The 12 best ways to get cars out of cities, according to research

Driving cars from cities can help save lives, stabilize climate and make urban areas liveable. But how do you do it best? Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor in sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden, explains her research.

Question: What are the commonalities between these statistics?


  • This is the second-largest (and fastest) source of climate pollutants in Europe.
  • The most common killer of children in Europe or the US is the AIDS virus.
  • European cities are plagued by noise pollution that causes stress and is also a major cause of life-threatening pollution.
  • The widening gap between the urban poor and the rich is a major driver.

Answer: All the vehicles that are on our streets, including the humble passenger car.

Despite the slow but steady migration to electric-powered vehicles, consumer trends are making driving wasteful and less equal. A recent analysisThe emissions from electric cars were more than offset by the rise in gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs). The SUVs are causing more climate pollution than heavy industries and emit more carbon than Canada and Germany.

While cars are sometimes necessary for people’s mobility and social inclusion needs – not least those with disabilities – car-centric cities particularly disadvantage the already-marginalised. The UK has a high concentration of low-income households that include women, older and younger people, people from minority communities, and people with disabilities. 40 per cent do not have a car. Nearly 90% of households with the highest incomes own at least one vehicle.

The driving habits of a minority can cause high costs to society, especially in cities. Copenhagen, for example, has calculated that whereas each kilometre cycled benefits society to the tune of €0.64 (£0.53), each kilometre driven incurs a net loss of -€0.71 (-£0.59), when impacts on individual wellbeing (physical and mental health, accidents, traffic) and the environment (climate, air and noise pollution) are accounted for.

Each kilometre travelled where a car is replaced by a bicycle generates €1.35 (£1.12) of social benefits – of which only a few cents would be saved by switching from a fossil-fuelled to an electric-powered car, according to this analysis.


Data from Copenhagen suggests that cycling benefits society to the tune of €0.64 (£0.53) per km. Image:

How to reduce car use within cities

Half a century back, the Danish capital was dominated primarily by cars. Copenhagen has seen a rise in its bike share since the introduction of separated bike lanes and safe parking. from 10 per cent in 1970 to 35 per cent today. 2016 was the first year that more bicycles than cars traveled around the city.

While many other initiatives to curb car use have been tried around the globe, city planners, citizens, and officials still don’t have a clear, evidence-based approach to reducing car use in cities. Our latest researchPaula Kuss, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, conducted this study and it was published in Case Studies on Transport Policy. This paper aims to address this issue by quantifying the effectiveness different initiatives to reduce urban car usage.

Our study ranks the 12 most effective measures that European cities have introduced in recent decades, based on real-world data on innovations ranging from the ‘carrot’ of bike and walk-to-work schemes to the ‘stick’ of removing free parking. The ranking reflects cities’ successes not only in terms of measurable reductions in car use, but in achieving improved quality of life and sustainable mobility for their residents.

We have screened over 800 peer-reviewed reports and case study from Europe. These reports were published since 2010. Our goal was to find out how cities have successfully reduced car usage. According to our review, the most effective strategies include introducing a congestion fee, which reduces urban car levels anywhere from 12 to 33 percent, as well as creating car-free streets, separated bike lanes, and which has been proven to lower car usage in city centres by up 20 percent.


The London congestion fee is said to have reduced traffic by 33%. Image: Mariana Martin

These are the 12 best ways to cut down on car use in cities

 1. Congestion fees

Our research shows that drivers pay to enter the city centre and the revenue generated goes towards alternative modes of sustainable transport. This is the most efficient measure.

London, a pioneer in this strategy, has reduced city centre traffic by a whopping 33 per cent since the charge’s introduction by the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003. The fixed-charge fee (with exemptions for certain groups and vehicles) has been raised over time, from an initial £5 per day up to £15 since June 2020. Importantly, 80 percent are used to invest in public transport.

Other European cities have followed suit, adopting similar schemes after referenda in Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg – with the Swedish cities varying their pricing by day and time. Congestion charges can lead to a significant and sustained decrease in car use and traffic volume. However, they do not eliminate congestion entirely.

2. Traffic and parking restrictions

In a number of European cities, regulations to remove parking spaces and alter traffic routes – in many cases, replacing the space formerly dedicated to cars with car-free streets, bike lanes and walkways – has proved highly successful. For example, Oslo’s replacement of parking spaces with walkable car-free streets and bike lanes was found to have reduced car usage in the centre of the Norwegian capital by up to 19 per cent.


Copenhagen has seen a rise in bike traffic, from 10% in 1970 to 35% today. Image: Febiyan

3. Zones of limited traffic

Rome, traditionally one of Europe’s most congested cities, has shifted the balance towards greater use of public transport by restricting car entry to its centre at certain times of day to residents only, plus those who pay an annual fee. This policy has reduced car traffic in the Italian capital by 20 per centDuring the restricted hours and 10% during unrestricted hours when all vehicles can visit the centre. The violation fines are used to finance Rome’s public transport system.

4. Mobility services for commuters

Our review found that the most effective carrot-only initiative was a campaign to provide mobility services to commuters in Utrecht, Netherlands. Local government and private businesses collaborated to offer free public transport passes to employees. A private shuttle bus was also provided to connect transit stops to workplaces. The marketing and communication plan promoted the program. achieved a 37 per cent reduction in the share of commuters travelling into the city centre by car.

5. Parking fees for employees

A workplace parking fee is another effective way to reduce car commuters. For example, a large medical centre in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam achieved a 20-25 per cent reduction in employee car commutes through a scheme that charged employees to park outside their offices, while also offering them the chance to ‘cash out’ their parking spaces and use public transport instead. This scheme was three times more efficient than the more extensive program in Nottingham, UK. It applied a workplace parking fee to all major cities with more than ten parking spaces. The revenue raised went towards supporting the Midlands city’s public transport network, including expansion of a tram line.

Rome, once a notorious city for its congestion, has reduced traffic by 20% Image: Claudio Hirschberger

6. Workplace travel planning

In cities all over Europe, programs that provide advice and strategies for travel within companies have been popular. A major study, published in 2010, assessing 20 cities across the UK found an average of 18 per cent of commuters switched from car to another mode after a full range of measures were combined – including company shuttle buses, discounts for public transport and improved bike infrastructure – as well as reduced parking provision.

Norwich achieved nearly identical rates with a different program. It adopted a comprehensive plan, but did not receive discounts for public transportation. These carrot-and-stick efforts appear to have been more effective than Brighton & Hove’s carrot-only approach of providing plans and infrastructure such as workplace bicycle storage, which saw a 3 per cent shift away from car use.

7. Planning for University Travel

University travel programs often combine the two carrots of active travel and public transport with the stick of parking management. The University of Bristol is the most notable example of this combination. They reduced car usage by 27 percent and gave employees access to better bike infrastructure, public transport discounts, and other benefits.

A more ambitious programme in the Spanish city of San Sebastián targeted both staff and students at Universidad del País Vasco. Although the reduction in car use was only 7.2 percent, it was still significant for university commuters.

8. Mobility services for universities

Catania, a Sicilian city, used a carrot-only strategy for its students. The city provided students with shuttle connections to campus and a free public transportation pass. It was also able to reduce the number of students who commute by car by 24%.

9. Car sharing

Our analysis revealed that car sharing can be quite divisive in terms of reducing car use within cities. These schemes, which allow members to rent a nearby car for a few hours, have shown promising results in Bremen (Germany) and Genoa (Italy), with each shared vehicle replacing between 12-15 private vehicles on average. They integrated shared cars and stations with public transport and bike infrastructure, increasing their number.

Both schemes offered car sharing for employees as well as awareness-raising campaigns. But other studiesThere is a risk that car-sharing may actually encourage previously car-free residents, to increase their car usage. We recommend further research to find ways to make car sharing programs reduce overall car use.

Brighton has tried the carrot approach to traffic reduction – with some success. Image: Martin Forster

10. School travel planning

Two English cities, Brighton & Hove and Norwich, have used (and assessed) the carrot-only measure of school travel planning: providing trip advice, planning and even events for students and parents to encourage them to walk, bike or carpool to school, along with providing improved bike infrastructure in their cities. Norwich found it was able to reduce the share of car use for school trips by 10.9 per cent using this approach, while Brighton’s analysis found the impact was about half that much.

11. Personalised travel plans

Many cities have experimented with personal travel analysis and plans for individual residents, including Marseille in France, Munich in Germany, Maastricht in the Netherlands and San Sebastián in Spain. These programmes – providing journey advice and planning for city residents to walk, bike or use (sometimes discounted) public transport – are found to have achieved modest-sounding reductions of 6-12 per cent.

They can be useful in reducing car use because they include all residents of the city. (San Sebastián introduced both university and personalised travel planning in parallel, which is likely to have reduced car use further than either in isolation.)

12. Apps for sustainable mobility

Mobile phone technology plays a growing role when it comes to strategies to reduce car usage. Bologna, an Italian city, created an app that allows people and teams of employees to track their mobility. Participants competed for points for walking, biking, and taking public transport. Local businesses offered rewards for those who reached their goals.

There is great interest in such gamification of sustainable mobility – and at first glance, the data from the Bologna app looks striking. An impressive 73 per centUsers reported using their car less. It is impossible to calculate the reduction in distance or emissions from this data unlike other studies, so the overall effectiveness of the study is uncertain. Both a short trip to the car and a long commute can count as driving less.

Although mobility data from apps can be valuable for improving transport planning and services, smart solutions must be well designed to ensure that they actually reduce emissions and promote sustainable transport. current evidence is mixed. For example, a 2021 study found that after a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft enters an urban market, vehicle ownership increases – particularly in already car-dependent cities – and public transport use declines in high-income areas.


Using a bike instead of a car generates £1.12 of social benefits per km, data suggests. Image: Pedal Me

There is no silver bullet.

The research shows that reducing car usage is an urgent priority to improve health outcomes and meet climate targets. Many governments in the US, Europe, and elsewhere continue to heavily subsidise driving. This is through a combination tax allowances, subsidies for fossil fuel production, and tax allowances for car commuting. Incentives for company cars that encourage driving over other modes of transport include tax incentives, subsidies for fossil fuel production, and tax allowances for car commuting. These subsidies pay polluters, while also imposing social costs on the wider community.

City leaders have a wider range of policy instruments at their disposal than some might realise – from economic instruments such as charges and subsidies, to behavioural ones like providing feedback comparing individuals’ travel decisions with their peers’. Our study found that more than 75 per cent of the urban innovations that have successfully reduced car use were led by a local city government – and in particular, those that have proved most effective, such as congestion charges, parking and traffic controls, and limited traffic zones.

But an important insight from our study is that narrow policies don’t seem to be as effective – there is no silver bullet solution. The best cities combine several policy instruments to encourage sustainable travel.

Kimberly Nicholas is associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University, Sweden. 

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. You can read the original article.

Main image: Denys Nevozhai

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