News: 19 March 2020Southampton - a car-free city centre?

Consultation is underway on the ‘Southampton City Vision’, the new planning document to shape future development across the city, providing an important opportunity for Southampton to address key issues plaguing the city including traffic congestion, particularly within the city centre, and poor air quality. The plan is to cover the next 20 years and beyond, so it provides a real opportunity to make a difference.  

We are being asked in the consultation about the priorities for Southampton so that the council can understand what people and businesses in the city need. Our previous blog considered how improving connectivity could be the key to help unlock Southampton’s identity, but could the answer to better connectivity in Southampton be a car-free future? Prioritising the pedestrian and cyclist is not straightforward in a city where the car is king.  The arguments against removing vehicular routes have been well rehearsed when other cities have made such a radical suggestion, but others have shown that becoming as car-free is possible.

The most famous car-free city is probably Venice but there is no need to flood the streets to achieve this status. Madrid, Amsterdam and Oslo are all large cities dominated by cars but have plans underway to ban private motor vehicles from their city centre roads. An attractive local environment and reducing air pollution are key reasons for change.

The drive for cities to be car-free is gaining momentum in the UK, with the charge led by York who have recently announced that they are on track to have the first car-free city centre by ending all "non-essential" car journeys inside its historic city walls within three years. So, could Southampton follow suit?

The ‘Southampton City Vision’ consultation provides a platform for these important conversations. Political will alongside gaining the support of businesses and local people could make this a reality. But these conversations must also include young people who are acutely aware of environmental issues, highlighted by activists such as Greta Thunberg and the student climate strikes which hit the headlines in May last year. Other than the standard consultation drop-in events and online consultation, it is not clear how young people are being asked to join this discussion but ultimately the future of the city will be determined by whether future generations want to live and work here so they must have a seat at the table.  

So, what are likely to be the main obstacles to Southampton becoming car-free?  

Quite simply, people like to drive. It may become a generational thing but using the is car seen as being the easy option for getting from A to B so providing a convenient, cost -effective and reliable alternative will be important to facilitate change. Investment in public transport, alongside making significant improvements to the walking and cycling network will help achieve this. Initiatives such as the A3024 Bursledon Road junction improvements, where traffic signals are held on green for longer to allow the approaching bus to get through, should become established city wide. Other initiatives such as the Carbon Stoppers scheme developed by Yellow Busses in Bournemouth where they make a charity donation for journeys taken on what they have called ‘Thank You Thursday’ could further incentivise people to switch from the car to more sustainable modes of transport. Upgraded bicycle and pedestrian routes must also be taken beyond the city centre limits so that they are a safe and attractive alternative mode of transport.

But, could removing cars from the city centre mean that people no longer want to go there? The possible reduction in footfall and the knock-on effect on the local economy was raised as a concern when York was looking to become car-free. However, many car-free cities have become popular tourist destinations so improvements to the local environment could in fact increase potential spending power. Imagine green walkways along Portland Terrace rather than the rather grey street which links the Guildhall to the main shopping area. This could be a busting and popular route which helps to attract people to spend a day in the city centre or new businesses to locate.

Greening the city is already supported in the current ‘City Centre Action Plan’ for Southampton which advocates the idea of creating a network of strategic and cycle links and facilitating a ‘Green Grid’ of routes, linking areas of open space. These ideas are not new and take forward principles presented by post-war town planner Patrick Abercrombie in his ambitious plans for rebuilding London. He advocated the idea of developing a closely linked park system, with parkways along existing and new roads forming the links between the larger parks. His plans were somewhat thwarted by the increased use of the car which meant that tree-lined routes which acted as links between parks were not so attractive for pedestrians, but the idea is still with merit. Making Southampton car-free would provide an opportunity to go back to first principles and the initial vision Abercrombie had for London, albeit on a smaller scale.

Southampton already aspires to be a green city with the vision to be a cleaner, greener, heather and more sustainable city set out in the Green City Charter. The reduction in car use alongside increasing tree planting would make significant steps towards reducing air pollution and achieving the council’s target of being carbon neutral by 2030. The importance of reducing air pollution should not be underestimated. The Government says that air pollution is one of the biggest threats to public health in the UK - behind only cancer, obesity and heart disease. Although the Government’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 acknowledges transport is only one part of the story, the standpoint made by banning cars form the city centre in Southampton could act as a catalyst for wider change.

The discussions being had around the ‘Southampton City Vision’ provide an important opportunity to table these ‘big picture’ ideas. There is the chance for Southampton to really put its head above the parapet and commit to having car-free city centre. Such a move would demonstrate that Southampton is ambitious and forward thinking, and more than a step ahead of its South Coast neighbours.

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Southampton, Connectivity, Placemaking, Transport