The Car-Free City

Oslo officials pledge to ban cars from the city's downtown area by 2019.

A woman walks past bicycles for rent in Oslo. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

Humans are really just small walking animals. That’s how the architect Jan Gehl describes the way city planners ought to think about public spaces.

“Knowing about Homo sapiens—and the kind of creature he is—has been a very important key to understanding why some places work and some places don’t,” Gehl said in the 2011 documentary, Urbanized. “We are really talking about the urban habitat of Homo sapiens. It’s the same Homo sapiens all over the world. Cultural circumstances differ, economic circumstances differ, climactic circumstances differ, but basically, we are the same little walking animal.”

In Oslo, where the walking animal is also a driving animal, a bicycling animal, and a bus-taking animal, officials are pushing to ban cars from the main downtown area altogether. The idea is to add nearly 40 miles of bike lanes and make the city center car-free, which would in turn make Oslo the first major European city to place a “comprehensive and permanent ban” on cars, Reuters reported.

The idea is bold, but its effects on daily life may not be as dramatic as they sound. About 1,000 people live in the area the ban will encompass, with tens of thousands more traveling in and out of the region daily, according to several news outlets.

About a quarter of Norway’s overall population commute either on foot or by bicycle each day, according to a countrywide transportation survey last year. And in Oslo, some 83 percent of residents already have “very good” access to public transportation. Oslo is also home to the largest percentages of the population who report walking and taking public transportation.

Officials in Oslo have also promised to invest in public transportation and incentivize the purchase of electric bicycles as the city phases out cars. The proposed ban is part of a larger pledge to cut greenhouse gases by 50 percent compared with 1990 levels in the next five years.

Other cities have tried similar initiatives with varied success. In Paris, a proposal to ban cars manufactured before 1997 was met with scorn: Many of France's most recognizable vehicles—classic Peugeots, Citroëns, and Renaults—would have been disallowed. In New York City, where few residents own cars, just getting a partial car ban in Central Park was a years-long battle.

Elsewhere, cities have emphasized making space for pedestrians and cyclists as a way to bridge socioeconomic divides. In Bogotá, Colombia, for example, main thoroughfares are closed for several hours on Sundays to accommodate runners, walkers, and cyclists. Permanent bikeways also span much of the city, a design principle that Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor, described as “democracy at work.” Dedicated lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, he said in Urbanization, show “respect for human dignity, for everybody, not just for those who have cars who normally think they are the important ones.”