City centers benefit from car bans

Saturday, April 16, 2016

By Wayne Madsen

Tribune News Service

The record is clear. Cities that have eliminated automobiles from their central business districts have improved not only their air quality but also the overall livability of their crowded center areas.

And the corresponding increased use of public transportation has given subways, trams, monorails and buses running on clean-burning natural gas a new lease on life.

The banning of motor vehicles that belch carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide gasses has made working and living in city centers much more enjoyable for commuters, who no longer gag on diesel and other noxious fumes while rushing to and from work.

The lack of traffic-jammed streets means workers spend far less time sitting idly in their cars and more time boosting their productivity in the workplace.

Recent studies show that turning city centers into traffic-free zones also gives workers more time to patronize downtown businesses during their lunch hours and breaks.

And city-center residents find such environments, free of blaring car horns and other nuisances, much more enjoyable.

No longer do pedestrians fear being hit by cars, a change of special importance to families who opt to raise children in downtown areas.

Furthermore, workers and residents of central business districts who travel by bicycle experience a multitude of health benefits.

All in all, there is hardly any downside to imposing vehicle bans in what otherwise would be traffic-congested downtown areas.

But more support is in order. Mass transit desperately needs more financing.

Washington, D.C.’s Metro system is the nation’s most jarring example of that need. It has massive safety problems that cause daily delays and sometimes days of shutdowns for repairs. In addition, there are almost daily reports of its passengers being beaten and robbed by teenage gangs.

Tax dollars

Woefully under-financed, the system, like many others, needs a major injection of tax dollars. Adding a new transit tax of 5 percent on people in big city metro areas would go a long way toward curing this malaise.

With new revenue flowing in, following the examples of enlightened European cities would be possible.

Last year, Oslo, the bustling capital of Norway, began banning some of the estimated 350,000 cars that jammed its central business district each day.

And presto! There was a marked improvement in quality of life, worker productivity, and sales for downtown shops and restaurants.

As a result, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center by 2019. So far, the city’s ban has received widespread public and political support.

Although the car ban was the brainchild of the Norwegian Green Party, it quickly gained the support of the youth wing of the Conservative Party and is popular across the political spectrum.

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, was the first city to experiment with a car ban. From a partial ban in 1962, Copenhagen quickly became a shining model for other cities.

Its central thoroughfare, transformed from a traffic-clogged street to a pedestrian walkway with designated bike trails, is now one of the major tourist attractions in Europe.

Other cities, mostly in Europe, are gradually aiming at the pedestrianization of their downtown hubs. These include Milan, Dublin, Paris, Madrid and Brussels.

Even California, where a car was once considered an absolute necessity, has recognized the benefits of traffic-free downtown zones.

The momentum for change has obviously begun. Streetcars, which virtually disappeared in the late 1940s, are making a comeback in many cities.

Wayne Madsen is a progressive commentator whose articles have appeared in leading newspapers throughout the U.S. and Europe. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.