The think tank Common Wealth has called for a ban on privately owned cars in Greater London by 2030.
Utopia or nightmare? The idea of London without private cars will prompt different reactions from different people. The radical proposal is a direct response to the ongoing climate emergency. Putting aside the political and logistical challenges, would Londoners be prepared for such a disruptive change to the city's infrastructure? We take a look at Common Wealth's report and ask: can it be done?
Why the urgency in banning cars?
Pollution levels in London are above safe thresholds in 40% of monitored locations, and cars are one of the main culprits. The smog has well-documented adverse health effects on Londoners. This ongoing situation should be incentive enough to rethink our use of petrol-fuelled cars, but there is also a bigger picture.
The scientific consensus is clear: If we are to constrain global warming to tolerable levels, global carbon dioxide emissions need to be about halved by 2030. This is not an opinion up for debate, it is a hard scientific fact. To achieve this goal, governments and the public need to pull up their sleeves and get the necessary measures underway before the end of 2020.
Sadly, we are not just talking plastic straws and bags here. We face a huge challenge that will stretch the imagination of what's possible. With its vision of a car-free Greater London by 2030, stretching the imagination is certainly what Common Wealth, an Ed Miliband-backed think tank promoting democratic ownership, is doing.
What could a car-free London in 2030 look like?
In his piece "Away With all Cars", Common Wealth author Leo Murray conjures up 2030's London without any privately owned cars. In this vision, private cars have been swapped into e-bikes and e-scooters. With the roads all clear, an expanded fleet of buses, taxis, on-demand minibuses, shared cars and auto-rickshaws transport Londoners from A to B at much shorter journey times. A renaissance of trams all over London complements the tube.
It gets better. Buses are free, and the "tube and tram both cost a little but it's worth it for the speed". Car parks would be transformed into real parks, and a "strategic walking network" would span "the whole of the city, connecting up London’s town centres via its green spaces, with wide pavements lined with trees and benches and water fountains".
The unification of all public transport services under the publicly owned Transport for London is central to the author's thought experiment. This puts the burden on TfL to create "a single, incredibly powerful app, dramatically streamlining all journey planning".
Utopia or a Roadmap to Change?
The piece is best considered an aspirational essay rather than a fully fledged plan or political manifesto. Except for some hints on how the transport revolution began — "Rapid build out of the walking and cycling networks and free, ubiquitous bus transport were the early measures that unlocked the city’s successful transition away from car domination" — practical solutions on how exactly we get to this future are lacking.
That is not to say that the vision has no roots in reality. In fact, one could argue that London is actually on a long-term trajectory towards this vision. The phased implementation of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in Central London is a step towards reducing traffic that has already resulted in a 20% decrease in emissions according to City Hall. London buses and taxis are gradually being replaced by electric models.
Londoners can't get enough of Uber, and car ownership is no longer considered a compulsory rite of passage. Once Crossrail is finished, it will significantly increase capacity on the network, at least in the short term. London has just become the world's first National Park City and as part of that is working to expand walking and cycling routes. And plenty of powerful apps exist to make it easy for Londoners to plan their journeys across different services.
All of these developments share the spirit of Common Wealth's manifesto. So why is it that their vision of a car-free London might strike us as unrealistic?
Leaving aside the politically explosive idea of public ownership, it can be boiled down to one word: timing. 2030 is already looming. Eleven years: that's about as long as Crossrail has been under construction, and we are yet to experience the fruits of that labour. With this in mind, the idea of a city-wide tram system replacing private cars by 2030 is in for a harsh collision with reality, even from a simple logistical point of view.
Banning private cars from Greater London seems the hardest nut to crack within a decade. While up to 80% of households in central London do not own a car, this figure quickly drops to 20% or less as we move to the outer boroughs. Many people rely on their cars to get to (or undertake) work, take kids to school or do their weekly shopping. What of the tens of thousands with mobility issues, whose vehicles are a lifeline? There may be public transport solutions to every single 'what about?', but could all of them be solved within a decade?
Previous attempts to change the arithmetic have not exactly met with enthusiasm, to put it mildly. Comparatively tiny measures like the phased introduction of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone have caused a storm of outrage in tabloids as workers who depend on their cars are hit hard by the introduced charge. Imagine the carnage if a total ban were introduced within 10 years.
Common Wealth's call to make London car-free by 2030 is laudable. It's a roadmap to tackling climate change in a London-sized nutshell. But with eleven years lead time, we need more than just a bold vision, we need concrete plans. And the rules of realpolitik make it appear highly unlikely that we could achieve anything like it in just a decade.
Making London car-free is not simply an infrastructure project — it would disrupt and transform our society, and we would all have to make sacrifices for the greater good of a healthier environment and the survival of our species.
But the honest question we all have to ask ourselves is: Are we ready to put our money and hearts where our mouth is and tackle the climate crisis?