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Once there were traffic jams. Europe has changed and we can too. (Photo: Getty Images)
Once there were traffic jams. Europe has changed and we can too. (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyOctober 3, 2022

European cities were once as car-choked as ours – let’s learn from them

Once there were traffic jams. Europe has changed and we can too. (Photo: Getty Images)
Once there were traffic jams. Europe has changed and we can too. (Photo: Getty Images)

Recent changes to planning legislation in New Zealand have enabled quite major changes to our urban landscape. What will we do with this opportunity and what can we learn from Europe?

Every New Zealand urbanist knows that all European cities are great because everyone in Europe is urbane, sophisticated and law-abiding. They’re particularly gracious behind the wheel, if they drive, which they don’t because cycling is in the European’s DNA and everyone cycles everywhere every day. All streets are shared spaces. Trams abound – they have been universally retained since the 1920s – while road-building has had no impact on cities. Unsightly warehousing and heavy industry simply do not exist. Nor does shift work.

Our fantasy Europe is a peaceful place. Centuries of choosing cooperation over conflict means people are robustly altruistic, even choosing to rent rather than own a home; there’s none of that ugly property speculation and anyway, there’s no such thing as a rotten European rental. Continent-wide socialism keeps public transport flush with cash and any cars that do exist are pocket-sized. Our picture of “Europe” is a weird amalgam of Scandinavian design, French trains, Dutch bicycles and Swiss chocolatiers.

While that picture is clearly nonsense, it has a powerful hold on our subconscious, and it gets invoked whenever we try to improve New Zealand’s cities. “European people are different”, we are told. “This won’t work here.” We humans are impulsively suspicious of the unknown; this helps to keep us alive, but it can stymie almost any good idea. Micro-scooters? Nope, too dangerous. Public cycle hire? Too complicated. City Rail Link? Well yes… but 100 years after the idea was first mooted.

How long will we have to rely on artist’s impressions of Auckland train stations like this one?

Above all, we love to forget that European cities were rebuilt for cars just as ours were, leading to suburban sprawl, parking problems and traffic jams. Look at Madrid’s motorway network for example. Or the bizarre Corbusian cityscape around Lyon’s Perrache station.

It’s the same with car parking. Recently I heard an American planner sigh that “it’s a pity we aren’t an historic European capital, where they don’t need to think about car parking.” I almost spat out my tea in astonishment. Had he ever had a conversation about car parking in Paris, he would have known that parking is the “third [electrified] rail” of urban planning — touch it for a nasty shock. Historic European cities? Yeah. Car-free utopias? Nah.

Since the 1970s, some European cities have chosen to reclaim their streets from traffic engineers in favour of people but this has, in almost every case, required political bravery. A good example is Bordeaux, France’s sixth largest city. Its centre is filled with narrow streets that are, for the most part, completely car-free. A comprehensive tramway network brings people over the bridges and down the avenues, interchanging in tree-lined squares. Streets are filled with life. Cars are parked elsewhere.

Trams, bicycles and bollards in central Bordeaux – all built since 2003. (Photo: Supplied)

“Well,” you say. “That couldn’t happen here! Auckland removed its trams in the 1950s. And shared spaces are always full of parked cars.”

I hate to burst your bubble, but the changes in many European cities are recent. The oldest bits of the Bordeaux tramway system opened in 2003 and it has since been repeatedly extended. Like almost all French cities, trams were ripped out of Bordeaux in the 1950s in favour of buses. Sound familiar? Now remember that France has been a car manufacturing powerhouse since the invention of the car itself; Renault, Citroën, Peugeot, plus Michelin, Elf, Total… there are plenty of vested interests in selling more cars to more people.

Bordeaux reintroduced trams under conservative mayor Alain Juppé, who saw public transport as part of a Haussmann-esque improvement programme to attract more people into the city. The trams aren’t just efficient; they are gorgeous, with a Scalextric style centreline pickup that negates any requirement for overhead wires. When your transport system actively makes a city look more attractive, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

The ancient city of Bordeaux hasn’t always been this pedestrian-friendly. Note: bollards. (Photo: Getty Images)

No one parks a car on the pavement in Bordeaux… because it is physically impossible to do so. Every space that a cheeky parker could occupy is meticulously defended with elegant fixed bollards. A system of rising bollards also keeps through-traffic out of the streets, freeing up more space for wandering, socialising, eating and drinking. Bordeaux’s hot climate means that shade and shelter are vital – avenues and squares of trees keep the streets cool and encourage people to linger.

Such measures are far from Europe-wide, but where they exist, they create more beautiful, liveable, sustainable cities. But, remember, those cities are not “natural law” or some reflection of something innately European, they were hard-won. The car-free core of Slovenia’s capital city Ljubljana was vigorously opposed at its conception; now it is a great success. In Holland, opposition to Groningen’s traffic-free city-centre required police protection for the representative charged with its implementation. In London, Waltham Forest’s “Mini-Holland” opening saw a coffin protest down the high street, but has led to vibrant streets and increasingly strong election victories for the politicians that led it. And so on.

Actual Holland looks quite nice too. The cycling culture of Amsterdam is a direct result of government policy. (Photo: supplied)

European cities are typically larger, more crowded, and more complicated than anything we have here. Think about the tonnage of goods moved into Paris per day, for example. Or the numbers of tourists crowding the streets of Salamanca. Or the logistics of collecting rubbish in central Milan. If we have a problem, chances are somewhere else has had it too… and has worked out how to solve it.

So let’s think about the outcomes. Scooter parking causing clutter? Paris has painted parking corrals linked to GPS systems. Concentric systems of rising bollards? Look at Ljubljana or Bordeaux. How about people who can’t walk far? How about free electric mini-shuttles? Ljubljana again. Railway lines only partly electrified? Hybrid trains are your friend. Street trees and roots? Use a Stockholm tree pit. Think about what success looks like and if the logistics of achieving that seem too hard, then look overseas.

It is all too easy to say “that couldn’t happen here” and put it down to national characteristics. This is lazy; it’s also absurd. Imagine if we said that all Australians drive a road train? Surely every New Zealander goes to work by jetboat? Rather than spiral into tedious cliché and resignation, let’s take a different perspective. People are people. We love to park for free, but don’t want anyone else to. We default to the easiest travel behaviour and are creatures of habit, resistant to change. As the habitat of more than half the world’s population, cities are the nexus of problems… and the source of ways to solve them.

Planning professionals need to recognise the universality of the human condition if we are to have grown-up conversations about urban planning and transport. Humans are infinitely adaptable. We all have hopes, dreams, desires and fears, and it’s up to the urban planning community to shape our environments in a way that best enhances our communal and individual lives.

All artists borrow. Great artists steal. Let’s borrow and steal from the best and aim for cities filled with liveability and joy – we deserve them too.

Keep going!