Copenhagen is a great example of the positive impacts of pedestrianization: it provides €400,000 in profit for every kilometer of bike lane, and helps to decrease the deadly effects of air pollution.
MADRID — Pedestrianization is the end of retail, an attack on individual freedoms, an obstacle to accessibility, a gateway to public insecurity, a design that destroys the essence of cities, a new socioeconomic neighborhood structure that drives out the long-time residents.’ The arguments against pedestrianization and reducing road traffic in cities are many (and not all equally solid).
But the data in favor of pedestrianization are increasingly conclusive and transparent.
Two recent articles support this. Research carried out in 14 Spanish cities concluded that pedestrianization increased the income of businesses and that, once changes were implemented, most residents preferred a friendly, walkable environment to a car-oriented one.
A study in Copenhagen also found that for every kilometer of bike lane built in the Danish capital, €400,000 in benefits were generated per year through a reduction in transport, healthcare and accident costs.
Dedicated to the combustion engine
Brescia, Madrid, Bergamo, Antwerp, Karvinà, Turin, Vicenza, Paris: according to the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (IS Global), these are the eight cities in the European Union with the highest mortality rates associated with poor air quality. Their data shows that 99.8% of the population of European cities is exposed to levels of microparticulate pollution (called PM2.5) that exceed the limits recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Poor air quality directly affects health and can cause cardiovascular and respiratory problems, as well as mental and reproductive disorders.
Air pollution has many contributors, but one culprit stands out above the rest: exhaust pipes. Over the last century, we have redesigned our cities so that vehicles take center stage, which has had a direct impact, beyond just the air we breathe.
According to IS Global, cars are also the main cause of noise pollution, and its associated health consequences, while also indirectly affecting the urban population's reduced physical activity and poor access to green spaces.
With these facts in mind, some cities have decided to change their approach and reduce the presence of cars on their streets, either through pedestrianization, traffic restrictions, promoting alternative modes of transport such as bicycles, or a mixture thereof. These measures are often greeted with suspicion by parts of the public, and some economic sectors (such as business) tend to oppose them. But car-free cities make us richer.
More pedestrians = more business
Barcelona city workers block off the street for European Mobility Week.
A study carried out by researchers from the University of Tokyo and MIT, among others, called 'Street pedestrianization in urban districts: Economic impacts in Spanish cities,' found that, in Spain, the higher the volume of pedestrians, the higher the volume of sales, regardless of the geographical location of the businesses. In general, urban populations preferred to buy everyday items in their immediate environment and not to travel long distances.
Pedestrianization also helps reduce negative environmental effects.
"(Pedestrianizing) streets can increase the sales volume of small stores significantly," explains Yuji Yoshimura, an urban planning expert at the University of Tokyo and lead author of the study. The researcher points out that in general, for local shopping activities, people seem to prefer a pedestrianized environment to a car-oriented one. In addition, the reduction in traffic especially favors hospitality establishments, such as cafes and restaurants.
"Our results are useful in enabling policy makers to explain the effects of these changes to retailers located on the streets to be pedestrianized," the study concludes. "In addition, pedestrianization actions have broad positive impacts beyond retailer revenues. For example, improval of people's mood and mental health have been described; and pedestrianization also helps reduce negative environmental effects, such as air pollution or noise."
Reaction to change
People cycle on Car Free Sunday in Brussels.
Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Malmo are cities where car centricity is a thing of the past. But in the mid-20th century, motor vehicles choked the streets and exhaust fumes filled the air. When municipal authorities decided to experiment with traffic reducing schemes, they too were met with opposition from the public. One of the most notorious cases is Denmark’s capital, which experienced mass demonstrations against the pedestrianization of its main shopping street in 1962.
It is the least congested European capital.
There are still cars in Copenhagen today, but it is the least congested European capital. According to the INRIX index, its drivers "only" spend 32 hours a year in traffic jams, compared to 102 hours in Stockholm and 156 hours in London. However, the Danish city is not noted for its abundance of pedestrianized streets. Instead, the reduction in road traffic has been achieved differently: by encouraging public transport and, in particular, bicycles.
Thanks, among other things, to its nearly 400 kilometers of separated bike lanes, the city has made cycling a popular choice for those who travel through it.
"Roads with a lot of car traffic are bad for cyclists and they tend to avoid them. This can be compensated for with bicycle infrastructure of its own. Also, the type of bike lane matters: protected lanes can make any road bike-friendly, are more direct and have fewer intersections," explains Mogens Fosgerau, an economist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen and author of the study outlining the value generated by the Danish capital's bike lanes.
Their research results show that the addition of bicycle infrastructure can stimulate increased bicycle use. In addition, for every kilometer of bike lane built in Copenhagen, €400,000 in benefits is generated annually. "These are direct benefits for cyclists, in terms of time and convenience, for public health, through reduced costs from a healthier population, and for safety, through reduced accident costs. The net benefit is large and positive."