But Oslo isn’t content just to have fewer cars on its streets. It also wants more car alternatives. Its zoning plan aims ultimately to fill the capital’s streets with pedestrians, bicycles, and public transportation. Those 700 curbside parking spaces that went away? Many of them have become bike lanes, supporting more cyclists than ever before, thanks to a city-sponsored grant initiative that helps Oslovians purchase bikes and a bike-share program that has tripled in size over the past three years. At the same time, officials say they will be adding new mass-transit infrastructure to better serve the city center, and lowering fares to boot. Taken together, these efforts are intended to help the city reach its goal of halving its carbon emissions by next year (compared with 1990 levels).
And what of the worries voiced by business owners in Oslo’s center city? One of their biggest fears was that people would stop coming downtown if they couldn’t find a place to park, which might translate into fewer patrons for their shops, restaurants, bars, and cafés. Well, according to the city, since all those parking spots disappeared, pedestrian activity in the area has risen by 10 percent. In fact, studies show that cyclists and pedestrians tend to spend more money than drivers do at bars, restaurants, and retailers of the sort typically found in dense, walkable communities. All in all, calming car traffic and opening up safe spaces for walkers and bikers is a boon for local businesses.
Transitioning city centers back to pedestrian-friendly social spaces and marketplaces is so far proving worthwhile, but in his new book, Walkable City Rules, the architect and urban planner Jeff Speck warns his fellow Americans against rushing to emulate Europe’s successes with cookie-cutter plans for car-free streets and zones. While generally supportive of the idea, Speck points out that such success depends greatly on what kinds of local businesses are involved. He notes that “more than two hundred North American main streets were turned into pedestrian malls in the 1960s and 1970s, most at great expense.” Of these, “[a]ll but about ten of them went straight downhill, and all but about thirty have been expensively retrofitted to welcome cars again.” What worked in Boulder didn’t work in Buffalo; what made sense for Madison didn’t make sense for Memphis. The key, Speck says, is to have “stores that don’t need cars.” The italics are his, highlighting the point that what’s right for a neighborhood filled with cafés, booksellers, and movie theaters probably isn’t going to be right for a neighborhood filled with big-box retailers.
All of this raises interesting questions about the intrinsic relationships among cars, culture, consumption, climate, and commitment. American tourists who visit Europe and rhapsodize about the quaint walkability of its oldest cities may believe that they’re connecting with the past. But the Europeans seem to understand that it’s really all about the future.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.