10 Cities Where Your Car Is Not Welcome

By: Bridget Clerkin April 24, 2018
New York's Central Park will soon be car-free. The Big Apple is joining a growing trend in other world cities of having portions of town where cars are prohibited.
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to take one of the urban jungle’s greenest areas back to its natural state.

The city’s top administrator announced last week that all automobiles will be banned from Central Park as of June 27.

The decree dovetails with de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” initiative to increase street safety and reduce the number of pedestrian traffic fatalities and roadway incidents in general. With the order in place, the park’s 42 million annual visitors will have all 800 acres of it to themselves, to walk, bike, skate, stroll, or otherwise meander through without worry of any modern modes of transit interrupting their reverie.

“There’s gonna be a kind of peace and sense of security that wasn’t there before,” de Blasio said when making the announcement.

Still, New York is not the first city to rope off certain areas for bipedal conveyance (though, with the transportation sector recently named the country’s top polluter, perhaps it shouldn’t be the last).

The idea has followers around the world. So where are the top cities to visit when you want to safely stretch your legs—or to avoid when you have the real need for speed?

Chengdu, China

Leading the pack is a city so futuristic, it hasn’t been fully built yet.

While Chengdu is a traditional city housing more than 14.4 million residents, an ambitious project is underway to create a sister community just 10 miles from Chengdu’s city center. The mission of this new neighborhood? Make everything walkable.

Designed by Chicago-based architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, the project aims to fit 80,000 people into an area that puts just about everything within a 15-minute walk from their home. Tentatively scheduled for a 2020 unveiling, the city-within-a-city is estimated to use 48% less energy and 58% less water while generating 89% less landfill waste and 60% less carbon dioxide than traditional cities of comparable population size.

Berlin, Germany

Berlin officials are building a series of bike superhighways, roadways where cars are prohibited, in order to encourage human-powered transportation.

Even the capital city of Germany, a country known for its pristine automobiles, has worked on limiting the presence of cars on its streets.

In 2008, Berlin residents passed an inventive initiative designating “low emission zones” within the city. Through the measure, any auto unable to meet the city’s stringent pollution standards is banned from traversing the specific streets, which total nearly 34 square-miles-worth of road overall, affecting nearly one-third of Berliners.

And last year, capital officials doubled down on their embrace of cleaner transportation, kicking off construction on a series of “bike superhighways” from which cars will be explicitly prohibited.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Is it really a surprise that a city that counts more bikes than people among its population has discouraged the use of cars?

Nearly half the Danish population utilize the country’s 200-plus miles of bike lanes to get to work every day, and the country already has the lowest percentage of car ownership in Europe.

Not fixing what doesn’t seem to be broken, Copenhagen is in the process of creating even more space for bikes on its streets, with 11 bike superhighways reaching clear through to the suburbs nearly complete, and an additional 17 bike highway projects still coming down the pike. The projects will also help Copenhagen achieve its pledge to become completely carbon neutral by 2025.

Madrid, Spain

The Spanish capital is on an ambitious mission to lower automobile usage by at least 6% in the next few years and recently drafted a sustainable mobility plan to help it achieve that goal.

An integral part of that plan is the outright ban of cars on nearly 500 acres of center city roads by 2020. (About two dozen streets in the area will also be redesigned for more sustainable transit as part of the project.)

Still, city planners don’t expect the population to change its driving habits overnight, so the initiative includes a back-up plan: fining any drivers who fail to adhere to the auto ban, and charging extra if the car in question is a heavy polluter.

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels nips at Copenhagen’s heels when it comes to pedestrian friendliness: the city is home to Europe’s second-largest car-free zone, coming in just after its Danish counterpart.

Cycling has long been an ingrained part of life in Brussels, and cars have never been allowed on a number of the city’s biggest thoroughfares. But city planners aim to take that tradition far into the future, as well.

Starting this year, diesel cars built prior to 1998 are no longer welcome in Brussels, and the city recently announced a plan to offer free public transportation on high-pollution days, further encouraging the mass transit habit many of its citizens already foster—one that was perhaps developed for many residents on the annual day each September when cars are completely banned from Brussels’ city center.

Bogota, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

The South American city has a long history of pivoting away from automobiles. Since the 1970s, the region has observed a special event every Sunday called CiclovÍa, during which 75 miles of its streets become off limits to cars, trucks, and buses.

More recently, officials there expanded upon the idea, launching a project in 2013 prohibiting certain drivers from hitting the road on certain days of the week, depending on their license plate number. (Plates ending with odd digits are required to take some days off; plates ending evenly must take others.)

It’s a good thing, then, that city residents have lots of practice at the idea—and nearly 200 miles of bike lanes to help.

London, United Kingdom

When thinking of places with few traffic problems, London doesn’t exactly spring to mind—and that’s exactly the issue.

To help improve circulation along its blocked-up streets, the city instituted a congestion pricing system in 2003. Wielding the power of monetary persuasion, the measure is built to discourage travel along city center streets at peak hours—most notably, weekdays—with drivers charged steep tolls for traveling through certain congestion zones at specific times.

London officials also ordered a ban on an entire class of vehicles—those of the diesel variety—by 2020, and want to discontinue the sale of any new gas- or diesel-powered cars by 2040.

Oslo, Norway

The U.K.’s Scandinavian brethren intend to expand the ban further still, prohibiting any fossil fuel-powered vehicles from its roads by 2025.

Olso officials also have an eye on becoming the first city in Europe to completely ban cars from its entire downtown, an area encompassing about 1,000 residents—nearly 88% of which do not own a car. (Within the designated car-free city center zone, only 7% of residents reportedly commute via automobile.)

But planners aren’t leaving those who choose to cruise on four wheels out to dry: to compensate for the expected influx of residents flooding the road with cycles, the city is working on putting an additional 35 miles of bike lanes on the map.

Paris, France

The City of Light has been a shining example of how to reduce car use in Europe for years.

In 2014, leaders in the French capital pulled the trigger on a measure restricting certain cars from entering the city center—again, based on the final digit of their number plates—on certain days of the week.

Two years later, city officials followed up with a ban on any cars built before 1997 along city center streets. (The ban is only in place on the weekdays, but any driver found in violation of it will face a hefty fine.)

And still more restrictions are on the way for Paris, with the city mulling additional “car-free days,” more mileage for bike lanes and the creation of some “electric car-only” streets by 2020.

Mexico City, Mexico

The historic Zocalo in Mexico City.

One of the world’s most densely populated cities certainly has its fair share of vehicles, but all that congestion was making residents choke—literally.

To help combat the elevated pollution levels coming from its outsize number of autos, Mexico City officials kicked off an extensive “partial car ban” in 2016, reducing drive time for certain vehicles to two days a week plus two Saturdays each month. (The system utilizes a rotating schedule based on the old standby, license plate numbers.)

Still, thanks to its enormous population (20 million and counting), even a little bit of effort can go a long way—and the initiative is by no means a small effort, with intentions to get 40% of cars off the road. On a day when the ban is in effect, it’s responsible for removing nearly 2 million cars from city streets.

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