In 2018, Madrid banned most cars from its city center. In 2019, Oslo finished its own redesign to get rid of most cars. In 2020, Barcelona is planning its next “superblocks,” or car-free neighborhoods. Now a smaller city will be among the next to limit urban traffic: York, a U.K. city with a population of around 150,000, plans to ban most cars from its medieval city center by 2023.
The city, like hundreds of others around the world, declared a climate emergency in 2019. It also committed to becoming carbon neutral by the end of this decade, and recognizes that changing transportation is one part of that goal, and in late December, voted for a motion committing the city to the traffic ban.
“Like many cities, we have had youth-led climate strikes throughout the year, and despite being talked about for a long time, I think 2019 will be seen as the year in which the climate crisis truly tipped over into the mainstream,” says Jonny Crawshaw, the city counselor who put the motion forward. “Beyond that, though, we are living through politically divisive, polarized, and uncertain times, and people need to feel a sense of hope. I think there is a real appetite to find different ways of doing things and the combination of these factors—and the dawning of the new decade—has created the space and political will to start the conversation about the ways in which we can make our city a more people-friendly place.”
As with other cities designed before the existence of cars—York was first settled by the Romans in 71 AD—it’s better suited for walking than driving. “The central historic core has broadly the same street plan as it did when the Vikings were here and the area is contained by a medieval city wall,” Crawshaw says. “This city is not designed to take the volume of cars we now see, and as a result congestion can be a real problem during peak times.”
Some parts of the city center are already car-free, so York doesn’t have to change as much as other cities would have to. In the late 1980s, some streets in the central core started restricting traffic during the day. One street lined with timber-framed buildings, a tourist destination once used as inspiration for a Harry Potter movie, is always car-free. The city has a park-and-ride program that lets people take a free bus ride into the city center. Some of the fortified gates around the city also partially restrict cars from entering. “We’ve done lots of things that make it easier to manage with the car,” says Andy D’Agorne, the council’s deputy leader. “But this is the next step.”
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