The quality of city mobility, the intensity of traffic on the roads, the level of public transport service and urban design contribute to a large extent to defining the relationship that each citizen can have with the public space of a neighbourhood or a metropolis. The expansion of the automotive industry has driven the global economy for decades and brought about widespread prosperity in many cities, but it has also disrupted everyone's relationship with shared spaces, all of this in just a few generations. There are almost 250 million private cars in Europe, Italy in particular has an average of 663 cars per thousand inhabitants, the second highest in Europe after Luxembourg (source: Eurostat).
The experience of freedom of travel that the private car offers is incomparable to any other means of transport in terms of distances, schedules and personal comfort. But all this unfortunately comes at a price on several fronts, not least in terms of occupation of public space. Our cities are, in fact, designed in a car-centred manner: roads and car parks occupy almost a quarter of the city space. In addition to being cumbersome, they are not even used to their full potential: it is estimated that a car spends 95% of its life at a standstill.
The last few years have seen a growing public awareness of the environmental emergency and in parallel, alternative transport services, such as bike and moped sharing, have been expanded. So several municipalities have started to rethink their road system by limiting the space reserved for cars.
One of the most cutting-edge realities has been Copenhagen, initially only in the hippie district of Christiania where cars have been banned since the 1970s, later extending to other parts of the city. It is estimated that since 2016, there have been more bicycles than cars in the Danish capital. Another city that was ahead of its time was Barcelona with the system of Superblocks, divisions of the city within which cars cannot pass or can only do so in a limited manner. In Italy, some historic cities are in the vanguard more out of necessity and a natural combination with the environment, such as Venice with its canals, calli and campi, the centre of Matera with its Sassi, or various municipalities and mountain hamlets that can only be reached on foot.
In the rest of the world, innovative projects for modern cities to be designed in this direction are increasing all the time. It seems curious that one of these is happening in the United States, where popular culture is very much associated with the automobile and the experience of travelling long distances between places. In Tempe, Arizona, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, a new model of urbanism is being developed, the Walkable Archipelago, complexes of 1,000 residences, all without parking spaces. Between one building and the next, wide, walkable streets stretch out. For longer journeys, alternative means such as bicycles and electric scooters are available. The money saved by avoiding the construction of car parks keeps the price of housing lower or is invested in something else.
Another interesting project is underway in Berlin. The German capital has a very efficient public transport system and wide streets that can be easily used by bicycles, so that the rate of private car ownership is lower than elsewhere. An experiment is taking place in the Graefekiez district: a 400-space car park is being converted into a meeting place. Several green areas will be created here and shopkeepers will have more space for their business. The citizens themselves are called upon to make proposals for the use of this space.
Still in Germany, an even more radical project is taking place. In fact, the city of Hamburg intends to make 40% of the city car-free in the next two decades. This objective is linked to the long-standing project ’The Green Network’, which began as far back as 1913, to connect all the green areas of the city. In addition to providing a climatic advantage, the green areas will serve to absorb the heavy rainfall in the city, which has reduced the waterfront by almost twenty centimetres in recent years.
The fact is that the reduction of cars in the city tends to be associated with an increase in quality of life. What’s the reason for that? In addition to the recovered space becoming available to people again, there are several advantages. Cities would be more liveable due to better air quality and reduced noise pollution. The roads would also be safer, due to the reduction in accidents, and lastly, the quality of life would benefit from the reduction in traffic, a source of stress. For example, according to the TomTom Traffic Index, a London commuter on an average journey of 10 km spends more than 13.5 days a year in a car (325 hours, of which 139 hours due to traffic), the same amount of time it takes to read about 65 books; emits 1.1 tonne of CO₂ (of which 282 kg stopped in traffic), requires 113 mature trees for absorption and spends £ 805 on fuel (of which £ 200 just to be stuck in traffic).
The initial cost of changing one's lifestyle would be repaid not only in terms of well-being, but also economically: there would be great savings in healthcare expenditure and the recovered space could be made profitable or used for social activities.