By Megan Link
To improve walking and biking accessibility, more areas are experimenting with different ways to minimize motor vehicles on local roads: temporary car-free streets, weekly car-free days, seasonal road closures, and even permanent motor-free spaces. Some critics argue that these implementations are not effective in reducing traffic, as they could increase the number of vehicles on surrounding streets and roads.
A new study from the UK offers evidence against these claims. Researchers turned to low-traffic neighborhoods (LTNs) in London to analyze the impact that designated car-free streets have on traffic in the surrounding neighborhoods. The results showed an average 47% decrease in traffic volumes within the LTN and a 1.6% decrease on the surrounding roads, suggesting that car-restricted areas effectively cut traffic without pushing it onto nearby streets. The authors suggest some additional work may be needed to understand and address the needs of people with disabilities who sometimes rely on vehicle access.
Other studies looking at LTNs have found:
- They reduce pollutants both in and outside the low-traffic zones.
- They increase active travel and lower car use.
- They cut traffic injuries in half.
- They seem to have some effect on lowering street crime.
- They do not meaningfully impact emergency response times.
People generally like car-free streets, according to a study in Sweden, but there tends to be more resistance among long-term residents, car owners, and residents on streets adjacent to the car-free zones. Insufficient community engagement can also cause issues.
These findings reinforce the value of connecting with local communities before changing their sense of place and relationship with their environment. Oakland learned this lesson and adapted its Slow Streets Program to meet the community’s needs after locals expressed concerns.
Several examples of permanent car-free streets in the U.S. include:
JFK Drive, San Francisco: Starting as a temporary project during the pandemic, residents voted to permanently close the street to vehicles.
Griffith Park Drive, Los Angeles: Originally car-free on Sundays, the drive is now permanently closed to motorists after a hit-and-run killed a bicyclist sparking community efforts to improve safety in the park.
34th Ave, New York City: The street is car-free from 7am to 8pm with the motto that “vehicles are guests,” to protect the schools on the block, create a community hub, and encourage spur of the moment parks.