Climate change challenge - Do cars have a future in city centres?

Climate change challenge - Do cars have a future in city centres?

Voluble opposition to the three-hour St Patrick’s Street car ban was strong enough to see the city council’s first attempt abandoned after three weeks before Lady Macbeth’s counsel about courage and sticking places was heeded.

The ban is still with us, as are periodic pleas from retailers for it to be aborted once again and, from the Greens, for it to be extended to six hours each day.

It would be fair to assume that a proposal for a total car ban across Cork’s city centre would be trashed — though not by the Green Party and their Extinction Rebellion friends — in short order as so radical as to be the work of unbalanced minds.

But city authorities across Europe — from Madrid to Athens and Oslo to Rome — are signing up in one way or another and with varying timescales to the car-free movement, with bans on all cars, or old cars, or those with diesel engines.

Two recent UK additions to the roll-call are York, which plans to ban non-essential private car use within its walled medieval centre by 2023 in an effort to cut carbon emissions, and Bristol, where the local council says its aim is to be the first British city to ban diesel cars by 2021.

Few if any of these measures escape obstruction and, in some cities, attempts by defiant car owners to evade them. Some of them end up in legal challenges; in Germany, Angela Merkel has described a number of court orders enforcing bans as “disproportionate”.

In a classic example of English under-statement, a local councillor in York concedes that “people’s first response might be to be a bit anxious about what we’re proposing”.

The motives for what one Oslo councillor has condemned as “a Berlin wall against motorists” vary, too.

The aim in one city might be to make the air breathable; an Oxford University study estimated that approximately 10,000 deaths can be attributed each year in Europe to pollution from diesel cars.

While in another it will be presented as a contribution to tackling climate change, even though it will count as nothing when put in the scales against carbon emissions being pumped out in China, India and the US.

Whatever the given reasons, the tide appears to be unstoppable, and it’s unlikely to be hindered by a gradual switch to battery-powered cars.

Retailers, residents and planners must start thinking now about the impact — cultural and commercial — it might have on our city centres in the decades ahead. What will it mean for the provision and funding of public transport in the shape of buses, trams and trains?

Where taxis are exempted, can their fares be subsidised?

What will need to be done to ensure elderly and disabled people can get into and out of city centres easily?

The bicycle is not a form of transport practicable for all. How can our historic city centres be re-invented to maintain them as the valued focal points they have been for centuries?

As Bob Dylan told us, we don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

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