April 2021, 8th to 11th

Is car-free urban living possible? – Part 2/4

Part 1: A ban on cars (or ‘the theory of reducing numbers’)

About 85 kroner (almost €9), the highest charge and without a subscription, is what it costs an Oslo resident to drive a petrol or diesel car from Visperud, 14 km northeast of the city, to the Opera district in the centre at 9 am. Oslo’s toll charge scheme is clearly a deterrent. The charge depends on the type of engine (that for diesel vehicles being much higher than for a hybrid or electric vehicle), vehicle weight and time of travel. And there’s not much chance of a discount with prices rising since the scheme was introduced (rates can be calculated using a toll calculator). And on the ground, it seems to be working: we noticed a significant decrease in the number of vehicles on the road as we got closer to the centre and as we drove through the various toll rings. 

A real plan aimed at improving the city’s public space

Nevertheless, for many, the city toll system is also a controversial scheme, not least because drivers who are well off can access the city centre simply by paying. That is why Oslo City Council wanted to take things further and decided to deny access to cars in certain areas of the city centre. This initiative is covered in a major project entitled the ‘Car-free Livability Programme’. The idea is simple: by denying access to private vehicles and removing all parking spaces (more than 700 in total), the city council has decided to make the centre a quiet area where it can create wider bike lanes, terraces, green spaces, play areas, and add more chairs and benches. Yes, benches: Terje Elvsaas, communication advisor at Oslo City Hall, explained their strategic importance under the programme: “Oslo was renowned for having excellent cafes, but nowhere to sit outside and enjoy the public space!”

A few items of street furniture introduced by Oslo City Council. As part of the policy to pedestrianise the city centre, street furniture means Oslo residents can fully enjoy a car-free urban space that even has bike repair stations! 

That is for the theory, but what adaptations were required?

There is one obvious question. Did the transformation come up against any opposition? The answer is yes. On the city toll front, four city councillors who all belonged to a single-issue party quite simply called The People’s Action – No to More Road Tolls (FND) were against. As for Oslo’s ‘car-free zone’, the city council came up against city-centre businesses who were not very supportive of its project and quick to stir things up social networks! But the mayoress and her teams took objections on board and slightly altered part of their programme, keeping some streets mixed (albeit with significantly fewer cars). They also granted more flexibility for deliveries – a particularly sensitive issue for businesses.

Cars banned from Christiania Torv Square.

A conclusive test run

Our impressions on the ground just after the end of their first term were somewhat mixed. First of all, and really noticeable, is how quiet it is when you cross most of the ‘car-free zone’: something that is a real luxury in the city centre. Secondly, and somewhat strange, is the impression of emptiness, especially after 4 pm. As Terje Elvsaas was to explain, in actual fact, this is mainly because the first area to come under the plan is an office area; frequented by almost 100,000 people on a daily basis (especially in the western part) but one that has only 1,000 inhabitants. “Easy to develop an area like that!” some naysayers may claim. But despite that, the plan is set to continue and the area demarcated by the city council extends far beyond the 1.3 km2 of the first streets to see the changes. The initial term was an opportunity for the city council to test different concepts, but now, at the start of the second term, the city council’s team wants to drive the point home! This, of course, means extending the car-free zone. It also means improving connections between the city’s neighbourhoods, particularly via bike lanes, and improving the use of public spaces, especially for children, families and senior residents, in a way, making them more part of urban living! The large-scale works visible more or less throughout the city are therefore set to continue: the momentum has definitely begun!

A consequence of the radical pedestrianisation of the city centre: the streets seem deserted!

Julien de Labaca
Crédits photos / vidéos : Julien de Labaca, the ‘Mobility Facilitator’

Discover part 2 of our explorations in new mobility in Oslo – Massive electrification (or ‘the theory of improvement’)