they became dominant. Transport policy for the next 50 years was entirely oriented towards the facilitation of the movement of cars. Cycling was wiped out and pedestrians were mown down in their hundreds. Obstructing the highway became a criminal offence. Planners designed town centres around the car, incorporating ring roads and urban motorways,” he said.
“There was a turning point in the 1970s, when the newly formed Greater London council killed off a proposal for a motorway ring road inside London. We started to see bus lanes, traffic wardens, 20mph zones and the congestion charge in London. Now there is a zeitgeist around climate change and healthier living. We’re winning some battles and losing others. But the war is still going on,” Wolmar said.
The battles may be helped by a generational shift in attitudes. “There are studies which show that millennials and Generation Z have shifted away from car use and car ownership, to the extent that some don’t bother getting a driving licence,” said Schwanen. Heley, the Green party Brighton councillor, said her peer group did not rely on cars: “We can’t afford them.”
Some say that future generations will find it incomprehensible that individuals were once permitted to drive private cars into urban centres at will, just as today’s young people are horrified that their parents could once smoke cigarettes on planes and in cinemas and restaurants.
But the issues are “combustible”, according to Schwanen: “I often tell local politicians: if you want to kill your career, reduce parking. Transport is politically charged – and while we are seeing an acceleration in plans and proposals, it will be even more interesting to see what actually gets implemented.”
Developing such plans in a fast-changing society is challenging. Should private hire vehicles such as Uber be exempt? What about the growing number of delivery vehicles, bringing groceries and other goods to our front doors? Are electric cars permissible? Do car-free zones simply displace traffic elsewhere?
London pioneered the trend in the UK with the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003 and the ultra-low emission zone last year. “Without doubt, we’re still leading the way in the UK, but it’s great to see this becoming a national conversation,” said Will Norman, the capital’s walking and cycling commissioner. “For too long, London has been an outlier on this, but now other cities are stepping up. Central government now needs to catch up with what local authorities are doing.”
In Brighton, Heley is delighted at the move towards a car-free city centre. “Air pollution here is similar to central London. The seafront is like a motorway. And yet lots of young families move to Brighton because they want cleaner air beside the sea. I was sitting in meetings thinking, we’re talking about becoming net zero by 2030 but how are we actually going to achieve it unless we start doing things. I saw what other cities were doing and I thought, what are we waiting for?”
Brighton, a city with a strong radical, green image, and the country’s only Green MP, “should be at the forefront, but is actually behind a lot of UK cities – it’s quite embarrassing”. There would be a “just transition” to car-free, Heley added: “It’s not about shaming or punishing people.” Measures such as park-and-ride schemes, cheaper bus fares and charging points for electric cars were needed alongside a ban.
Schwanen warned against a kickback if driving became “woven into wider cultural wars” such as those over veganism and flight-shaming. But Wolmar said that the British public was capable of big shifts in social attitudes – “look at smoking and gay marriage”.
“Everyone who works in transport policy knows what needs to be done. But you need the zeitgeist to change. And now it is changing.”
… and more
The UK’s largest council announced plans this month to ban private vehicles from driving through the city centre. Motorists would still be able to drive into the city, but would be prevented from crossing the city in a move to tackle air pollution and prioritise cycling, walking and public transport. Other measures include introducing car-sharing and 20mph limit in the city centre. The council has said that road transport accounts for a third of CO2 emissions in Birmingham.
The historic city aims to ban all non-essential private car journeys inside its medieval walls within three years to cut carbon emissions. Disabled drivers would be exempt. Many streets around the minster, above, are already pedestrianised. The city, which attracts almost 7 million tourists each year, aims to become carbon neutral by 2030.
The Scottish capital is in the midst of an 18-month trial during which city centre streets are closed to traffic for several hours on the first Sunday of every month. It was the first UK city to join the Open Streets initiative to combat air pollution and reclaim city centres for pedestrians and cyclists.
The city will become the first in the UK to ban privately owned diesel cars from its streets next year. It will prohibit such vehicles from entering a central zone from 7am until 3pm, or incur a fine. Taxis and emergency services will be exempt, and commercial vehicles will have to pay to enter the area.
The city and county councils have proposed the UK’s first zero emission zone in the city centre. Drivers of diesel and petrol vehicles will be charged £10 a day to enter the zone, increasing to £20 in December 2024. The penalty for not paying the charge will be £120. People living inside the zone will pay a discounted rate of 10%.
The city council has proposed limiting private vehicle access to George Square. Under the plans to be debated this week, two sides of the famous city centre plaza would be pedestrianised, and the other two restricted to public transport and cyclists.
Mayor Andy Burnham and cycling and walking commissioner Chris Boardman have launched a five-year plan to increase daily walking trips by a third and “double and double again” cycling journeys by 2025. “This isn’t just about switching from cars to bikes and cutting harmful emissions – it’s also about what we want our towns and cities to look like, and how we look after our public spaces,” Burnham said last week.
Plans have been unveiled for the UK’s first car-free community. Planning permission has been sought for a new neighbourhood of 4,000 homes on the eastern side of Portsmouth harbour, with streets dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists, and vehicles confined to a vast underground car park. Portsmouth city council, which is backing the development, said it could be a “beacon for the whole of Portsmouth and the rest of the country”.
The city is planning to charge non-residents £2 to drive into the centre as part of £2bn “transport vision” to reduce congestion and improve air quality. Other measures include new tram/train routes, new park-and-ride sites, cheaper bus fares, more walking and cycling routes and an electric bike pilot scheme.
The capital pioneered the congestion charge in 2003 and it is now one of the largest in the world. In 2019 it introduced the 24-hour ultra-low emission zone, which will expand to cover all of Greater London next year. More than 27km of roads were closed on its annual car-free day last year. Mayor Sadiq Khan has said he wants 80% of all journeys in the capital to be made by walking, cycling or public transport by 2041, compared with 63% now.