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London’s ambitious plan: Make half its historic center car-free

Plus a protected bike network, zero-emission zone, and 15 mph speed limit

The number of people riding bikes has dramatically increased in London as the city uses congestion pricing to pay for new infrastructure.
Carl Court/Getty Images

Dozens of cities around the world are working quickly to move towards a goal of zero-emission transportation on their streets. Now London has just announced a plan to make half of its historic center—known as the Square Mile—car-free.

According to a new transportation strategy proposed by the City of London Corporation, the city would designate half of these Square Mile streets as “pedestrian priority,” meaning that all motorized vehicles would be banned, unless they were providing access for disabled or elderly people.

“The Square Mile is a unique place to travel, therefore radical proposals are required to future-proof this world-class, growing business and cultural center,” said Chris Hayward, chair of the city’s planning and transportation department, in a statement.

Bikes would also get a boost under the new plan. In 2016, London earmarked a staggering $1 billion for bike infrastructure, including expanding its network of cycling superhighways. The latest proposal would move to implement a “core cycling” network across the city center, including two-meter protected cycle lanes on most major streets (that’s a very wide 6.5 feet per lane).

In addition to the car-free zone, the city center would enforce a speed limit of 15 mph—far lower than most other cities which have capped speeds at 25 or 20 mph. This change would be the most dramatic from a street safety perspective, as speed has been blamed as a factor for the deaths of people on bikes and foot.

The City of London Corporation is the same organization which first implemented the city’s very successful congestion pricing program in 2003. The program charges vehicles to access the city center and uses those funds to improve biking and walking infrastructure and public transportation service.

But even that plan needs to be overhauled, says the City of London Corporation, to move towards more variable pricing that would prioritize cleaner vehicles. The Square Mile plan will designate additional zero-emission zones where other shared transportation services will be subjected to strict regulations. London’s iconic double-decker buses will soon be the largest electric fleet in Europe. And Uber recently announced that the company will have an all-electric fleet in the city by 2025. That’s a much bigger promise than Uber has made in the U.S., where it’s working with seven cities to increase EV adoption but hasn’t set any specific goals.

“The Mayor of London has set out a bold vision to tackle air pollution in the capital and we’re determined to do everything we can to back it,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

London’s vision will certainly improve air quality, but it will also make a huge dent in its climate impact. Although emissions have peaked in many major cities, the next challenge is achieving carbon-neutrality, and no major city can really do that without shifting at least half of its trips onto zero-emission active and public modes of transportation.

This newest proposal isn’t the only plan to pedestrianize major parts of London. Earlier this year, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s transportation strategy outlined goals to make London a city “where walking, cycling and green public transport become the most appealing and practical choices for many more journeys.”