Taking the cars out of the cities

Andrew Sissons
8 min readJun 17, 2022

Part 3 of: What would make life better?

An old red car is parked on a street in Havana, with a lighthouse in the far background.
A pre-1960s car in Havana, Cuba, where many cars date from before Castro’s revolution. The photo is mine.

Cars make people miserable. They’re noisy, they pollute the air, they hurt people in accidents. They seem to make the people who drive them miserable — there is some evidence that a long commute by car worsens your mental health and overall wellbeing, certainly compared to walking and cycling. They change the ways our towns and cities are laid out. They take up so much space. And the more cars there are, the more they get stuck in each other’s traffic. For the people that drive them and the people that they pass by, cars make life worse. But we’re stuck with them, and most people seem quite happy with that.

The private motor car is one of the totemic triumphs of the market economy. Economic growth has given most families at least one machine — sometimes many more than one — that can take them, quickly, anywhere they want to go. Cars are capital- and knowledge-intensive — there’s an awful lot of high value investment and research embedded in your car. The factories that make them are highly productive, making extensive use of robots and automation. We mostly buy cars on finance, making them affordable despite their high cost. And we have a web of infrastructure around the country to support cars.

And it’s not just their economic value that appeals to us — cars also appeal to the sense of individual freedom that our society is built on. If there’s one thing that a young Cuban, lovingly maintaining their 1950s vehicle, would have in common with Margaret Thatcher, it is the belief that a car means freedom. It’s a fine sentiment, but I don’t think it feels quite the same when you’re stuck in traffic on the M25.

To me, the motor car increasingly feels like a relic of the post-war economy. It was great while it lasted, while the roads were still relatively quiet and we were happy to fill our cities with tarmac. But private cars, in cities at least, increasingly seem like a dead end, for society and the economy. If we want to make life better — at least for the half or so of the UK population that lives in cities — we need to move past the era of the car.

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Economics has its solutions for a problem like the private car. You tackle the congestion problem with road pricing, making people pay more to drive on busy roads to dissuade some people from travelling. This is a sound approach, albeit one that rarely seems to win political support. It does, however, mean stopping those who are least able to pay from travelling, which is a problem if you can’t offer them alternatives.

The other problems — noise, pollution, accidents — are treated as externalities in economics, costs that happen to other people than the car driver. And with externalities, the typical solution is to tax them, such that drivers pay the costs they impose on everyone else, and thus are discouraged from driving.

But as elegant as this sounds, it is not an especially helpful approach to tackling the problems we have with cars. For a start, imposing a raft of new taxes and charges is not a great way to sell this kind of policy to the public. There’s a reason why politicians are scared to mention road pricing, why Chancellors of the Exchequer always cancel fuel duty increases. More importantly, taxes and disincentives don’t work very well unless you provide a good alternative. The problem is, cars block us from providing that alternative. Cars have shaped the fabric of our cities, they take up the public space that could be used for alternatives, and they make it dangerous to not be in a car. In most of our cities, we are locked in to cars, even though they aren’t a very good way of getting around.

I should say at this point that I don’t think my views here apply outside cities. In my view, cars are a fact of life in the countryside and smaller towns. People need to travel, and it is not feasible to switch to public or active transport systems in sparsely populated areas. This is what electric cars should be for in future. But in cities it is a different story.

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What could a car-free city look like? You’re not allowed to say London. London is a big city, it has a mature public transport system and a congestion charge (and it still has loads of cars). What would Birmingham or Manchester or Bristol look like if we just took all the cars away?

The most obvious thing would be all the extra space. Not just on the major roads, but in the car parks, by the sides of roads. Large city centre car parks could become huge public spaces, for café culture or festivals or children’s playgrounds. Residential roads that are four lanes wide — two lanes for cars to drive, and two lanes for them to park — would become enormous corridors of public space. You could plant trees, install play equipment, or just let the children play together. If you wanted, you could build on some of the spare land — and pocket some of the huge value that land in our cities attracts.

Of course, it would be quieter — much quieter — as well, and the air would cleaner. Remember the very earliest days of lockdown — did you used to walk down the middle of roads once reserved for cars?

That’s all very well, but how would people get around? People have jobs to get to, friends to see, leisure activities to take part in, shops to visit — and most of us can’t do that on the train or the bus. When you take the cars off roads, there is suddenly a lot more people can do with them. Cycling, for one, becomes far safer and more attractive. Would you consider attaching children to the back of your bike, or taking a less confident cyclist out riding, if you knew there would be no cars at all?

Of course, not everyone can or wants to cycle — it’s hard work, and there are hills. But what about electric bikes? They can make cycling a much quicker and easier pursuit. And there are other options — electric scooters are already quicker, easier way to get around my city than a car, even without any real infrastructure. For those who cannot access a bike, or who need to carry more luggage, there’s no reason not to have mobility scooters or other, more stable electric vehicles buzzing around car-free roads.

That’s all well and good, but what about longer journeys outside the city? What about trips to the tip? Sometimes the answer will be the train or the bus — especially when you can reach your nearest train station easily on an little electric bike or scooter. But there should also be scope for a number of shared electric cars, for longer or more luggage-oriented journeys.

There are two key things needed to make this work. First, the cars have to be shared, not owned by individuals — otherwise they will take up too much space. Obviously, the service would need to improve from current car-sharing, but that should not be hard once everyone stops having private cars. Second, the cars would need to be speed limited within the city, and able to travel only a limited number of roads (this is now easily achieved using GPS; shared electric scooters are already remotely speed-limited on certain roads). You should be able to easily pull up outside your home to load up, but only get there very slowly (if you’re not convinced, have a look at how Center Parcs handles cars).

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I think the benefits of this no-car vision are clear and overwhelming — I would think that, wouldn’t I? Taking the cars out of our front gardens, roadsides and public spaces, and replacing them with more efficient forms of transport, would undoubtedly make life in our cities better. But wouldn’t it be bad for economic growth?

That is clearly the wrong question here. Selling someone an expensive, resource-intensive machine that makes life worse is clearly not a good idea, even if it does raise GDP — it’s not that dissimilar to locking people into a hard-to-cancel junk food subscription. But even if you allow the question, it’s not clear getting rid of cars in cities would be bad for growth. For a start, people would be able to spend the money they put into their car — typically a few hundred pounds a month on finance — into other things. Those other things might not be made as productively as a car, but they would be more useful. And then there are all the opportunities for innovation and new markets that would emerge. The new, smarter transport solutions, from electric bikes to ride-sharing apps (imagine how much better Uber could be without cars). The new businesses set up in reclaimed public spaces. The value of the extra land reclaimed from car parking. Moving past cars would be bad for the car industry, but it might free the economy up to grow.

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You may well agree with what I’ve said so far, certainly if my assumptions about my readers’ demographics are right. But most people will have the opposite reaction. The thought of giving up the convenience of a car is unthinkable for most people, even those who live in the thick of a city.

So how would I try to make something like this happen? Step by step. Close roads gradually, over time. Create safe routes through cities. Promote the alternatives before they are fully available, helping with subsidies or whatever incentives work best. And then, once car-free travel feels safe and viable — once the all-important alternative is in place — begin to tighten the squeeze on cars. That would probably start with taxes and charges, and then perhaps progress to outright bans. You can’t park a private car within a mile of the city centre. Then two miles. Then more.

Of course, like all my ideas for making life better, this is a collective action problem. Collective action normally means politics. The politics of this would be fraught. But my expectation is that when you show people how a better system actually looks — whether it’s a local road filter or a London-wide congestion charge — they tend to like it. This is crucial, and can’t be repeated enough: you need to show there is an alternative that works before you start banning or punitively taxing cars on a widespread basis.

But that is not to say I have an easy answer to the political problem. I think there is pretty strong objective evidence that our lives in cities would be better without cars. But politics isn’t conducted on an objective basis; instead it works through the subjective eyes of voters and pressure groups. There is a certain amount of bravery and willingness to push against the consensus that is required to make this happen.

But what is the point of politics if not to make life better? It seems clear that taking the cars out of the cities would.

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Andrew Sissons

I’m an economist and policy wonk who’s worked in a range of different fields. I mostly write about economic growth and climate change, and sometimes both.