A city without cars is a city without cars. Neither electric, nor shared, nor autonomous nor hybrid . Place for the bicycle and space to walk. Voice to the people and vindication of their words. That is its pure meaning. Is it possible? As of today, no.

In modern mythology, especially the American one, the vehicle has been a space of freedom. An idea based on individualism as a conception of life, which has permeated, like the orvallo, in Los Angeles, Boston or New York, the great American cities. Infected with these dubious values, much of Europe replicated the model. She was not alone. The all-powerful (and lobbyist) automobile industry made the car a necessity. Still today, 9% of Spanish wealth comes from that sector and its surrounding areas. For this reason, when the world proposes a city free of exhaust pipes, it knows that it also proposes a social and economic battle against the interests and inertia of the old economy and our old habits.

That is the reason why we are far and at the same time close to the goal of doing without vehicles in cities. This distance is explained by Antonio Lucio, professor of Environmental Programs at the EOI, “because, oddly enough, the inertia of our urban development continues to take place in accordance with the mentality of the sixties or seventies.” It was that force of attraction that built (do you remember?) the famous scalextric de Atocha, in Madrid. In 1968, this irresolvable maze of concrete, metal, and asphalt seemed to be the answer to the swarm of traffic that came from the growing suburbs of Madrid. However, it was soon considered “an urban nonsense” and in 1985 it was dismantled to recover the city.

But 9,362 kilometers from Madrid, the situation has not been very different either. In Los Angeles, traffic represents a nightmare that begins at dawn and ends at sundown for millions of people. Angelenos lose 3.4 days of their lives a year stuck in traffic. And things can get worse. In the next 40 years, it is estimated that the County of Los Angeles (currently with ten million inhabitants spread over an area slightly larger than the Community of Madrid) will increase its population by 2.3 million people. “Without decisive action, traffic congestion and air quality problems will worsen,” warns Ramon Gonzalez, an engineer from Madrid who lives in the city and works as a consultant at EuroStudios, Getinsa-Payma and TRN. The city, and those responsible for it, have felt that change is urgent. In search of Ariadne’s thread, private initiative pursues its own exits. «Uber and Lift are a very widespread solution to get around, Google Maps and Wayze are used to escape traffic jams and various applications offer the best options for public transport and bicycles”, sums up the expert from Los Angeles. However, all these proposals only scratch the surface. The problem is structural: there where the mentality of its citizens and its infrastructures live. Hence, LA Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) is launching programs to turn around a city in which stereotypes (car equals freedom) and enormous distances move at the same speed. A first step will be to tax any sale that occurs in the County with half a cent of a dollar. Which translates into an additional 860 million dollars (730 million euros) per year destined to promote the transformation. On these different tracks, new projects are being forged: High Speed ​​Rail (San Francisco-Los Angeles), extensions of the Metro lines, high-occupancy lanes and an ambitious cycling network. If the most car-dependent city in the world can change, can they all?

At the moment, the shock wave multiplies like the sound of a horn inside a tunnel. Oslo wants to ban cars in the city center in 2019; Hamburg proposes to eradicate them before 2030 (advocates a green network for pedestrians and bicycles); Madrid will try to make the entire center pedestrianized during 2020 and, in the background, the days without cars are happening in Paris, Bogota, New York, Mexico City… And in this future that is yet to come, someone decided that the electric vehicle was the great panacea; and, also, the great fallacy. “Today’s cars create a lot of problems, and electric cars solve very few,” says Ian Walker, a traffic expert at the University of Bath (UK). «An electric vehicle can still kill people in an accident; it can still cause as much congestion as a normal car; still encourages people to sit instead of exercising; still takes up a lot of space when not in use; still injures pedestrians; it still damages the roads, ”he shells. In other words, it still solves a very small part of the problem.

Although there are companies, like Seat, that believe in that route. During 2019, it will present its first electric car, and guess a hybrid future. “There are still years of coexistence between combustion and electric vehicles” predicts a company spokesman. And he adds: “The speed of this transition will depend on the technological development of manufacturers and, also, on factors external to the automotive industry, such as charging infrastructure and regulations.” So, given the delay, it may be necessary to walk other paths. “Cities could move towards a model where you can get anywhere in 30 minutes from a one and a half kilometer bike connection,” he suggests in The Guardian .Anand Babu, a member of the consulting firm Sidewalk Labs. But that is a reading that not everyone shares. « The bicycle is one more component in the mobility map of a city, important, yes, but in no case an alternative to its dynamism», says Joan Cavalle, managing director of Automotive at Accenture. «Because the real option for access to cities are the new transport models, especially car sharing». The truth is that in the absence of a shared formula, each place tries its own solution. “A city without cars is not foreseeable in the short term,” says Ines Sabanes, delegate for the Environment and Mobility of the Madrid City Council, sincerely. “However, a city in which the bicycle is used more, it is easier to walk and in which the most common transport is public is possible and desirable.”

Without a doubt, we are walking through cities where there is not just one answer to this challenge, observes Martha Thorne, dean of the IE School of Architecture and Design, but multiple and ideally coordinated ones. “And this happens through driverless cars, shared private transport and public commuting before a city without cars.” A combination of classic politics and technology. The old and the new. «The adoption of self-driving vehicles, robo-taxis and autonomous taxis could mean a 60% drop in the number of cars circulating on the streets, an 80% drop in emissions from exhaust pipes and 90% less traffic accidents,” says a report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). But this faith and this hope are not, as we have seen, assumed by all. “The answer to mobility in cities does not go through cars,” explains a spokeswoman for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy in New York. “Whether electric, shared or driverless, cars should be a complement, not a substitute, for a fixed system of mobility. 

The automobile, then, has become for many a suspicious element in the cities, and its presence begins to feel as strident as an electric guitar in a chamber concert. You just have to open the door of the house and look around. “The next time you’re out on the street,” says John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, the app that competes with Uber for independent transportation, in his essay The Third Transportation Revolution, “pay attention to the space around you. Look how much goes to cars and nothing else. How much is occupied by vehicles lined up on both sides of the streets and how much is uselessly taken over by parking lots. It’s obvious. We build our communities around cars. And most of the day they don’t even move. The average time a car is used is only 4%, the remaining 96% is parked. A waste of hours and space. A 2011 study from the University of California revealed that there are more than 800 million parking spaces in the United States, appropriating 65,000 square kilometers of land.

That is the paradox of a time and a life that moves further and further away from the car, but which, to the pain of many, still maintains certain ties. “Individual vehicles will always be necessary. The really interesting thing is to reduce them to only those that are strictly essential and that they are managed with policies that allow them to be shared and used for as long as possible”, reflects Leandro Real, manager of Government, Risk and Compliance at KPMG. Is it so? Do we need our own cars?

Deep down, there is a glimpse of a profound change that is beginning to be felt, above all, in Europe, which has made public policies a hallmark of its future. « The new urbanism in the Old Continent will stop being expansionist to look back at existing cities. Intelligent mobility will analyze traffic flows, giving preference to public transport and emergencies, will automatically detect traffic violations (and dangers) and will promote travel through collective means”, predicts Javier Mendez, director of the Technical Office of the College of Quantity Surveyors of Madrid. And, at that moment, the population will contemplate what is close and, in cities like the capital of Spain itself, will realize that some data has been waiting for them there, silent, for a long time. 92% of Madrid residents have an EMT stop less than a three-minute walk away and 34% have a Metro station. It is the seed of a new root. «We are going towards a multi-centre city, which requires less displacement to satisfy daily tasks and in which it is used,

In search of that closest and most humane city, the transformation will happen in a rhythmic way. Impossible to wait for a revolution. «In the short term, we will see widespread restrictions on private transport, which will come through urban tolls (the case of central London), pedestrianization (for example, the Superblocks project in Barcelona) and the inspection of the most polluting vehicles ( as the TUV for access to German cities)”, ventures Ruben Canovas Mas, global head of Smart Cities at Everis consultancy. But the change will leave wounds. For example, the pedestrianization of central streets usually penalizes small businesses compared to large ones. And there is a real risk that the use of these new spaces will be mainly for tourism.

Yet no one said that this car-free tomorrow was an Arcadia. Because several viable worlds emerge. “There is a terrifying alternative future where people will become more individualistic. Put, for example, each of your children in self-driving cars to go to school, ”warns Rachel Aldred, a transport expert at the University of Westminster. “And people could spend a tremendous amount of time in those self-driving vehicles. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but there are several possible scenarios that should be taken into account. This is a future. There’s others. All feasible, some probable; but none dreamed of cars.

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