The UK is going about reclaiming city streets the wrong way

7th September, 2023

Freiburg, in south-west Germany, is about the same size as my home city of Oxford. It has a few beautiful old buildings — the Münster is breathtaking — but little to compare with Oxford’s dreaming spires, particularly after the centre of Freiburg was heavily bombed in 1944. So which is the more pleasant, walkable city? The English one filled with glorious architecture built centuries ago? Or the German one that was rebuilt as the motor car was rising to dominance?

The answer, surprisingly, is Freiburg, whose cobblestone streets are adorned with water features and bustle with pedestrians, cycles and trams.

Oxford, by contrast, has become a focal point for some unsettling protests against so-called “low-traffic neighbourhoods”, where campaigners with legitimate concerns about local retail or access for people with reduced mobility have been forced to rub shoulders with conspiracy theorists invoking the Holocaust. I was curious how Freiburg got to be Freiburg.

In Urban Transport Without The Hot Air, the academic and activist Steve Melia examines the city closely. Its transformation began in the early 1970s, the seeds sown by a seemingly unrelated argument: when the federal government proposed a nearby nuclear power station, an unlikely coalition of church leaders, students and conservative farmers decided that they were all environmentalists.

Freiburg’s historic city centre, the Altstadt, was pedestrianised in 1973, a radical idea at the time. Local businesses were initially against the idea, but were appeased by the construction of car parks just outside the Altstadt. (They needn’t have worried; shops and cafés are buzzing.) The city expanded the tram lines, introduced an affordable season ticket branded “the environmental card” and arranged buses to feed the tram network rather than compete with it. An extensive network of cycle lanes and bridges were constructed.

Freiburg’s traffic was also restrained: most streets have a speed limit of 30kph (18mph), and parking is controlled by residential permits and meters.

The result of all this has been a walkable city centre that fizzes with commerce, surrounded by residential areas where children safely play in the streets. Both cycling and public transport increased by about 50 per cent between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, yet driving is perfectly possible and remains a popular way to get around.

Could we do the same in the UK? And should we? Walkable urban spaces are a good thing, and a few cars in the wrong place are quite capable of ruining those spaces. But I worry that we’re going about things the wrong way in our attempts to reclaim city streets for cyclists and shoppers and children at play.

First, we’re impatient. These things take time. In the 1960s, Freiburg’s beautiful Münsterplatz was a car park. When I visited this summer, the square was lined with pavement cafés and hosting a well-attended open-air concert. But this transformation did not happen overnight. It required the sustained accumulation, over decades, of one cycle lane or tramway at a time.

Our response as citizens is also gradual. Two academics, Rachel Aldred and Anna Goodman, recently examined the consequences of outer London’s low-traffic-neighbourhood investments. They found that car ownership took several years to fall steadily by 20 per cent. It takes time to change our habits and time to see the benefits.

Second, we struggle to find the right language to describe new transport investments. As Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland point out in Transport for Humans, clever ideas from transport planners often work, but “they don’t make sense to most people”.

The common-sense objection to low-traffic neighbourhoods is that they reduce mobility without reducing traffic, merely pushing cars unfairly from some streets to others. Aldred, Goodman and Melia have all found evidence that in the long run, traffic is reduced rather than displaced. But politicians have never been very good at waiting for the long run.

Third, we lack empathy for people in different life stages. There is no reason that a pensioner with an arthritic hip or a plumber with a van full of tools should feel much joy at the prospect of hopping on a bike. Any change to the status quo creates winners and losers, and the losers should not be ignored.

As Dyson and Sutherland explain, people care a great deal about what is fair. For example, in London, men are more than twice as likely as women to commute by cycle. What might that suggest about who will gain from more cycle lanes? I’m not sure, but the question needs addressing.

Recent episodes of the podcast 99% Invisible have described the Dutch and the Japanese experiences with walkable, cyclable cities. The Dutch have the advantage of topography while the Japanese have historically dense cities where narrow streets automatically slow down cars. But both countries have also made deliberate choices in response to what they felt were unacceptable rates of death and injury to children.

In Japan, cars are typically banned near elementary schools when children are arriving. You can’t bring your child to school in a car because that would unfairly endanger the other children. And since the streets are safe, why would you want to?

The Netherlands, meanwhile, was not always a utopia for cyclists: 50 years ago, pro- and anti-car factions literally fought in the streets.

Changes to our city streets will never please everyone. But with patience, empathy and an eye on fairness, we can certainly try. A visit to Freiburg might persuade you of that.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 August 2023.

My first children’s book, The Truth Detective is now available (not US or Canada yet – sorry).

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom. Links to Bookshop and Amazon may generate referral fees.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This