Car free cities, a dream that cannot come true? The example of France

By Clementine Contat

Cars are certainly a very convenient way to commute, but they offer multiple inconvenient, especially in an urban context. First, they’re a major source of urban pollution and according to the French ministry of environment, air pollution would diminish life expectancy by 9 months in France and exposure to fine particles would cause 40,00 deaths each year.[i] Still in the heath side, cars contribute to the lack of physical activity observed in the modern population and are detrimental to health. They also generate traffic and accidents and are majors source of noise and visual pollution, which create unnecessary stress. And last but not least, cars are also harming the city budget. A study from the European Commission carried in 1991 showed that “car free” town would be 2 to 5 times less expensive than cities with cars.[ii]

This study advocated “car free” cities and planned the creation of a “car free” cities club in 1994. However, the club disappeared and the only legacy of the study was the “car free” day launched in 1996 and abandoned in 2007 in Europe.

Other initiatives blossomed in the 90s with the project of a “car free” city in Grenoble in 1991. The mayor at that time, Alain Carignon, was advocating strongly a car free city center and promoting infrastructures that would allow for such a dream to become reality. The city invested in a brand new tram and was planning to build massive parking lots outside the city center so that citizens can park there and use public transportation only in the city center. However, if the tram happened and is a great success in Grenoble, the parking lots and the “car free” city center never happened.

So how come that despite strong financial and health related evidences that “car free” cities were a great concepts and promising initiatives, none of them came through? First, the concept of “car free” cities requires a well integrated and performing public transportation system, which represents a large upfront investment for most cities. Not only, must the city center be served extensively, but the suburbs and the connections between the suburbs and the city center must also be taken into account. Then, the convenience factor is also significant. It is a lot more comfortable and quick to go from point A to point B with a single transportation mode and a personal flexible schedule than going through a sometimes complex and unreliable grid of interconnected transportation systems. However, the main reason why this “car free” city concept wasn’t pushed further is probably the automotive industry, which would have a lot to lose from a sharp decrease in car ownership or use if new car free policies were implemented widely.

Today, the concept of “car free” city policy seems a bit buried even though it still has a lot of support and is promoted through websites such as carfree.com. Instead, cities are promoting the use of environmental friendly cars. In 2012, the French government had thus decided to test a new law forbidding the use of some diesel cars in defined priority zones in 6 cities in France. This concept, already implemented in Germany could reduce the pollution where the problem is most significant and has the strong advantage for the automotive industry to push people to replace their cars. However, the pollution and congestion of city center, as well as the cost incurred will remain a pressing issue.

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