Last week a member of the EX-TRA team, Enrica Papa contributed to the Centre for London’s blog on ‘reimagining London’s transport system’, in collaboration with Ersilia Verlinghieri. The authors reflect on how London is transitioning towards a ‘post-car city’, and the role of street experiments in this process. Find the original blog post here: www.centreforlondon.org/blog/reimagining-london-transport
Our future London: A walking London
With great political commitment, London has managed to radically reduce its reliance on car-based mobility and address a full range of sustainability challenges, becoming a ‘post-car city’. It did so by starting with completely reconfiguring its streets. For more than a century, the design and use of most streets had overwhelmingly served cars.
But with mounting pressures to reduce the climate and health impacts of motorised transport, this dominant mode of street planning has been increasingly questioned. Imagine living in 2040. London has the largest pedestrian network in the world, equally safe and accessible for everyone, and tied into its rail, underground and cycling network. Walking, cycling, and public transport are the primary and most convenient, and enjoyable travel options for Londoners. The network connects central London with all the boroughs, linking mainline train stations, popular destinations, and green spaces.
The network is made of a constellation of large car-free areas around the main underground stations of every boroughs as well as smaller local hubs, including schools, high streets, and some residential areas. These ‘plazas’ are linked by a popular network of car-free streets. New paving has taken the place of curbs and sidewalks while patches of green space have replaced road space, helping to cool spaces in summer and absorb water in winter. Cycle lanes have been installed on the sides of the new pedestrian network. Only a very small minority of priority small electric vehicles, serving those who still need them travel at safe speeds. New street furniture facilitates now pedestrian (and active modes) movement and provide a high quality and attractive environment. Planters, parklets and benches fill spaces with beauty, colour and provide opportunity for resting, playing and meeting. These new quality spaces encourage a diverse range of people to live and spend time in common public areas, with many businesses benefitting from the increased flow of people. Forgotten passages are rediscovered and turned into vibrant common spaces by the local community. Community gardens and allotments, planters and trees provide a fresh supply of healthy food to residents.
Transition experiments the incremental nature of change
The successful pedestrianisation of London and the established widespread use of its pedestrian network has been achieved with the dedicated and incremental change of infrastructures and habits. Continuous but small changes to the urban fabric have given people time to experiment with new travel routines and options. Collaboration between local organisations, residents and businesses has ensured users develop ownership of the new areas and use them in new ways. The secret to the strategy has been co-production, incrementalism and an experimentation approach. In 20 years, city planners, who worked openly and collaboratively with local communities from the design stage, took numerous small steps to transform the city from a car-oriented place to a people-friendly one. Political will and wide investments were key in supporting this process and ensuring that most vulnerable communities were the ones benefitting first.
London’s approach followed the ‘transition experiments’ in city streets, defined as ‘intentional, temporary changes in street use, regulation and/or form, aimed at exploring systemic change towards a ‘post-car’ city’ (Bertolini, 2020). It built on the experience of temporary, alternative arrangements for city streets such as parklets, play streets, open streets and ciclovias and, thanks to ongoing discussion with residents and other users, has managed to adapt and integrate these into a process of systemic change. Through short-term actions communities explored alternative structures, cultures, and practices and had time to discuss those, make changes and explore how they could improve their lives. The challenges of renouncing private car ownership had been mitigated by a growing awareness of its detrimental impacts on others and the environment as well as by the widespread availability of easy to use and cheaper alternatives such as walking, cycling or public transport. Everything started during the last phase of the pandemic, with a diffuse set of temporary ‘tactical urbanism’ interventions in city streets: prioritising non-motorised traffic and public space use.
These experiments were practice-based evidence of new pedestrianisation programmes and policy, as had already happened in places like Copenhagen and Montreal. Islington’s Upper Street had traditionally been closed to vehicles at Christmas. In 2025 the space for vehicles was reduced to just one lane and in 2030 it went completely car free. Initially this inspired widespread opposition, particularly from businesses who assumed a permanently car-free street would be their ruin. The fears proved unfounded. Pedestrianised Upper Street boasted more shoppers, an explosion in café’ seating and an urban culture focused on outdoor public spaces. Building on this success, the network expanded: more commercial streets, school streets and squares emptied of cars. Then Soho, the City of London, South Bank and Clerkenwell followed their example. One by one every other borough followed. Pedestrianed Oxford Street finally become a landmark like Strøget in Copenhagen, while London has the biggest pedestrian network in the world and the lowest number of cars by eliminating parking spaces at a percent rate per year Interventions have mitigated noise, congestion and pollution and reduced costs for the NHS.
An unrealistic dream?
Is this future unrealistic? We don’t think so. Increased awareness of the contribution motorised transport makes to climate change and poor health is increasing demand for safe walking and cycling options for all in London and elsewhere. Where investments have been made to improve the public realm and provide travel options beyond private car and where citizens have had a chance to own those changes, they have been extremely successful. If the political will continues in this direction, if resources which are now spent to renovate car fleets are instead concentrated in improving public realm in a way which is just and inclusive, maybe this future is not too far away
Enrica is reader in Transport Planning at the University of Westminster and leads the MSc Transport Planning and Management. Her research lies at the intersection of a number of fields including urban system, transport and economic geography. Key research interests include geography of mobility, planning for sustainable accessibility, transitions to low-carbon and low-energy living and societies, decision-making processes. She’s currently leading the London team of the EX-TRA international research project studying transition experiments in city streets.
Ersilia Verlinghieri is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy and a Research Associate in Urban Mobility at the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit. Since 2012, Ersilia’s research focuses on developing theoretical and methodological approaches to issues of equity and health in transport. She is currently involved as lead researcher for the Car-free megacities project and she has recently joined a project on the governance of radical mobility changes with the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions.