Oslo dwellers divided over city's drive to get cars off the streets

Determined to go green, Oslo is slowly but surely ridding its city centre of motorists, angering some who say the "war on cars" is putting the brakes on individual freedoms.

"We have to give the city back to the people, so children can play safely,so elderly people can have more benches to sit on," argues Hanna Marcussenoutside Oslo's City Hall, its cobblestone square recently blocked off totraffic.

"In order to do that, you have to get rid of cars, which take up adisproportionate amount of space," the Greens city councillor in charge ofurban development says.

While they may not seem spectacular, Oslo has devised a series of highlydissuasive measures: it has eliminated 700 parking spots, re-zoned the citycentre, turned streets into pedestrian walkways, and has raised the price ofcongestion tolls.

It's not the outright ban that was initially feared -- and which promptedone lawmaker to call it "a Berlin Wall against motorists".

But in a 1.9-square-kilometer (0.7-square-mile) zone in Oslo's centre --where some 5,500 people live and 120,000 people work -- the only cars to beseen are taxis, vehicles for the disabled, emergency vehicles and a fewlost and confused motorists.

"In 2020, we will have eliminated most private cars," says Hanna Marcussen.

Hanna Marcussen:Photo: Fredrik Varfjell/AFP

Sidewalk cafes can already be seen popping up, as well as outdoorfurniture, bike paths and bike stands.

Designated "European Green Capital" by the European Commission for 2019,Oslo hopes the move will purify its air, encourage more cultural activitiesand reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which it aims to cut by 95 percent by


Oslo is spearheading a broader trend, with other big cities like Paris,Madrid, Brussels and Helsinki all trying to reverse from the car-basedsociety.

"What is most tragic about this war on cars is that politicians areattacking people's freedoms and their wallets," protests Jarle Aabo.

A public relations executive, he writes the newsletter "Yes to Cars inOslo", which counts almost 23,000 members on Facebook -- where comments are attimes harsh.

"What people fear is that the centre of Oslo will die, that it will becomea very depressing place," he says, contradicting the official line.

"I don't know how all of this is going to end but I don't think happycyclists are going to come do street performances and dances in January whenit's -20°C (-4 F) with snow up to their knees."

Jarle Aabo:Photo: Fredrik Varfjell/AFP

Shopkeepers worried

And yet, cyclists are thrilled.

"It's going to be great," says Christopher Olsson, a photographer whousually bikes around town. "There are a lot of conflicts between motorists andcyclists."

"But if we totally eliminate cars, we need to improve public transport,both in terms of price and quality," he adds.

And that's a big problem.

With a single ticket costing almost six euros ($7), public transportremains expensive. Users also complain about delays and problems, made worsewhen they have to wait in subzero temperatures in winter.

While more than half of residents are in favour of a city centre "with asfew cars as possible", some shopkeepers are not happy.

A stone's throw from City Hall, a bed store located inside a "no-car" zonesince June 1st is glaringly empty.

"Our clients complain that they can't come," owner Terje Cosma explains.

"We sell merchandise that you can't walk out with under your arm, so a lotof them are dependent on cars."

While the shop's sales were doing well until June, business has sincecollapsed.

Two neighbouring boutiques have already closed up shop. Customers areheading to large shopping centres outside the city instead.

"Restaurants, cafes and bars will probably benefit, but not specialisedshops. We'll lose variety," laments Cosma.

Marcussen remains nonetheless confident.

"With or without cars, a city centre will always change shape over time,"she insists.

"If there's one place where I really think shops will continue to do well,it's in city centres where you can combine shopping with outings to culturalevents or restaurants."

Read more news of Oslo on our site.

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