Welcome to Oslo! NO PARKING.

More and more European cities are effectively banning automobiles from their city centers—and it seems to be working out just fine for local businesses.

Along with their many other treasures, the great cities of Europe are beloved by locals and visitors alike for their walkability, an essential part of their cultural DNA. The urban villages of places like Copenhagen, Madrid, and Oslo evolved organically over millennia to meet the basic, workaday needs and desires of residents on foot. Many American cities, by contrast, developed contemporaneously with the phenomenon of early-20th-century mass motorization. Factored into their urban plans were car-friendly standards for roads, intersections, sidewalks, and the like. So while cars indisputably changed the physical makeup of cities in both North America and Europe, the process took much longer—and proved much more difficult—across the pond, where it frequently required major re-conceptualizations and retrofits of the European urban landscape.

Now a number of Europe’s cities are deciding to move forward by going backward: to a time before their bustling, picturesque city centers were overrun with cars. As their leaders race to meet the various emissions goals of the Paris climate agreement, they’re discovering that restoring these historic spaces to their pre-automobile states is as good for tourism, local business, and overall civic contentedness as it is for air quality and a shrinking carbon footprint.

Since the 1960s, Copenhagen has served as an incubator for ideas about how best to reshape our cities along human lines, as opposed to vehicular lanes. It began by emphasizing the importance of walking and bicycling in maintaining the city’s social and environmental health. Influenced heavily by the ideas of architect and urban planner Jan Gehl, officials in the Danish capital have gradually pushed cars literally to the periphery, expanding pedestrian space and adding biking infrastructure such that Copenhagen boasts the largest pedestrian street system in the world and—as of 2016—actually contains more bikes than automobiles.

In November, Madrid announced a ban on “polluting vehicles” within a 1.8-square-mile section of its city center. The new car-free zone applies to gasoline-powered vehicles registered before 2000 and diesel-powered vehicles registered before 2006, with only a few exceptions. Similar bans on diesel vehicles are underway in Paris, Athens, and Hamburg. (Older diesel-powered cars and trucks are much more plentiful in Europe than they are in the States; the Hamburg ban, for example, applies to only two main roads, but it will restrict more than 200,000 vehicles from using them. Their drivers may want to think about buying a newer, cleaner car—or perhaps taking the U-bahn, Hamburg’s subway system.)

Now it’s Oslo’s turn. Just a few weeks ago, the Norwegian capital became the latest big European city to effectively remove cars from its urban core. In 2015, its city council approved a plan to ban automobiles altogether in the city center, an area already well served by public transit and bicycle infrastructure. When members of the local business community expressed concern (downtown Oslo has only about 1,000 full-time residents but more than 90,000 workers), the city scaled down its original plan and shifted the focus to banning private automobiles from most streets while slashing the number of parking spaces from more than 700 to just a handful—all of which are now reserved for electric vehicles or drivers with disabilities.

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.


Photographs by Jan Jespersen

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