« The most important challenge of our time is global warming », Hanna Marcussen hammers home. The vice mayor for urban development in Oslo dreams about cities where the air is pollution free, where the sound of car horns doesn’t make up part of city-dwellers’ everyday rhythm, and where the image of streets flooded by parked cars is but a memory. To offer Osloites a « better city » she has been trying for three years to put in place different measures that would reduce the amount of vehicles present in the Norwegian capital.

The revolution is in place

« We are in the middle of removing all street parkings in order to give more space for cycle paths, benches, trees, and playgrounds… » recounts Hanna Marcussen. The Oslo council is also working on a new urban zoning plan that aims to increase the number pedestrian zones as well as give more space for public transports. « I hope that we will incite other city centers to be car-free » tells the ex-spokesperson of the Norwegian Green Party. « I think that it will become an increasingly important challenge. »

Sociologist Anaïs Rocci, who also specialises in the analysis of changes in mobility behaviours, has shared Hanna Marcussen’s opinion since Paris: to give space back to pedestrians, « it is becoming the trend in most cities. » Coming from Chambery in Savoie, Anaïs Rocci became interested in mobility behaviours when she arrived in the French capital for her studies, where she was « confounded by the profusion of transport modes. »

It has indeed been more than 20 years that car alternatives are being developed in Paris.  During his mayorship of 1995-2001, Jean Tiberi launched the « bike » and « bus » plans, which showed foresight on the integration of bike and bus zones. The old deputy had also put in place « quiet districts » where the speed limit was 30 km/h and also began the setup of the Paris tramway.

When Bertrand Delanoë became mayor in 2001, he followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by finishing the tramway construction project, by creating more bus and cycle zones, and by launching the Velib’ in 2007, and the Autolib’ in 2011. Anne Hidalgo, who took over as mayor in 2014, also dedicated herself to reducing car spaces in Paris, notably with the very controversial closure of traffic access to roads by the Seine’s bank.

Sylvanie Godillon comments that « we are not necessarily moving towards a Paris without cars, but more towards a decrease in the space they take up. » The planning geographer, who specialises in mobility challenges and urban policies, worked in a design office whose interest lay in reducing car spaces in Paris, before she moved to Montreal. « We can think what we want of Jean Tiberi, Bertrand Delanoë, and Anne Hidalgo, but if we had had mayors with less ambition, the Paris public transport network would not be as developed as it is. In France, we have a tendency to think that Parisian policies are tough, when in fact, that is not true. »

For example, in Milan, an urban toll system was put in place in 2011: drivers have to spend 5 euros a day if they want to drive in the city center from Monday to Friday, between 7:30 and 19:30. Similarly in London, drivers must pay 11,5 pounds if they wish to drive in the city center between 7 and 18 o’clock from Monday to Friday. Last year, a new 10 pounds per driver per day was added as a tax for drivers who have a vehicle on the road since before 2006 or a vehicle that uses high-pollutant diesel.

« Paris may perhaps see measures that are as strict in the long term, Sylvanie Godillon comments, especially when we know how much cars pollute. » Indeed, a study published in August by the Transport & Environment NGO says that if living in Milan or London during a year equates to smoking 274 and 251 cigarettes respectively, living in Paris for a year equates to smoking 183 cigarettes. Apart from the second hand smoke, air pollution can also kill. According to results published in May by the World Health Organization (WHO), 7 millions people die from polluted air each year, and it is the cause for 29% of all lung cancer death.

Despite these concerning figures, the environmental argument would not be enough to convince drivers to stop using cars. « Even if climate change is starting to get a reaction, people are far from changing from their daily habits », Anaïs Rocci confirms. « The primary motivation for changing habits is economical, as it is increasingly linked to daily struggles. »

Re-thinking cities

Hanna Marcussen thinks that creating a green city is « a beautiful goal », not only because of climate stakes, but also because she wants to create a healthy, safe, and attractive environment. However, she is well aware of the difficulties involved in changing city-dwellers’ behaviours. « Cities have been built with cars in mind for decades, and that vehicle still holds a symbolic status » the counselor on municipal ecology confirms.

Anaïs Rocci agrees that « anti-car measures are always difficult to put in place. But if policies keep facilitating the easy path, residents will keep following it. » So how should we break away from decades of massive car use? Sylvanie Godillon remains positive: we have to play on the fact that cities were made for cars. « Meaning that there is a lot of space for mobility, which we can then use for other modes of transport », assures the planning geographer. A road with more than one lane can thus keep one for cars and dedicate the other to a bigger pedestrian path, a tramway line, or a cycle path for example.

For Hanna Marcussen, changing behaviours is a question of balance. « In Oslo, we are in the middle of making travel by public transport, walking and cycling more attractive all the while doing the opposite for car travel », she explains. Anaïs Rocci suggests that companies could also contribute to this movement « by reducing car spaces and offering credible alternatives to drivers. »

Roadworks, scrapping premiums, conversion premiums, two-sided toll booths, free transports… If it is indispensable that the State deploy the necessary conditions to reduce car use, that is not always enough. « Once these conditions are put in place, there is still a gap between what each person wants to do and what they really will do », Anaïs Rocci adds.

Change does not rely solely on the goodwill of residents. Some do not have any choice: those that live on the outskirts of a big city don’t have any other alternative than taking the car to go to work. Sylvanie Godillon observes that, « the issue is that urban development happens far from the reach of public transports. We are building new estates that are isolated and so it is not easy to change the mobility behaviours of their residents, who can’t afford to move closer to the city center, even though it takes them a long time to commute there. »

In fact, apart from environmental and public health stakes, Sylvanie Godillon has been able to observe that the issues of mobility also include social inequality. The planning geographer confides: « I like the variety involved in the questions I deal with, and being able to pick and choose. For me it is everything: mobility informs the way we build a city, and I have the impression that the “plasters” that come in the form of financial measures are not enough. »

So, we need to rethink how we offer public transports in rural and semi-urban zones in order to reduce territorial inequalities. But is it possible to reduce the car’s importance in our society? Anaïs Rocci assures us that « some cities are facing this issue head on and are observing a slowdown in the automotive sector. »

Moving towards autonomous cars

Sylviane Godillon shows equal confidence: we are leaning towards a decrease in car space. « But we cannot envisage the complete elimination of car use: it just needs to become a mode of transport like the others » Anaïs Rocci resumes. The idea would be to go for a multi-modal use, where all vehicles evolve thanks to renewable energies.

The key to see a decrease in car use would be their sharing. « We are leaning towards this option because services are increasingly shared », Anaïs Rocci adds. Renault’s Autolib’ failure in Paris could have signed the end of carpooling in the capital, but manufacturers still see fruitful alternatives in sharing cars. PSA is planning to make 500 electric vehicles available to Parisians by next November, and aims to setup 2000 co-sharing vehicles in Paris by 2019-2020. Daimler is expected to deploy 400 electric Smart cars at the start of 2019. This solutions would allow, in time, to reduce the amount of cars that residents own.

Even if drivers are not ready to lend their car keys, one in two French person say that they are ready to reduce car use and even rent or share cars. This is according to the first results of the 3rd edition of the Mobility Observatory, conducted by the consumption, society, and Chronos Observatory. Habit changes are also synonymous with the return of the chauffeur, with the increase in popularity of Uber, taxis, and private chauffeurs. Sylviane Godillon questions that « perhaps we are heading towards a society where the only cars we see are cars in which people drive us to our destination? »

Autonomous vehicle test in San Francisco

Due to how hard it is to park there, the use of the car in city centers should be decreasing. And cities will also see the appearance of new vehicle types. « We will witness the change of cars as we know them » confirms Sylviane Godillon, who sees new cars as smaller and more connected.

A transformation is already happening with the development of autonomous vehicles. Following the objectives presented in May by the French Government, the first autonomous vehicles could be seen in France as early as 2020. « I think that autonomous cars are set to develop very quickly, given the speed of technological development as well as the excitement surrounding autonomous cars. In my opinion, we will change over to this new vehicle » says Anaïs Rocci.

The sociological challenge that hides behind this conversion, carries a question: will users accept to get into a car that cannot be driven? « The ideal would be not to let the autonomous car become a rich mode of transport. Rather, it would be a collective mode of transport that would benefit certain connections, notably in suburban areas », explains Anaïs Rocci. « The autonomous car could become a real future solution. » Sylviane Godillon sees in it a car that would be suitable to carpooling, especially given that « it is a luxury item, that residents in high density cities would not need to own. »

Despite the proposed alternatives, questioning cars’ places in cities will take time and money. In Oslo for example, local authorities had to review their plan to ban all car traffic in the city center for 2019. Hanna Marcussen recognises that « pushing city center development forward will take longer than we thought it would. » But we have to start somewhere. « When I see that we have already managed to ban cars from certain places in the city center to the benefit of terraces and cycle lanes, I tell myself that we are doing something well. »

Author — Floriane Valdayron

Photography — Mister B.