How could a car-free future shape the way we live?

In a growing number of Europe’s cities, cars are out and walking and cycling are in.

October 16, 2018

Many of Europe’s cities are looking to a car-free future. As vehicles move out and people move back in, urban areas are changing to better accommodate their modern pedestrianized lifestyle.

In Spain, Pontevedra has banned all cars from the inner city, a move which has reinvigorated its historical centerwith more residents and businesses. Over in Norway, Oslo plans to bar all cars from its city center by 2019 and, over time, replace 35 miles of roads with bike lanes.

Other cities, meanwhile, are trying to make it easier for residents to walk or cycle in order to reduce their reliance on cars. Hamburg, for example, is introducing a network of connected green spaces that will cover 40 percent of the city by 2035.

“There is a huge push by some of the major cities across Europe to create cleaner places for people to live and work in,” says Nick Whitten, Director – Research at JLL. “A lot of cities are highly polluted and much of that is caused by vehicles.”

Although many people are still wedded to the idea of owning a car, attitudes are changing among millennials and city dwellers. In the UK in the 1990s, 80 percent of people were driving by the age of 30, whereas now this figure isn’t reached until age 45.

Instead, concepts like car sharing are becoming a lot more popular, particularly in Germany where the number of users is expected to reach 3.1 million by 2020, up from just 0.26 million in 2012, according to Deloitte. Others are turning to ride-hail apps like Uber, which is used by 3.6 million regular passengers in London alone.

Whitten suggests these trends could result in car-free residential developments coming to the fore.

“There will be people who’ve grown up with cars, enjoy them and want to cling on to them, but for the rising numbers of people who’ve never learned to drive they don’t need access to parking,” he says. “What’s more, having land that is only used for storing a car isn’t the most efficient use of space.”

Land which could have been used for car parking can instead be landscaped into parks or playgrounds, adding value to developments while improving the quality of life for local residents.

Car-free ambitions

There have already been moves to introduce car-free homes in some cities. Camden, in London, has been securing car-free housing since 1997 in areas with good access to public transport in a bid to make the borough less car dependent and reduce pollution.

Last year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan outlined measures in his draft London Plan to make new housing and office developments car-free if they are near public transport links. Khan’s ambition is to increase the proportion of travel made by foot, cycle or public transport in the UK capital from 41 percent to 80 percent by 2041.

But Whitten says London has a long way to go if it is to catch up with its European peers.

“In London 58 percent of households own a car whereas in Copenhagen only 29 percent do. London built the Cycle Superhighways to try to drive down car usage, but it still isn’t seen as a safe city for cyclists,” he says. “This is likely to change over time, and as the number of cars reduces it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, making car-free developments a factor of modern living in the not-so-distant future.”

Creating local communities

The move away from cars has big implications for how urban residential developments are planned and built in the future, with an emphasis on everyday amenities that residents can easily access.

For housing developments that aren’t located on bustling high streets, getting rid of ground level or underground car parking facilities could free up space for gyms, restaurants, supermarkets or coffee shops.

Recent moves by major UK supermarket chains to build mixed-use developments in an attempt to secure planning permission for stores are also playing into modern urban lifestyles where popping out to pick up last minute ingredients for dinner doesn’t involve jumping in a car.

Lidl, for example, aims to build 3,000 homes in and around London as it expands its supermarket operations. Tesco has built hundreds of homes above its stores in Woolwich and Streatham in south-west London, while Sainsbury’s was part of a joint scheme with Barratt Homes to develop 700 homes in near Vauxhall. Yet schemes don’t have to be large-scale; many supermarkets have been involved in much smaller projects such as transforming disused commercial buildings into convenience stores with a handful of apartments on the floors above.

“If car-free developments become more commonplace it makes sense for retailers to have residential housing alongside their stores,” says Whitten. “It not only helps them to gain planning permission, but they also create their own customer base on their doorstep. And for residents, it means they can move into a ready-built community.”

If car ownership continues on its downward trend, redundant car parks could even help to alleviate the housing crisis in countries such as the UK. A report by JLL estimates there are just under 10,500 car parks in the UK’s towns and cities which could comfortably accommodate up to 400,000 homes – enough to house around one million people.

“With the OECD estimating that the number of privately-owned cars will reduce by 80 to 90 percent over the coming decades, it seems logical that car-free residential developments, and indeed whole cities, will start to increase over time,” Whitten concludes. It could have a profound impact on the way we live, work and play in the future.”