Car-free cities and worries about a car-free me…

I HAVE cars on my mind. One car in particular and the exhaust-burping tin masses in general.

Pete the mechanic reckons our old Volvo is getting towards the end of its life. Although still in mechanical working order, and still capable of bombing over the M62, the valiant estate is suffering from various problems of old age, and is becoming more difficult to mend.

So a decision will have to be made soon. I like having a car and need one in my freelance life, but I am not earning enough yet to take out a loan. Ho-hum.

Cars, who needs them? Most of us do in the end. It’s good to have a car, and I don’t want to be without one, but cars are a nuisance and a hazard too.

In this vein, I spotted something on Facebook the other day, like you do in the digital flit of life nowadays. A report on Business Insider UK – no, me neither – listed ten cities that are going car free. York was nowhere to be seen.

This was a shame in a sense, but hardly surprising. York couldn’t even manage the temporary closure of one bridge, never mind the whole city centre. When use of Lendal Bridge was restricted by the then Labour council, the recriminations were long and bitter. Many drivers hated being denied this key route through the city and complained at length to me – not in a personal sense but in my role as letters editor. Dear me what a lot of letters there were, nearly all saying the same thing.

The closure wasn’t handled well, especially in the way that visiting drivers were fined after not realising they shouldn’t cross the bridge. That’s all bad-tempered history now, but a sorry side-effect is that only a brave council would ever again suggest limiting cars in York.

That is a shame because unfettered use of cars is never good or healthy for cities. Until the late 1980s, cars still drove by York Minster, an area now blissfully free of cars. No one complains about this as a rule, although you could probably find a grumbling taxi driver somewhere; you usually can.

The ten cities listed for their car-reduction plans began with Oslo in Norway, which intends to ban all cars from its centre by 2019, instead boosting the number of cycle lanes and improving public transport.

Madrid in Spain plans to ban cars from the city centre by 2020, with 24 streets given over to walking rather than driving. In Chengdu, China, a new part of the city is being designed to make it easier to walk than to drive, while Hamburg in Germany aims to make walking and cycling the main form of transport in the city centre.

The Danish have been ahead in this greening game for a long time. In Copenhagen half of the population cycles to work every day, thanks to pedestrian-only zones introduced in the 1960s. Now there are plans for a cycle super-highway linking to the suburbs. And I am guessing this will entail more than painting a narrow strip of the road green.

Paris wants to have more car-free days, to ban older cars during the week and to ban diesel cars – and London wants a diesel ban by 2020 as well.

Brussels aims to introduce more car-free boulevards, while Mexico City introduced car-reduction plans last April, restricting cars for two working days every week and at the weekends, too.

New York isn’t planning a car ban, but has introduced more pedestrian-only zones in Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Square Park. And on three Saturdays last month, the road linking Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge was closed and opened up to pedestrians for a Summer Streets event.

Business Insider UK quotes Paul Steely White, of Transportation Alternatives, a group that supports cyclists in New York City and campaigns for car-free cities. He says of the summer event: “This is what everyday life could look like if people mattered. The worst thing as an urban dweller is to be stuck with the auto as your only option.”

Well, the ‘auto’ is not my only option in York, where I cycle everywhere where possible. I do like my bicycle, which is probably just as well right now.

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