Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new film shows the Norwegian capital’s progress on banning cars downtown by 2019.
Oslo is growing faster than just about any other city in Europe—logical, given the Norwegian capital’s famously superb quality of life. But a booming population threatens that status, to an extent. More people means cramped sidewalks, heavier traffic, and worse pollution in a region where air quality can already be deadly.
So in 2015, the Tiger City made a bold promise: To stanch emissions and smooth mobility for residents, all cars will be banned downtown by 2019. If delivered, the plan would be the first comprehensive and permanent four-wheel prohibition in any major European city (Paris, Dublin, Madrid, and Milan are working on similar, if smaller-scale ambitions). To pull it off, Oslo has set about creating a downtown that puts pedestrians first—and as a short documentary from STREETFILMS director Clarence Eckerson shows, the transformation is well underway.
Most visibly, Oslo is taking an eraser to on-street parking. Before-and-after shots in the film show bustling sidewalks, plazas, and bike lanes sprouting from what were automotive resting places; the city has promised to eliminate all street parking around the center city by the end of 2017. “You can see the trucks with the asphalt,” Liv Jorun Andenes, the communications officer for the Oslo Agency of Cycling, tells Eckerson in the film as she cruises her bike down a freshly remade road. Elsewhere, car lanes are tightening to make room for cycle tracks—of which Oslo plans to have an additional 60 kilometers by 2019, part of an astounding $1 billion investment in bike infrastructure across Norway.
Then there’s public transportation. Ruter, the agency that manages Olso’s trains, trams, buses, and ferries, has been asked to absorb virtually all of the additional journeys by Oslo’s new inhabitants. To do that, “we actually said walking first,” Frode Hvattum, head of strategy at Ruter, tells Eckerson. “The more they walk, the better. Then bicycling, then public transportation.” New tram lines are on the way, and old systems are getting more efficient, with four-door buses and mobile ticketing helping riders board faster across all modes of transit. The city’s bike share system was also recently overhauled with lighter bike frames, more stations and docks, and a simpler interface for new riders—and the local government is subsidizing purchases of electric cargo bikes.
Kicking cars out of any capital may be an impractical goal at this point in history, since retailers still rely on ground shipments. Skeptics say Oslo may be more likely to end up with large swaths of car-free areas, rather than an entirely devoid city center. “It’s not like the cars are going to disappear overnight,” Simon Paquin Daigle, a local bike shop worker, tells Eckerson.
But even if it’s not a reality by 2019, the vision of a car-free future is clearly motivating a significant re-working of the street fabric. Coupled with the downtown road pricing scheme it’s long had in place, and a national push to eliminate gas-powered cars by 2025, Oslo may well become an international model of a people-first downtown.