Bollards and ‘superblocks’: how Europe’s cities are turning on the automobile

Bollards and ‘superblocks’: how Europe’s cities are turning on the automobile

Most of Europe’s cities weren’t designed for vehicles. Their streets had been as soon as a spot for a bunch of various human actions: working, buying and selling, socialising, taking part in. Getting from A to B, apart from on foot, was a small a part of the combination.

The arrival of the automobile in massive numbers on European roads ended that within the Nineteen Fifties. Streets had been now for site visitors, which should attain its vacation spot as quick as attainable … and have someplace to park as soon as it will get there. Cities modified, radically.

A fightback is now effectively below approach, pushed by a urgent want to chop air air pollution and fight the local weather disaster, and a want to reclaim cities as nice locations to stay. Most main European cities now have schemes in place to scale back street site visitors.

Methods fluctuate, from congestion fees, parking restrictions and restricted site visitors zones to elevated funding in public transport and cycle lanes. Proof suggests {that a} mixture of carrot and stick – and session – works finest.

Automobiles emit huge quantities of air pollution. Highway transport accounts for a fifth of EU emissions, and vehicles are accountable for 61% of that. With a median occupancy fee throughout the EU of simply 1.6 folks a automobile, they’re additionally a massively inefficient use of public area.

However site visitors discount insurance policies typically spark fierce resistance. For a lot of, particularly older folks, vehicles are usually not simply automobiles, however symbols of non-public freedom and success. In a number of cities, makes an attempt to limit automobile use have opened a brand new entrance within the tradition wars.

So for a lot of totally different causes, getting vehicles out of Europe’s cities isn’t simple. Right here Guardian writers have a look at three: Paris, the place automobile use has virtually halved; Barcelona, the place a brand new mayor has his doubts; and Brussels, the place forms isn’t serving to.


Parisians using their bikes on Rue de Rivoli through the night rush hour. The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, pledged to make the town 100% bikeable by 2026. {Photograph}: Geyres Christophe/ABACA/Shutterstock

A startling statistic emerged in Paris final month: through the morning and night rush hours, on consultant essential thoroughfares crisscrossing the French capital, there are actually extra bicycles than vehicles – virtually half as many once more, actually.

The info level is the most recent to consolation Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor, who since she was first elected in 2014 has pursued a number of the hardest anti-car insurance policies of any main metropolis – beginning with closing the Nineteen Seventies Proper Financial institution Seine expressway to site visitors.

Hidalgo has since sealed off well-known streets such because the Rue de Rivoli to most site visitors, created an increasing low-emission zone to exclude older vehicles, and established 1,000km (620 miles) of motorbike routes, 350km of them protected lanes.

Due partly to her insurance policies and people of her predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë, driving inside Paris metropolis limits has fallen by about 45% for the reason that early Nineties, whereas public transport use has risen by 30% and cycle use by about 1,000%.

Arising is a restricted site visitors zone that, with sure exceptions, will ban all via site visitors – as a lot as 50% of the whole – from many of the metropolis’s central arrondissements beginning in spring 2024, in time for the summer time Olympics.

Metropolis corridor has additionally imposed a pace restrict of 30kph (20mph) on virtually all of the capital’s streets, pedestrianised 200 streets outdoors major faculties, and lately introduced a referendum on plans to cost SUV drivers “considerably extra” to park.

Poster: ‘More or fewer SUV cars in Paris?’
A poster studying ‘Roughly SUV vehicles in Paris? Vote on 4 February 2024’ is seen on a billboard on a avenue within the French capital. {Photograph}: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

The mayor was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the “15-minute metropolis” idea, that means all residents’ day by day wants – procuring, schooling, well being, leisure, even, ideally, work – must be inside an simply reachable 15-minute stroll or cycle experience.

Pierre Zembri, a professor of city planning and transport on the College of Paris, stated Hidalgo shouldn’t, nonetheless, take all of the credit score for the dramatic decline of automobile use in Paris.

“She’s definitely been very proactive,” he stated. “However automobile possession has been falling of its personal accord in huge cities for a while. If there are acceptable options – bikes or public transport – city households are merely not changing previous vehicles. They don’t want one other one, and it’s costly.”

Solely about 30% of Parisians now personal vehicles, in opposition to virtually 90% of the broader French inhabitants. The issue, Zembri stated, is the danger that the mayor’s anti-car measures penalise supply drivers, tradespeople and others who must drive into the centre.

“Bike lanes are positive; the mayor’s voters love them,” he stated. “However they’re not as efficient a way of mass transit as buses, for instance, which have been severely uncared for in Paris. And any Parisian will inform you the metro is completely rammed.”

Zembri stated Paris’s downside going ahead was “probably not vehicles, however coordination. Ensuring the totally different transport modes coexist effectively, avoiding large bottlenecks simply outdoors the town. For me, some policymaking has been symbolic.”


When the newspaper El País timed the identical 8km journey throughout Barcelona by automobile, motorbike, bicycle and public transport, the motorcycle received, adopted 2.5 minutes later by public transport, with the bicycle third and the automobile final.

And but the affiliation of vehicles with private freedom is proving a tough one to interrupt, as Jaume Collboni found when he received the Barcelona mayoral race final Might – by unashamedly presenting himself because the “pro-car” candidate.

Ada Colau, the outgoing mayor, was acclaimed worldwide for her administration’s insurance policies on limiting automobile use and enhancing air high quality, together with her a lot admired “superblock” scheme, designed with residents’ enter.

The mission teams collectively 9 metropolis blocks and closes them to via site visitors with play areas and inexperienced areas. Automobiles are usually not banned, however the blocks are car-unfriendly.

A man rides a bicycle
A person rides a bicycle in a pedestrian portion of the street as a part of an enlargement of the ‘superilla’ (superblock) plan selling biking and car-free zones in Barcelona on 14 November 2020. {Photograph}: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Photographs

Earlier than she was defeated in Might, Colau accomplished an much more bold plan.

At a value of about €50m (£43m), 21 blocks of Consell de Cent, previously a four-lane cross-town avenue, have been pedestrianised, with 4 main connecting streets, in a “inexperienced axis” changing the world into an city park and one of many metropolis’s hottest places.

“Pedestrianising greater than 2km of an space with a number of the worst airborne air pollution in Barcelona was greater than essential, however isn’t sufficient,” stated architect Olga Subirós, including that the town wanted a greater mixture of makes use of to keep away from a excessive density of bars and eating places, in addition to hire controls and a London-style congestion cost.

Barcelona has the EU’s highest density of vehicles: 6,000 a sq km. Automobiles are reportedly the explanation it additionally has Europe’s worst noise air pollution, whereas air high quality persistently exceeds EU and WHO limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and PM10 particulates.

The town itself has a superb low cost public transport community, however the suburban trains connecting it to the 4 million folks in its hinterland are principally sluggish and unreliable, and 85% of automobile journeys are made by folks getting into or traversing the town.

And the superblocks could also be oases of quiet and clear air, however neither they, nor reducing practically 4,000 parking areas, nor a low-emission zone, nor growing the town’s cycle lane community from 120km (75 miles) to 275km, have decreased the quantity of site visitors within the metropolis.

Traffic passes the Caixabank SA headquarter buildings in Barcelona, Spain
Visitors passes the Caixabank SA headquarter buildings in Barcelona, Spain. {Photograph}: Bloomberg/Getty Photographs

In response to Barcelona’s personal statistics, the variety of journeys made by personal car rose between 2011 and 2021, whereas journeys made by public transport fell.

Whether or not progress will probably be made below Collboni stays to be seen. The brand new mayor has stated he’ll cut back site visitors within the metropolis, however his first act was to convey vehicles again to an space pedestrianised below Colau.


Long-exposure shot of traffic
A slow-shutter zoom impact picture of commuters backed up in site visitors through the morning rush hour earlier than an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels in December 2020. {Photograph}: Francisco Seco/AP

Brussels is Europe’s eighth most polluted metropolis by way of NO2 emissions, based on a survey of 858 EU cities. For these working or dwelling close to a number of the most congested streets – similar to these close to the EU establishments – the findings will come as no shock.

The town centre has lengthy had a repute for being gridlocked, regardless of the frequent bus, tram and metro providers. However it’s getting higher. In 2017, vehicles represented 64% of all journeys inside the metropolis; by 2021 the determine had fallen beneath 50%.

Journeys by bike now make up 10% of the whole, up from 3% in 2018, whereas public transport capability has elevated by 30%. Visitors crossing the Pentagon, the historic metropolis centre, been minimize dramatically because of bollards, one-way streets and one of many EU’s largest pedestrian zones.

“Brussels has one of many worst reputations for vehicles in Europe, however as a resident is it rather more nice than it was 5 years in the past. It’s altering, in small steps,” stated Leo Cendrowicz, editor of the Brussels Occasions journal.

One impediment is the sophisticated construction of native authorities, with 19 municipalities. The town’s huge Cambre Forest park turned a treasured car-free zone through the pandemic, however some roads have since been reopened to vehicles by totally different councils.

“The divide of competences between municipalities and the area doesn’t assist,” stated Pierre Dornier of Les Chercheurs d’Air analysis and marketing campaign group. “In contrast with cities like London, Paris and Amsterdam, generally we additionally lack political ambition.”

The massive variety of firm vehicles (22% of all personal automobiles) and persuading folks to vary behaviours stay issues, however Brussels’ 2020-30 Good Transfer plan accommodates particular anti-car measures, together with 50 low-traffic neighbourhoods.

The Ixelles city-centre municipality is visibly altering, with street closures, one-way streets and large planted areas making it unattractive for drivers, and new restaurant-lined plazas popping up instead of open-air automobile parks.

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