Imagining a Car-Free London

Britons like to think of London as a city that leads the way, and in some respects, this is true. We have probably the best underground transport system in the world, a diverse and constantly exciting array of high and low cultures, and, for better or worse, one of the world’s most important financial districts (until Brexit has its way, that is).

But in one respect, London lags far behind, struggling to keep up with the pack: pollution. Specifically the issue of cars: where and when they’re allowed to drive, and how much space is given over to motorists within the city.

Transport for London currently operates a congestion charge, but this has done little so far to prevent dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide accumulating in the skies above the city. This year, Brixton Road in Lambeth exceeded the annual air pollution limits within just five days. London has a problem.

Getting rid of cars altogether may well be the solution. Or at least, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan seems to think so, as he unveils plans for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street.

Yes, you heard right. Oxford Street.

Under the plans, East-West traffic along London’s busiest shopping street would be completely removed, creating a European-style shopping boulevard. While some North-South traffic would remain, it is thought that the move would increase the amount of space available to tourists, and maybe even improve business, as more tourists fill the street. Jace Tyrell, CEO of the New West End Company, claimed it would bring 120,000 new visitors a year, contributing to a £1 billion increase in turnover for the West End as a whole.

It’s certainly a radical move. But as Jonn Elledge argued in The Guardian, Khan could, and should, go further. Why not get rid of cars altogether? After all, if it’s possible in Oxford Street, one of the busiest high streets in all of London, it might well be possible city-wide. He wouldn’t even be the first to do so. It’s worth taking a look at what other prosperous, metropolitan cities across the world are doing in this area:


By May 2019, Madrid’s Gran Via (akin to Oxford Street) will only allow access to bikes, buses and taxis. This will spearhead an attempt to remove all diesel cars from Madrid by 2025.


Plans to permanently ban all cars by 2019 were altered after mass protests. Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, Council Vice President for environment and transport, said they want people with cars to “feel like they’re visitors, rather than owning the streets.” This comes after Norwegian officials proposed completely banning the sale of petrol cars by 2025.


Planners in Hamburg are developing a ‘gruenes netz’ (‘green network’) to cover 40% of Hamburg. This network of connected spaces will create a whole swathe of territory that can’t be accessed by car, and will include plenty of sports fields and parks.


Famous for its preponderance of cyclists, plans are afoot in Copenhagen to build ‘cycling superhighways’, reaching out to the city’s suburbs.

None of these cities are quite like London, one might argue. That’s not totally untrue. Would the plans for Oslo, Copenhagen, even Paris work in a sprawling, diverse and fragmented city like London? Perhaps not, but even the one comparable city is giving it a go – New York removed traffic completely from 30 blocks of Manhattan this Earth Day, to great success.

Sadiq Khan is a politician firmly rooted in business-friendly centrism, of a somewhat New Labour vintage, but with excellent political savvy and even a populist streak. But Khan could make his name through than a truly radical approach to transport policy, bringing together big and small business, climate groups, and Londoners of all backgrounds. Britain is already taking a wild, blindfolded leap into the abyss with Brexit. Why not take another, and try something seriously progressive? It could change the way we think about the city for at least a generation.

Londoners can have their say on the proposed consultation (until 17 December 2017) via the TFL website.

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