Cities are made up of a dense network of streets that should, at least on paper, facilitate the movement of people and goods. But is it always so? Koos Fransen and Lucy Sadler ponder on the value of Urban Vehicle Access Regulations in focusing on people at the centre of more sustainable, liveable and just urban mobility planning

© Pixabay

Since the rise of the automobile post-Second World War, cities have embraced cars as a symbol of prosperity and have adapted their streets to their use – and, at times, abuse: new arterial roads, car-favouring mobility policies or excessive parking lots have brought car drivers to the heart of cities, as such maximizing their mobility.

However, this increase in car travel distances and frequencies has resulted in negative side effects, such as a decrease in traffic safety, high level of air and noise pollution and loss of qualitative public space. Turns out, unironically, that freedom for all to move by car, often means freedom to sit in traffic jams.

Freedom for all to move by car, often means freedom to sit in traffic jams © Pixabay

More recently, cities are increasingly and actively working to reduce the number of cars in their centres. Although the street network is crucial in efficiently providing accessibility, cities are rethinking and reshaping it into a more resilient and sustainable configuration. Urban vehicle access regulations (UVARs) are one of the tools that can help make cities more liveable, healthier, and more attractive for all. Interventions in public space (e.g., reconversion of parking, school streets), regulatory measures (e.g., regulations by emission or vehicle size) or pricing aspects (e.g., congestion charges) aim to increase the quality of life by reducing car traffic in favour of active mobility modes and public transport.

Urban sustainable mobility and social justice: a dichotomy?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for cities when implementing UVARs, resulting in a wide range of possible implementations adapted to the specific needs of the cities and its inhabitants. However, issues of equity are often raised when cities implement an UVAR, as finding the balance between sustainability (often from an environmental perspective) and equity (often from a social perspective) is not an easy task. Indeed, there is an adverse effect of both a lack of and an excess of mobility: excessive mobility leads to externalities that cities are combatting by implementing UVAR, yet these same UVAR, if not designed well, could result in insufficient mobility for certain population groups.

Doughnut Economics

Doughnut economics is a visual representation for sustainable development. Shaped like a doughnut, it combines the concept of planetary boundaries (ecological ceilings that life depends on and must not be overshot, like a stable climate, fertile soils, and the Earth’s protective ozone layer) with the complementary concept of social boundaries and life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice).

For more, read here and here

There are a number of equity issues that cities should consider when implementing an UVAR. Public space, for example, is often unevenly distributed and often dominated by car use, with cars being automatically granted space, and other road users having to merely ‘squeeze in’. Well-designed UVAR place restrictions to facilitate access for people and goods rather than more vehicles, that can be otherwise the case in many urban areas. In time, this especially benefits those groups that are more prone to walk and cycle in the city. Moreover, any measure to reduce traffic or emissions will benefit vulnerable groups, such as children, elderly or people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions. Concentrations of pollution are higher in areas where more vulnerable and lower income groups live, who on average also own fewer vehicles and primarily travel by bike, on foot or on public transport. An UVAR implementation focused on decreasing pollution levels may be directed towards these areas specifically.

Van Gogh Hackford Road © Cross River Partnership/London Borough of Hackney

Road space: bus vs bike vs car

That being said, specific risks of strengthening existing inequities have to be taken into account when implementing UVAR. Charging schemes, for example, can have a higher impact on lower income car-owning groups. Certain unfavourable situations may also exist for households with mobility-induced social exclusion or forced car ownership. Some of these may warrant special attention through supportive mobility measures or complimentary measures – notably, people with disabilities. Similarly, it is often claimed by business groups that the implementation of an UVAR will lead to significant negative economic impacts, business closures and other gloomy consequences. This has been observed, but specifically for more specialized goods. A well-designed UVAR must look to ensure that groups are not disproportionately affected, and that access to the zone conditioned by it is enabled by the first choice of transport mode. At the same time, local authorities involved in the UVAR development and implementation need to pay attention to the fact that traffic reduced in one area is not then disproportionately displaced to other places. This has in some cases led to claims of UVARs calming or reducing traffic in well-off areas at the expense of traffic increase in low-income areas. While some increase of traffic may be inevitable on the major roads (which are likely to house those on lower incomes), other measures should be aimed at reducing the impact of any additional traffic increases – for example smoothing traffic flows or reducing through traffic for the whole city.

An increased focus on people rather than places or modes

The considerations outlined above are crucial for cities that aim to find the balance between sustainable development and social equity when implementing UVAR. There are some salient points for cities to reach this goal.

Stakeholder involvement, for example, should be planned to gain a broad spectrum of views, rather than the ‘usual suspects’, or trade and lobby groups, to ensure that the needs of all are incorporated. In addition, this is the basis for participation and co-creation, where citizens get a say in how their urban environment is designed. In Vienna, for example, a process of co-creation has led citizens to rethink the urban structure – similar to the superblock concept in Barcelona – while considering the perspective of women and other often disadvantaged, non-hegemonic groups. In Ljubljana, small interventions in the public domain were designed and implemented jointly with primary school and kindergarten children. In the city of Dinslaken, all public playgrounds are systematically (re)designed in cooperation with its users, especially focusing on children and their parents.

Non-hegemonic groups

As explained by our authors,

… the term “non-hegemonic” might sound cryptic – but it actually expands on the concept of “being disadvantaged”. To be “non-hegemonic” is to not be in power, which is key for us when describing the shift of perspective required by UVARs, as it also translates into a shift of power.

These are all remarkable stories that give us valuable lessons, such as that focusing on UVARs using a ‘gender lens’ can help look at it from all users’ perspectives, to assess whether the UVAR discriminates against any group unintentionally; or that undertaking equity audits of the UVAR plans (e.g., London’s equalities audit, Vienna’s gender perspective) can help to assess the potential impacts of the UVAR and the need for complementary measures to reduce any negative impacts. Herein, communication is key, as communicating on the benefits and complementary measures with appropriate information is important to counter – often unlikely or unjustified – fears. Finally, giving people enough time to make adaptations, and making sure the alternatives are in place as long as possible before the UVAR starts, are further keys to success. But lessons, as such, are not enough – it takes guts for a city to take what often seems (but in reality is not) a leap of urban and mobility faith: one that requires changing perspective and adapting to transition towards people-centred urban mobility planning. However, there is hope – so much of it, that it almost feels like cities are finally getting bolder, more ambitious even, and Urban Vehicle Access Regulations are at the forefront of this ground-breaking transition.


The ReVeAL project (Regulating Vehicle Access for Improved Liveability) is a CIVITAS initiative founded by Horizon 2020. The project will help to add Urban Vehicle Access Regulations (UVAR) to the standard range of urban mobility transition approaches of cities across Europe.

Check the project website and read ReVeAL’s previous contribution to Thinking Cities here.

Koos Fransen and Lucy Sadler are, respectively, Post-doctoral Researcher at Ghent University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Founder of STR.AAT, and Director at Sadler Consultants Europe GmbH

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