Athlyn Cathcart-Keays discusses in an article in The Guardian about the up and down transformation currently underway in Oslo to find a sustainable urban transport system that is satisfactory to all citizens. There are many lessons to learn from this experience.
Oslo’s car ban sounded simple enough. Then the backlash began
One day late last summer, in Frogner, a central neighbourhood of Oslo, Nils Sandberg received a note.
“It simply stated that shortly, parking spaces in these streets would disappear and bicycle lanes would be built,” says Sandberg. He spoke to neighbours, and learned they had all received the same note. “This came as a total surprise and shock.”
More people own cars in Frogner than in most other parts of Oslo – 38% household ownership, compared to roughly 30% in other central neighbourhoods – and the idea of losing all their parking space to bike lanes did not appeal.
“We are not against cycling,” says Sandberg, who now leads a campaign to save the parking spaces. “We do, however, believe that cycling is not the only reason for the chosen routes – it is definitely also meant to force a maximum number of cars out.”
This was, in truth, exactly the plan. When a progressive political alliance took power over Oslo’s city council in October 2015, they had made one of their first priorities a greener and more liveable environment in the city. With an almost 30% increase in population expected by 2040, the Norwegian capital was worried about its carbon footprint.
It wasted no time, selling off its coal investments, creating a renewable district heating system and firmly committing to slashing greenhouse gas emissions (to 95% of 1990 levels) by 2030.
The biggest bugbear, however, was transport, which accounts for 61% of the city’s CO2 emissions – a full 39% of it coming from private cars.
Yet the council presided over a city that already boasted the world’s highest proportion of electric vehicles, and ran a third of its bus fleet on fossil fuel alternatives. What more could be done?
One big idea: ban cars from the city centre. If pulled off, the plan would see Oslo become the first major European city to have a permanent, complete no-car-zone, racing ahead of a long list of cities seeking to do the same.
The proposed car-free zone seemed like a good place to start. It focused on Ring 1, the innermost ring road of Oslo’s three motorways, a 1.7km sq area that is home to around 1,000 people of whom 88.1% do not own a car. Just 7% commute by car, with 64% doing so on public transport, 22% on foot and 7% by bike. Banning all cars – petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric – seemed like an easy win.
“The city becomes more enjoyable and more accessible without car traffic,” read the coalition’s declaration in October 2015.
There was just one problem.
“A Berlin Wall against motorists,” declared one conservative party politician. “Car owners feel ‘bullied’ in Oslo”, blared an English-language news site.
The biggest backlash, however, came from the city’s trade association, the Oslo Handelsstands Forening (OHF). It said it feared the plans would create a “dead town”, and a “poorer city [with] less life”.
“Many speciality shops depend on people coming from far away, who may not bother to come if they have a complex travel route,” says OHF communications manager Beathe Radby Schieldrop, explaining their opposition. “People tend to shop where it is easy to shop.”
The plan was simply too revolutionary, the group maintains. “It’s too much and too soon,” Schieldrop says. “Shop owners and visitors need time to adapt.”
If you can’t ban cars…
So, after almost a year of back and forth, Oslo’s council changed tack.
“We modified some of the plans after discussing things with shopkeepers,” says Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, a Green party politician and the city’s vice mayor for environment and transport. “Not because we think that more cars means more shoppers. But because we need to ensure that the transport of goods to shops can be both good for city life and shopkeepers.
“We chose a gradual model, rather than one where you remove everything and then fill it in [with alternatives] after.”
The council changed its stated ambition to have a car-free city centre. It now wants the “fewest possible vehicles”. Drivers are by no means off the hook. “The goal is that people with cars will feel like they’re visitors, rather than owning the streets,” says Berg. “We’ll make it difficult for people to want to drive or get around by car.”
Even electric vehicles (previously allowed in bus lanes) will feel the heat, Berg says. “The goal is that there should be no more space for cars, and an electric vehicle still takes up space,” she says. “By 2030, I hope that all cars in the city will be electric – [but] we won’t have space for them all.”
The council’s clever solution? Rather than banning cars, it would ban parking – all 650 on-street parking spots. In their place, “we’ll put up installations and create public spaces,” says Berg, referring to six pilot areas. “Some will be playgrounds or cultural events, or [contain] benches or bike parking – or other things you can fill the space with when you don’t have 1,200 kilograms of glass and steel.”
Oslo’s transformation will be rolled out in three phases. In stage one, all on-street parking within Ring 1 will be removed, as well as some parking in surrounding areas deemed to be “in conflict with bike development”. Car parks in and around the central zone will stay, but many other on-street parking spaces will be freed up for alternative uses.
Stage two, in 2018, will see the pedestrian network extended, and close several streets to private traffic; shared space will be introduced, and 40 miles of bike lanes built.
The council’s final year will be one of reflection. “We’ll see if the removal of parking and the restrictions on driving through the city centre will be enough,” says Berg. “If it’s necessary to get to our goal, then we’ll create a car ban. But, until 2019, we’ll see if we can do it through more gentle and natural initiatives.”
‘We’re not against cycling but …’
The opposition from car owners, like Sandberg in Frogner – which is not itself in the city centre but is nevertheless seeing its parking spaces reduced – has thrown a wrench into the plans, but the idea of extending the cycle network is not actually new. In 1977, the council planned a fully connected cycle grid. Little has materialised, however: from 2005-2015, just one mile of bike lane was constructed on average every year. The number of cyclists has grown, but in the absence of dedicated cycling infrastructure, serious injuries are becoming more common.
“There are lots of nice bike paths to get to the centre, but as soon as you reach it, pfff, gone,” says Liv Jorun Andenes, an information officer for the City of Oslo bicycle office. “But that’s where all the traffic, the tram tracks and trucks are. So that’s where you really need good solutions.”
Oslo’s cycle modal share – the proportion of trips taken by bike – sits at 8.3%, which the council wants to increase to 25% by 2025. It drops to 3% in the winter, although the council’s efforts to clear snow from bike lanes has helped. “The bicycle still hasn’t become a natural part of life for people here,” says Andenes. “A lot of people regard it as a seasonal thing when the sun is shining … But it is starting to change.”
For those put off by Oslo’s hills, the council released 5 million Norwegian krone (£465,000) to help citizens purchase electric bikes. This year, they’re targeting families with another money pot for cargo bikes.
Cycling is at a tipping point: while some cities build bike lanes and ban cars, others are experiencing a backlash. Will the future of cities be two-wheeled?
Bicycles will also replace delivery vans in a new pilot project: starting this month, a container in the Aker Brygge neighbourhood will function as a micro-terminal for freight transport – the first of its kind in Norway. Goods will be dropped at the terminal, and distributed throughout the city by electric bicycle. The plan is a collaboration between the public roads administration, Oslo municipality and DHL.
And for every resident who hates the idea of banning cars (or parking), there are several who welcome it. In Grünerløkka, where around 185 parking spots are being removed, local Marius Åslund is looking forward to the coming changes. “I’ve lived in both Copenhagen and Amsterdam and I’m used to cycling everywhere. Now living in Oslo I’ve only ridden my bike a handful of times,” he says. “If they’re going to build safe bike lanes that mean I don’t have to ride with trams and cars, then I’d definitely consider cycling to work.”
Even the shopkeeper’s association is happier. “We’ve participated in numerous meetings and have come up with the idea that the best thing would be to carefully change things street by street,” says Schieldrop. “Make every street a success, and then celebrate the transformation. Success is totally dependent on the participation of shops and cafes – no one will sit on a bench in an empty street.”