Cities designed for living, not driving: are we ready for traffic-free city centres? 

As we gear up to celebrate World Car Free Day on 22 September, we imagine how cities across Europe could look without gridlocked  traffic choking their centres - a guest post from Fredrik Hjelm, Co-Founder & CEO, Voi Technologies

Across Europe, a silent killer lurks. Responsible for the deaths of more than 790,000 people a year – and a staggering 8.8 million worldwide – breathing in filthy exhaust and particulate pollution can knock up to three years off the lifespan of the average European. 

Unsurprisingly, urban dwellers are most at risk from vehicular air pollution. Cities occupy 3% of the global land mass but account for a staggering 75% of carbon emissions, much of this from the transport sector. In London alone, two million people – including more than 400,000 children – are living in areas that exceed legal limits for air pollution. In fact, air pollution in the UK capital accounts for an average reduction in life expectancy of 1.5 years. 

The average reduction in life expectancy attributed to deadly urban pollution rises to an average of 1.6 years in France and 1.9 years in Italy. In Germany, pollution knocks a shocking 2.4 years off the average resident’s life. One way local authorities are attempting to curb these troubling death rates is to encourage people to leave their cars at home, removing the source of pollution.

But is it that simple? Are car-free city centres the solution? 

Evidence indicates that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. When Paris banned half of its diesel cars from entering the city centre in response to dangerously high levels of smog in 2014, pollution fell by 30%. City-wide air pollution returned to lower levels in 24 hours and traffic jams were cut almost in half. A year later, Paris launched a regular car-free day and emissions were reduced even further. Last year in London, traffic removal along the marathon route led local air pollution levels to fall as much as 89%. Voi data shows that on average, e-scooters emit 85 times less Co2 emissions than small cars.  

Unfortunately, getting habituated drivers and businesses on board for the pedestrianisation of high streets and city centres can be a much harder sell. Oslo tried it. In 2015, it pledged to remove all cars from the city centre in as few as four years, beginning with Ring 1 – the city’s innermost ring road of Oslo’s three motorways. In a familiar pattern motorists channelled their anger and fear of change and fought back bitterly against the proposal. Accusing the government of bullying tactics, drivers campaigned alongside local trade associations, claiming the ban would turn the centre into a dead zone and officials relented. 

Converting roads into world-class public realm 

Rather than banning cars completely, the city now operates an “as few cars as possible” policy and has instead removed parking. More than 650 parking spaces have been converted to cycle lanes, bike racks, parks, benches and art installations, showcasing Scandinavian design excellence. 

Boosting local business with traffic-free city centres in Oslo & beyond

Reflecting on the changes, Oslo’s vice mayor of urban development, Hanne Marcussen, said in January: ”It’s important that we all think about what kind of cities we want to live in. I am certain that when people imagine their ideal city, it would not be a dream of polluted air, cars jammed in endless traffic, or streets filled with parked cars.” Plus, since the removal of parking spaces from central Oslo, the number of pedestrians, or potential customers for local businesses, has risen by 10%. 

Oslo’s world-leading transition of redundant road and parking space was the inspiration for a set of posters designed to show how Europe’s major cities could look without cars, traffic jams and fumes, created to mark World Car Free Day on 22 September 2019. In Paris, the congested roads around the Champs-Elysees have been replaced with green open spaces and parks for children to play. London’s Oxford Street is a tree-lined haven where shoppers can easily stroll between shops and restaurants. The posters depict a near future where going traffic-free turns Europe’s greatest high streets into healthier, happier and more prosperous places. 

The future of urban movement is already here 

Of course, if you remove one mode of transport, you can’t just expect everyone to walk, or to be able to walk. Oslo’s groundbreaking traffic removal initiative shows what happens when cities embrace the future of land use and mobility. The sharp rise in Voi users seen in a short space of time in Oslo indicates a keen interest in alternative ways to travel around cities. When space currently given to cars is replaced by shared mobility schemes, cities have new opportunities to grow and citizens have move more freely and safely through the city.

 The land conversion opportunity

 London’s approximate 6.8 million parking spaces, for instance, cover 16% of the city, or an estimated 8,000 hectares, despite the fact the majority of Londoners don’t own cars. For those who do own a car, around 30% of households, these cars are only in use 4% of the time, spending the rest of the time sitting empty in driveways or parking bays. When these cars are in use, a third of all journeys are less than 2km. These shorter journeys could easily be made on foot or scooter. A shift away from private car use would also free up new space  for housing, public parks and the installation of infrastructure needed for shared mobility. 

 In other world cities – New York, Paris, Vienna, Boston and Hong Kong – parking spaces take up anywhere between 15% and 30% of urban areas. The ratio of urban land consumed by parking and roads rises to 50% in sprawling cities like Los Angeles. By comparison, Voi e-scooters take up 28 times less space than an average-sized car to move one person. The space savings of introducing Voi as a shared mobility platform are exponential based on our sharing model, enabling up to 10 people to use the same scooter every day. Systematic deployment of scooter sharing in the world’s densest cities could solve the issue of people needing to get to work while reducing harmful emissions and improving the quality of life for all residents.

Cities taking action on the lessons from Oslo

Encouraged  by Oslo’s successful experience with traffic removal, other European cities are taking action. Helsinki recently announced plans to make “mobility on demand” so good that its residents will ditch their cars completely by as early as 2025. Copenhagen now has more bikes than cars on its streets.  

In 2015, Madrid put a cap on the number of non-private vehicles entering parts of the city centre while simultaneously expanding its bus network and launching electric e-bike and e-scooter schemes. Milan gives residents free public transport tokens for every day that they leave their cars at home, and there is an EU-wide ban on vehicles that produce the highest levels of emissions. In London, Transport for London has invested £2.3bn in “creating healthier streets where walking, cycling and public transport are the natural choice for all journeys” and is pushing for 80% of all journeys to be made via such modes by 2041.

A think tank recently suggested that by creating more joined-up walking routes, offering free access to public transport and by giving Londoners access to e-bikes, e-scooters and e-rickshaws, all via a TfL app, the city centre could go completely car free 11 years sooner, in 2030. 

A motivation to accelerate these positive societal and environmental changes was the driving force behind the launch of VOI. A combination of new technology and environmental awareness means that we have a unique opportunity to transform how people move in cities by providing alternatives to the private car. Lightweight electric vehicles - cars, bikes or scooters - designed for sharing, could solve many of the most pressing issues cities face and create new opportunities to convert land away from roads and parking. E-vehicles can contribute to making cities people-centered again, while reducing dependency on cars and strengthening existing public transport networks. World Car Free Day may be celebrated on one day of the year, but the event is a catalyst for accelerating a longer term shift towards healthier, happier traffic-free cities around the world. 


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News - updates on Car Free Day news from London & around the world

City of London ready to celebrate World Car Free Day with TfL and the Mayor on 22 September

In June, Sadiq Khan announced plans to open up 20km of roads in the centre of the capital in September for residents and visitors to the city to enjoy. London’s biggest ever Car Free Day. The celebration will include 20 kilometres of roads opened for walking and cycling around Tower Bridge, London Bridge and the City of London. See the Mayor’s press release here.

Keep up to date on latest news and see our events happening across London heading into Car Free Day here:


Get moving in time for Car Free Day with Brompton Cycles.

We are thrilled to be collaborating with Brompton on a global campaign for healthier, happier cities heading into World Car Free Day.

As part of its commitment to making London a healthier, happier, and more active city, Brompton is running a competition for London MPs to win a Brompton Bike Hire dock, with Brompton bicycles, installed and maintained in their constituency. The deadline for submitting a bid document of max. 1,500 words with your local MP is Friday 6 September 2019. The bid for a Brompton Bike Hire dock should consider provision of space, promotion of the service and provision of membership for hard to reach or marginalised groups, where accessibility to active travel could have a significant impact on their lives. Please submit your bid to:


Cross River Partnership wins Mayor’s Air Quality Fund financing for Healthy Streets Everyday project & World Car Free Day open streets activations

Cross River Partnership are extremely pleased to announce that our 16-borough Healthy Streets Everyday project will be funded by the Mayor’s Air Quality Fund Round 3 with the London Borough of Islington being the lead partner. CRP and participating boroughs will receive £875,000 in MAQF over three years to jointly deliver streetscape improvements, traffic regulations, car free events, standardised guidance & communications and comprehensive evaluation & monitoring. These measures will support the wider Mayoral and borough objectives of increasing the number of walking and cycling trips in London.

As part of the project, we will be encouraging partners to get involved with World Car Free Day on 22nd September. For more information on Healthy Streets Everyday please contact Susannah Wilks at"

Get ready for World Car Free Day with Meristem Design

Would you like to trial a pedestrianised high street or new Healthy School Street ahead of World Car Free Day? Get in touch with our partners at Meristem Design. This summer, Meristem are offering a free street greening audit of your school or BID area to see how a street could be transformed into healthy, traffic-free public realm, get in touch with Meristem - tell them about your plans for celebrating World Car Free Day with healthy, traffic-free streets: