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15 cities tackling pollution by curbing cars

From banning diesels to pedestrianizing downtowns, here’s how cities are fighting cars

An aerial view of the Eiffel Tower with smog in the background.
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Cities around the world are facing a crisis: Cars are wreaking havoc, snarling streets, and contributing to increased air pollution. The World Health Organization says that around three million deaths every year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution, much of which is emitted as exhaust from the cars we drive every day.

As a result, cities like London, Paris, and Seoul are doubling down on car-free policies, aiming to decrease pollutants and make people’s daily lives better. Some regulations call for low-emission zones and the banning of diesel vehicles, since diesel cars are one of the worst sources of urban air pollution. In Germany, where diesel technology was developed, the country’s highest administrative court ruled in February 2018 that banning diesel cars in an effort to improve air quality was legal, opening the floodgates for German cities to go car-free.

Other cities have opted for pricing schemes that either charge commuters for driving at peak times or in congested urban areas or fine people for driving cars with high emissions. Still other cities choose to restrict driving by license plate numbers—whether in an emergency attempt to reduce harmful spikes in nitrogen dioxide or as a more long-term effort to combat declining air quality.

Amid all of the restrictions are other urban planning goals: Oslo, Norway; Bogotá, Colombia; and Hamburg, Germany are all betting big on bike lanes, converting boulevards into pedestrian plazas and creating bike “superhighways” that cater to people looking to ditch diesels and get on two wheels. If banning vehicles is one part of the puzzle, creating walkable cities and expanding public transit options are the other pieces to master.

Although we’ve chosen to highlight international cities on this list, American cities have also taken note. New York City just completed a four-year renovation of Times Square that revamped the iconic space into an 85,000-square-foot pedestrian plaza. The city has also proposed transforming busy Bedford Avenue and Grand Street into other car-free zones.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles is reconsidering its transportation future, paving the way for how shared, self-driving vehicles could be used in an urban setting. The city is also using its Great Streets Program to reinvigorate thoroughfares with art, pedestrian walkways, and plazas. And San Francisco has plans to ban cars and add bike lanes on Market Street, one of the city’s busiest streets. Elsewhere, rapidly growing cities like Charlotte and Denver are considering long-term plans that would emphasize pedestrians and multi-modal transportation over cars.

Still, no American city has taken a hard stance against cars, whether by banning diesels or restricting driving. Even though transportation is now the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases in our country, we have to look abroad for the best examples of how urban areas are going car-free.

To highlight just how pervasive the car-free movement has become in the rest of the world, we’ve rounded up 15 international cities working to reduce emissions, encourage alternative transportation, and get people out of their cars.

Oslo, Norway

Bicycles from the Norwegian bike-sharing program Oslo Bysykkel (Oslo City Bike) lined up on the streets of Oslo, Norway.
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As one of the early leaders of the car-free movement, the Norwegian capital plans to permanently ban all private vehicles by 2019, instead investing in public transportation. Oslo will replace 35 miles of roads previously used by cars with bike lanes and hopes to implement a no-car zone within the city’s central ring road.

Drivers can also expect rush-hour charges (on top of existing congestion fees) and a ban on parking spaces by 2019. Because Oslo often experiences weather inversions that traps air pollution at ground levels, the city has had to ban diesel cars in the past on a per-day basis, an effort that lowered pollution levels by at least one quarter.

Bogotá, Colombia

The skyline of Bogotá, Colombia, on November 12, 2016.
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The Colombian capital has been working to get cars off of streets since 1974. Every Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm, over 76 miles of urban roads are closed to vehicles—an event called Ciclovía—and now Bogotá has a total of over 200 miles of bike-only lanes to serve the city.

Bogotá has also participated in license-plate restrictions, a more controversial program that some argue has led to more pollution thanks to drivers buying two cars or driving at off-peak hours to avoid restrictions.

Paris, France

The Paris skyline marred by smog.
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Paris has been forced to restrict cars in the city center in recent years thanks in large part to the harmful air pollution that plagues the city. Vehicles registered before 1997 have been banned from entering the city on weekdays, the Champs-Élysées closes once every month to traffic, and a 1.8-mile section of the right bank of the Seine river has recently been pedestrianized.

Paris has also committed to banning diesel vehicles by 2025, and by 2020 the mayor plans to double the number of bike lanes in the city.

London, England

Commuters head to work by bike in London in 2014.
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Like Paris, Madrid, and Mexico City, London plans to ban diesel cars by 2020. Beginning in 2017, the most-polluting cars have had to pay a daily charge—called the T-Charge—to drive within central London.

This will eventually be replaced in 2019 by the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), a more comprehensive plan that would eventually also charge buses and coaches and expand the coverage area. If enacted, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says that ULEZ would be “the toughest emission standard of any world city.”

London also instituted a congestion charge to drive on its innermost streets in 2003, and the city plans to spend a record $1 billion on improving bike infrastructure by 2026.

Berlin, Germany

The city skyline of Berlin.
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In 2008 Berlin implemented a low emission zone (LEZ) that banned all diesel vehicles and petrol vehicles that failed to meet emission standards. The LEZ covers 88 square kilometers of the inner city and approximately one-third of Berlin’s inhabitants.

Berlin also recently announced a plan to install a dozen new bike superhighways that will be at least 13 feet wide and completely separated from cars and pedestrians.

Madrid, Spain

Cars drive by the Metropolis hotel in Madrid.
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Madrid is on course to remove personal cars from 500 acres of its city by 2020. Mayor Manuela Carmena says that the capital’s main avenue, Gran Via, will only allow access to bikes, buses, and taxis before she leaves office in May 2019, and 23 other busy streets will be redesigned for walking instead of driving. It’s all part of a larger sustainability plan that will also ban all diesel cars from Madrid by 2025 and charge polluting cars more to park.

Athens, Greece

View of Athens, Greece, from the Acropolis.
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Athens decided in December 2016 that it too would ban diesel cars from the city center by 2025. The move comes at a time when leaders like Mayor Giorgos Kaminis want to improve the city’s air quality. Athens already limits diesel vehicles from the city center on certain days based on license plate numbers.

Tokyo, Japan

The skyline of Tokyo.
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As one of the frontrunners to ban diesel vehicles, Tokyo made the move in 2000 to ban all diesel vehicles except those that installed exhaust-fume purifiers. The move has reduced pollution in the city; residents can now regularly see Mount Fuji, two hours away.

Milan, Italy

The view of rooftops—and smog—from the Milan Cathedral Duomo.
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Italy’s major cities have long struggled with high levels of air pollution, especially Milan. In 2016, the safe limit for fine particles was exceeded for more than 60 days in the northern Italian city. The city has banned the most polluting cars from the city center and has in the past banned all cars when smog levels built up.

More positive incentives include public-transit vouchers if commuters leave their vehicles at home.

Brussels, Belgium

A sunset over Brussels in Belgium.
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In addition to promoting car-free Sundays, Brussels wants to expand its pedestrian zones, including a pedestrian area along the Boulevard Anspach. City officials pedestrianized parts of Anspach in summer 2015—replacing cars and motorbikes with picnic tables and strolling shoppers—and other pedestrian areas are slated to open by 2019. In January, Brussels started banning diesel cars built prior to 1998, and just recently the city announced that public transport will be free on days with abnormally high air pollution.

Hamburg, Germany

An aerial view of Hamburg, Germany.
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Hamburg is developing a car-free “green network” to cover 40 percent of its urban area in the hopes that more people will walk or bike instead of drive. The plan includes more parks, playgrounds, and sports fields and should be completed by 2035. The city is also transforming the crowded A7 autobahn into parks to reconnect neighborhoods and make walking easier, and it became the first Germany city to ban older diesel cars this year.

Bicyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark commute to work.
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Copenhagen, Denmark

This green capital—which has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025—is one of the most bike-friendly places to live in the world; over half of the city’s population bikes to work every day. Now, Copenhagen is developing a 500-kilometer bicycle network called a superhighway that will connect to the surrounding suburbs, and Mayor Frank Jensen wants to ban diesel cars from the city by the beginning of 2019.

Smog at sunrise in Mexico City.
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Mexico City

Upwards of 2 million cars are taken off of the streets every day in Mexico City by a system first enacted in 2016 that restricts road use by license plate numbers (although similar programs have been in places since the late 1980s). The move came in response to the heavy smog that plagues the city, which currently has about 20 million residents.

Unfortunately, the BBC reports that the ban hasn’t reduced air pollutants because so many residents purchased extra vehicles or took taxis.

Traffic speeds through an intersection in Gangnam, an affluent district of Seoul, South Korea.
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Seoul, South Korea

As part of nationwide efforts to reduce air pollution, aged diesel-powered vehicles that failed to meet emissions standards were banned from Seoul beginning in 2017. Other metropolitan areas surrounding Seoul will adopt the updated regulation by 2020.

The port in Helsinki.
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Helsinki

Finland’s capital, Helsinki, has laid out a new plan to transform its car-dense suburbs into walkable communities easily accessible from the city center by public transit. It’s all part of something called “mobility on demand”—the city hopes that by 2025, citizens will be able to access carpools, buses, taxis, bikes, and ferries through a single app.

While this initiative is not an attack on cars per se, Helsinki leaders want to make alternative transportation so good that nobody would have any reason to own a car.