Oslo: streets ahead

8 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

Putting people first makes cities work better for everyone. It is not an easy task but, as Terje Elvsaas reports, the Norwegian capital has shown that it is possible. 

Until recently, the people of Oslo did not have a say in what the streets of Oslo were used for — and that needed to change. “Our main objective is to give the streets back to the people,” Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s Vice Mayor for Urban Development told BBC Future in 2019, explaining the radical changes the city was making to local streets. She saw the potential for the streets to be places where Norwegians met one another, ate in outdoor restaurants, where kids could play, and where art could be exhibited.

To reach these goals, Oslo began closing off streets in the city centre to cars entirely. The city removed all 760 on-street parking spots inside the city’s inner-ring road. And in place of all that, the city installed cycling lanes, benches, and miniature parks. This radical re-imagining of public space did not come to pass overnight. In fact, it began decades ago. The idea of making Oslo more liveable — reducing the role of private cars in the city at the same time as adding infrastructure for people — evolved over time.

The story begins in 1990, when Oslo decided that cars were not good for the city. While, at this point, car-use was not restricted, an important change in priorities was made. The main road system in Oslo was moved away from the surface and down into tunnels below the city centre. This dramatically reduced the number of cars visible on Oslo roads at any given time.

By 2014, these ideas had advanced. That year, the Danish architect Jan Gehl conducted a survey on public life in Oslo. The survey identified several challenges: there was little activity after office hours. Traffic was heavy. Public spaces were not nice. There was a lack of basic infrastructure like public benches and drinking fountains, and a lack of green space.

The following year, an important conversation began about the city’s future. Knowing that Oslo is expected to see an almost 30 percent increase in population by 2040, the Norwegian capital began to worry about its carbon footprint. In 2016, the city effectuated a climate and energy strategy targeted to reduce Oslo’s direct greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2022 and to be reduced to zero by 2050. By 2017, the City of Oslo was able to launch a response to these concerns — reducing all traffic in Oslo and to give the city centre more car-free areas and car-free streets. The Car-free Liveability Program set a clear goal: to make the Oslo city centre greener and more inclusive for everyone.

By turning the traditional planning pyramid upside down — putting people’s needs at the top and private cars at the bottom — Oslo has managed to prioritise pedestrians, bikes, and city life in streets and squares that were formerly dominated by private cars. This has done more than bring life to the city centre, it has saved lives. The Norwegian capital reached a milestone in 2019: zero pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in the city centre. In May, the Agency for Urban Environment released the numbers from their latest traffic counting in Oslo: 28 percent of cars disappeared from the city centre between 2016 and 2019.

While it is impossible to quantify how much of the decrease in car traffic is due to any one measure, there is a high likelihood that the Car-free Liveability Program contributed greatly. Today, Oslo is working on how to reduce car traffic even more in order to create an increasingly pleasant and people-friendly city centre.

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