JGetting cars out of cities has become an international focus. But city officials, planners, and citizens still don’t have a clear, evidence-based answer to the question: What works to reduce car use in cities?
We screened nearly 800 peer-reviewed reports and case studies from across Europe published since 2010, and used real-world data to rank the 12 most effective measures submitted by European cities.
The ranking reflects cities’ successes not only in terms of measurable reductions in car use but also in achieving improved quality of life and sustainable mobility for their residents.
Our study, which was conducted at Lund University’s Center for Sustainability Studies and published in Transport Policy Case Studies, found that more than 75% of the urban innovations that succeeded in reducing car use were led by a local city government—particularly those that proved most effective, such as Congestion fees, parking and traffic controls, and limited traffic areas.
Narrow policies do not seem to work – there is no “magic” solution. The most successful cities typically combine a few different policy tools, including both islands that encourage more sustainable travel options, and sticks that charge or restrict driving and parking fees.
The research is clear: to improve health outcomes, achieve climate goals and create more livable cities, reducing car use must be an urgent priority. However, many governments in the United States and Europe continue to heavily subsidize driving through a range of incentives such as subsidies for fossil fuel production, tax credits for car travel, and incentives for corporate cars that promote driving over other modes of transportation. Essentially, such measures pay off polluters while imposing social costs on the wider community.
Category: 12 ways to reduce car use in cities
12. Applications for sustainable mobility
Mobile technology is, unsurprisingly, a growing aspect of strategies to reduce car usage. For example, the Italian city of Bologna has developed an app for individuals and teams of employees from participating companies to track their commute. Participants competed for points for walking, cycling and using public transportation, with local businesses offering app users rewards for achieving points goals.
There is a lot of interest in such a circumvention of sustainable mobility – and at first glance, the data from the Bologna app looks astounding. 73% of users reported using their car “less”. However, unlike other studies measuring the number or distance of trips by car, neither mileage reduction nor emissions can be calculated from this data, so the overall effectiveness is unclear. (Skipping a short car trip and skipping a year of long driving both count as “less” driving.)
11. Personal Travel Plans
Several cities have experimented with residents’ personal travel analysis and plans, including Marseille, France, Munich, Germany, Maastricht, the Netherlands, and San Sebastian, Spain. These programs – which provide trip advice and planning for city dwellers to walk, bike or use (sometimes discounted) public transportation – have been found to have achieved 6-12% reductions. However, since they include all city dwellers, as opposed to smaller residents, for example, commuters to school or workplaces, these methods can still play an important role in reducing car use overall. (San Sebastian provided college and personal travel planning in parallel, which likely helped reduce car use more than either in isolation.)
10. School travel planning
Two English cities – Brighton, Hove and Norwich – used (and rated) the carrot-only scale for school travel planning: providing trip, planning, and event advice to students and parents to encourage them to walk, bike or carpool to school, along with providing improved cycling infrastructure in cities. Norwich found it was able to reduce car use for school trips by 10.9%, using this approach, while Brighton’s analysis found the effect was about half that much.
9. Car sharing
Perhaps surprisingly, car sharing turns out to be a somewhat divisive measure to reduce car use in cities, according to our analysis. Such schemes, where members can easily access a nearby rental car for a few hours, showed promising results in Bremen, Germany, and Genoa, Italy, where each shared car replaced 12 to 15 private vehicles. Their approach involved increasing the number of cars and communal stations and integrating them with residential areas, public transportation and bicycle infrastructure. However, other studies point to the risk that car sharing may, in fact, drive previously non-car-using residents to increase their car use, so we recommend further study on how car sharing programs can be designed to truly reduce overall car use.
8. Mobility services for universities
The Sicilian city of Catania used the islands approach only for its students. By giving them a free public transportation pass and providing shuttle connections to campus, the city was found to have achieved a 24% reduction in the proportion of students commuting by car to campus.
7. University travel planning
University travel programs combine the carrot of promoting public transportation and active travel with the wand of managing campus parking. The most successful example highlighted in our review was achieved by the University of Bristol, which reduced car use among its employees by 27% while providing them with improved bike infrastructure and discounts on public transport.
6. Workplace travel planning
A major 2010 study evaluated 20 cities across the UK and found that 18% of passengers switched from one car mode to another if their companies put in place travel strategies and tips to encourage employees to finish their commutes with their cars, including company shuttle buses, discounts on transportation Public transportation and improvement of bicycle infrastructure, as well as reducing the provision of parking. In a different programme, Norwich achieved nearly identical fares by adopting an all-inclusive plan but without discounts on public transportation. Interestingly, these carrot-and-stick efforts appear to be more effective than the carrot-only approach of Brighton and Hove to provide plans and infrastructure such as workplace bike storage, resulting in a 3% shift away from car use.
5. Workplace parking fee
Entering workplace parking fees is another effective method. For example, a large medical center in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam achieved a 20-25% reduction in employee car travel through a scheme that requires employees to park their cars outside their offices, while also giving them the opportunity to “cash out” their parking spaces and use public transportation. Instead of that.
The scheme was found to be three times more effective than a more comprehensive scheme in Nottingham in the UK, which applies workplace parking fees to all large city employers who own more than 10 parking spaces. The revenue collected went towards supporting the public transport network in the city of Midlands, including the expansion of the tram line.
4. Passenger transportation services
The most effective carrot-only measure identified by our review was a campaign to provide passenger mobility services in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Local government and private companies have teamed up to provide free public transportation permits to employees, along with a special shuttle bus to connect transportation stations to workplaces. This program, which was promoted through a marketing and communications scheme, achieved a 37% decrease in the share of passengers traveling to the city center by car.
3. Limited traffic areas
Rome, traditionally one of Europe’s busiest cities, has shifted the balance toward greater use of public transport by restricting vehicle entry into the city center at certain times of the day to residents only, as well as those who pay an annual fee. This has reduced car traffic in the Italian capital by 20% during restricted hours, and by 10% even during off-hours when all cars can visit the centre.
2. Parking and traffic controls
In some European cities, removing parking spaces and changing traffic routes – in many cases, replacing the space previously reserved for cars with car-free streets, bike lanes and pedestrian paths – has proven successful. For example, Oslo’s replacement of car parks with car-free streets and bike lanes was found to reduce car use in the center of the Norwegian capital by up to 19%.
1. Congestion fee
Drivers must pay to get into the city center, with revenue generated going to alternative means of sustainable transportation. London, one of the early pioneers of this strategy, has reduced downtown traffic by a whopping 33% since the consignment was introduced by the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003.
Other European cities followed suit, adopting similar schemes after polls in Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg – Swedish cities changed their prices depending on the day and time. But although congestion fees clearly lead to a significant and sustainable reduction in car use and traffic volume, they alone cannot completely eliminate the congestion problem, which persists with continued incentives and infrastructure favoring car use.
Kimberly Nicholas is Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. Paula Koss is a consultant at the Ministry of Transport in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
A longer version of this article can be read on the Conversation website here.