In 2018, Madrid banned most cars from its city center. In 2019, Oslo finished its own redesign to get rid of most cars. In 2020, Barcelona is planning its next “superblocks,” or car-free neighborhoods. Now a smaller city will be among the next to limit urban traffic: York, a U.K. city with a population of around 150,000, plans to ban most cars from its medieval city center by 2023.
The city, like hundreds of others around the world, declared a climate emergency in 2019. It also committed to becoming carbon neutral by the end of this decade, and recognizes that changing transportation is one part of that goal, and in late December, voted for a motion committing the city to the traffic ban.
“Like many cities, we have had youth-led climate strikes throughout the year, and despite being talked about for a long time, I think 2019 will be seen as the year in which the climate crisis truly tipped over into the mainstream,” says Jonny Crawshaw, the city counselor who put the motion forward. “Beyond that, though, we are living through politically divisive, polarized, and uncertain times, and people need to feel a sense of hope. I think there is a real appetite to find different ways of doing things and the combination of these factors—and the dawning of the new decade—has created the space and political will to start the conversation about the ways in which we can make our city a more people-friendly place.”
As with other cities designed before the existence of cars—York was first settled by the Romans in 71 AD—it’s better suited for walking than driving. “The central historic core has broadly the same street plan as it did when the Vikings were here and the area is contained by a medieval city wall,” Crawshaw says. “This city is not designed to take the volume of cars we now see, and as a result congestion can be a real problem during peak times.”
Some parts of the city center are already car-free, so York doesn’t have to change as much as other cities would have to. In the late 1980s, some streets in the central core started restricting traffic during the day. One street lined with timber-framed buildings, a tourist destination once used as inspiration for a Harry Potter movie, is always car-free. The city has a park-and-ride program that lets people take a free bus ride into the city center. Some of the fortified gates around the city also partially restrict cars from entering. “We’ve done lots of things that make it easier to manage with the car,” says Andy D’Agorne, the council’s deputy leader. “But this is the next step.”
The city now has to figure out how the car ban will actually work, and will begin meeting with residents to figure out the details. The ban only applies to “non-essential” private cars, so the streets won’t be completely free of vehicles—delivery trucks, taxis, disabled drivers, buses, and others will still be able to drive in the area. But by dramatically reducing the number of cars, the city expects that buses will be able to move more quickly, making public transportation more appealing, and biking will feel safer, so more people choose to bike.
The city will also take other steps to improve options for transportation, including shifting to electric buses, launching an on-demand shuttle service, and adding new bike lanes to a key bridge. Crawshaw also wants the strategy to look beyond the immediate area affected by the ban. “I really want to get people thinking about how the whole city works, not just the city center, and I hope that people who live in the outskirts will feel they can benefit from the changes just as much as those living and working in the city center,” he says.
In physical terms, the transition to a car-free city can happen fairly easily. Until a few years ago, the small city of Ghent, Belgium, struggled with traffic and smog in its city center; in 2017, it adopted a new traffic plan to limit cars and used a tactical urbanism approach to make the change cheaply, adding planters and simple concrete barriers to block off roads and cameras to help with enforcement. More than a third of residents now commute by bike.
The bigger challenge is public opinion. Even blocking traffic on a single road, as in the highway next to the Seine River in Paris, predictably outrages some drivers. In York, a previous pilot that pedestrianized a bridge was criticized for worsening traffic and reversed. But more systematic changes that give commuters viable options have a better chance at success, and few people would say that they want to spend more time in their cars. Other U.K. cities are likely to follow. Birmingham, for example, which struggles with air pollution, congestion, and high rates of obesity, is now also considering banning cars from its city center.
In a recent survey, a quarter of York residents expected that they would be driving more within the next five years, but only one in eight was happy about that fact. Congestion costs the city millions of pounds a year, and points out that businesses on streets with fewer cars tend to do better, since people actually want to spend time in the area. Crawshaw thinks that getting more people out of cars will also help strengthen the community. “I believe that people sometimes need to be given excuses to come together as communities and by getting out of their cars, traveling together, walking and cycling together—interacting with each other —we will help build a more empathic, community-focused, and, ultimately, happier city.”