As the new year arrived, news headlines celebrated the fact Oslo, Norway, had just become the first city to ban cars from its downtown. The notion of banning cars sounds extreme, but they didn’t just throw up concrete barriers on New Year’s Eve and walk away. It was a natural progression in a decades-long journey for the Nordic city.
Comparing a Canadian city such as Winnipeg to one in Europe is always met with skepticism, but there’s an interesting parallel to be found between the decisions made a generation ago in two cities of similar size, leading to one that would ban cars and one that continues to ban pedestrians from parts of their respective city centres today.
Oslo is a much older city, but it had a similar population to Winnipeg when cars came on the scene in the 1920s. By the 1970s, both were experiencing the effects of the vehicle age, seeing an exodus of population from central neighbourhoods and high growth in new suburbs on the edges of the city.
Each had lost about 25 per cent of its population density over 20 years and both downtown cores were struggling. Surprisingly, by 1970, the mature neighbourhoods of Oslo and Winnipeg (ones with grid streets and elm trees) had similar population densities of about 5,000 people per square kilometre, and similar overall populations of about 200,000.
Car ownership was growing, the cities were expanding, inner neighbourhoods were decaying, traffic congestion was increasing and public transit use was declining. Each city responded to this in a completely different way.
In 1972, Unicity was established and Winnipeg amalgamated with its outer suburbs. With this shift in power, urban expansion accelerated outward and density continued to decline. Since that time, Winnipeg’s built area has grown almost three times faster than its population. Car ownership and traffic congestion has exploded, with almost 15,000 more cars added to the city’s roads every year. The city’s sprawling growth has meant imbalanced tax revenues, an infrastructure deficit of $7 billion, crumbling roads and reduced services.
Oslo did it differently. In 1976, the first of a series of master plans centred on a "compact city" strategy was introduced. The forests surrounding Oslo were established as a hard "green belt" called the Marka border. It was forbidden for any development to occur in this area, pushing all new growth into the existing urban footprint.
In 1993, a green spaces land-use plan was implemented to protect and enhance parks and green space as an amenity to attract residents and maintain quality of life as the city densified. The compact-city strategy has worked. Demand for living in central neighbourhoods has exploded, with their population growing by 50 per cent since 2005. Most comparable neighbourhoods in Oslo are today twice as dense as their Winnipeg counterparts.
Higher residential density meant other modes of transportation could be more effective. Public transit became the backbone of the compact-city model. Concentrating development around transit nodes became a tool to target growth to specific areas of the city. Oslo today has more than 80 streetcars, five lines of an LRT, which goes underground in the downtown, and an extensive bus fleet.
Today, 89 per cent of the city lives within 300 metres of a transit stop, resulting in public-transit use increasing by 60 per cent since 2005, and now growing by five per cent per year. Transit accommodates nearly 370 million passengers annually in Oslo. In Winnipeg, the only Canadian city to have lower ridership today than it did 20 years ago, Transit carries about 50 million. Interestingly, before streetcars were removed in 1955, that number was over 100 million, in a city with about half the population.
To further improve the livability of central neighbourhoods and promote more walking trips, Oslo committed to building safer streets for pedestrians, adopting the Vision Zero strategy. Residential speed limits were lowered to 30 km/h, streets and intersections were narrowed, speed humps and raised crosswalks were built, and car-free areas around schools, called Heart Zones, were established. In 2019, Oslo became the first major city to have zero pedestrian or cyclist fatalities on its streets. Winnipeg had 15.
Oslo has also recently started concentrating on increasing bike use, traditionally not a popular mode of transport due to its very hilly terrain. It recently built 60 kilometres of bike lanes and is adding 10 more per year.
Grants of $1,200 are provided to anyone wanting an electric-assist bike, and an extensive bike-rental system has been developed. After building the infrastructure, in only a few short years, eight per cent of the population now commutes by bike (four per cent in winter), four times the rate in Winnipeg. The plan is to get that number to 20 per cent by 2030. An added bonus is that traffic growth in Oslo’s mature neighbourhoods is four times lower than in outlying car suburbs.
After a 40-year commitment to the goals of a compact-city plan, increasing public transit use, walking and biking, Oslo took the next logical step and essentially made its downtown a car-free zone, something unthinkable in cities such as Winnipeg that have made different choices over that time.
The lesson in this tale of two cities is that the decisions we make today create the city our children will live in tomorrow.
Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.