How Ghent Got Rid of Cars and Transformed the City in a Decade

Screen capture. Streetfilms

Why can't we do this in North America?

When it comes to protecting the lives of people who walk or bike, nothing much ever happens in North America. When it comes to improving transit, New York got a bus lane. Where I live in Toronto, we have had ten years of inaction, wasted millions, changed plans, promises – and nothing.

The Innovative Way Ghent Removed Cars From The City from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

That's why watching Clarence Eckerson's latest video about The Innovative Way Ghent Removed Cars From The City is so crazy, showing how they transformed a city in just a decade.

This swift, creative strategy of turning Ghent in to a place for people is such a phenomenal story it's a mystery as to why it has not gotten more attention worldwide. It is a city of 262,000 residents, so not a large metropolis, but not a small city either. The metamorphosis was achieved thru a sort of tactical urbanism approach by throwing concrete barriers and planters here and there (some backed by enforcement cameras) and altering the gateways into public spaces and safer places to walk and bike. (There are now 40% fewer cars on bicycle priority streets than before the plan!)

segments of town separated into zones

Streetfilms/Screen capture

The most interesting and shocking part of the exercise is what they did to keep out cars. Basically, if you want to drive from one zone to another, you have to go back out to the Ring Road. You can't drive across or around town.

It encourages less car use, more bicycling and more transit use by splitting the city into seven distinct zones: a mostly car-free city center core surrounded by six zones which have been cordoned off with concrete or controlled by cameras. The only way to reach them is to travel to the ring road on the city outskirts, thus making it not impossible to use a car but motivates those shorter trips to be done via human power or mass transit. Bike mode share in 2012 was 22%, now it is 35% and growing!

Do politicians in North American cities have the will to do this kind of thing? Unfortunately no. In Cleveland, they are spending millions on a Hyperloop. In Hamilton, the province just cancelled an LRT after years of work.

cafe by the river

Streetfilms/Screen capture

205 years ago, warring North American politicians signed the Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the war of 1812 without a surrender by either side. Now we need a new Treaty of Ghent to end the so-called war on the car, where we surrender our car-based way of life for one focused on trams and bikes and walkable cities full of canal-side bike cafés. Bring on a Blitzkrieg of Ghent doers and planners. As Clarence notes, "What happened was stunning: almost never has there been such a rapid metamorphosis occurred in such a short time."