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People protested when this capital city went car-free. Now they love it

For many cities, going car-free still feels like a distant pipe dream – but in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, it’s been a reality for more than a decade.

In 2007, Zoran Janković was slapped in the face by a protester outside Ljubljana’s town hall. It had been just months since he won a landslide victory to become the city’s mayor, and already, he was in trouble with local residents. 

His crime? An ambitious plan to make the centre of Ljubljana completely car-free

The idea was part of Janković’s “Ljubljana 2025” plan: a strategy for making the city a more liveable, sustainable and pleasant place to live. Back in 2007, it was an astonishingly forward-thinking proposition.

“I’m not sure if Ljubljana was the first in the world to do something like this, but it was certainly the first in this part of the world, in former Yugoslavian countries,” explains Saša Poljak Istenič, an academic who has researched the impact of pedestrianisation on Ljubljana. 

Today, there’s not an engine to be heard in Ljubljana’s centre. Instead, 17 hectares of city streets are alive with people spilling out of cafes, walking dogs, cycling and socialising. 

The air is cleaner, the city is greener and business is booming. These days, residents “can hardly remember” the city they used to live in, says Matic Sopotnik, a city official who works in the transport department. 

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In many places around the world, going car-free still feels like a radical pipe dream. Yet Ljubljana, now car-free for more than a decade, stands as proof of what can be achieved with a bold vision – and the determination to see it through. 

As cities around the world scramble for ways to both slow and adapt to a warming climate, it’s a model that offers promising solutions. 

Ljubljana’s success is all the more extraordinary because it happened in the face of strong public opposition. Protests erupted soon after Janković made his announcement, says Istenič, largely driven by local people concerned about what the change would mean for them.

“Their fears weren’t baseless. They were worried they wouldn’t have access to their apartments, and that they wouldn’t be able to bring groceries home,” she says. 

A Ljubljana street pictured before and after pedestrianisation. Image: City of Ljubljana

The objections from locals and businesses were pretty extreme, says Sopotnik. People “just couldn’t imagine” a city without cars. 

Nonetheless, the mayor pressed on, going door-to-door to speak with locals about how the transition would be managed. 

“Everybody said the city was going to die,” Sopotnik says. “But actually, the opposite happened”.

Banning cars was merely a starting point in the plan for a more “liveable” Ljubljana, and this seems to have been the key to its success.

After closing the centre to cars on September 3, 2007, the mayor’s office had already laid out a programme of outdoor concerts and festivals to take place on the newly pedestrianised streets. 

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The idea was, says Sopotnik, to aclimatise people to using all the space available to them.

“We wanted to get people used to the idea of the streets being a place that can be used for all sorts of different things, not just walking around.

“If you remove the cars but don’t put any life [on the streets] people will just start thinking ‘why did you bother?” he says. 

Then, they went even further. New bridges were built to connect pedestrian zones, cobblestones were flattened and kerbs were lowered to make walking easier. Small electric vehicles known as “Kavalirs” were installed to take those with limited mobility across the centre for free.

Public transport was remodelled too, and by 2011, a wildly successful bike sharing scheme was in operation across the city. By 2015, the area around Ljubljana’s bus station had been completely renovated into a green, mixed use space for pedestrians, cyclists and buses. 

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And just for good measure, an electric car sharing system was added to the mix in 2016. 

There are some exemptions to the car-free rule. In the early mornings, delivery vehicles are permitted to enter the city centre to service the businesses there. Residents, meanwhile, can house their cars in a garage the city built underground. 

While the outer parts of the city are still open to vehicle traffic, the number of journeys taken by car in Ljubljana has fallen as a whole, from 58 per cent in 2003 to roughly 39 per cent today.

Removing cars from the city centre has also seen air pollution fall by a whopping 70 per cent, while the number of journeys taken by foot has jumped from 19 per cent to roughly 35 per cent. 

Climate change probably wasn’t prominent in the minds of city planners when they first set out on this transition, says Istenič, but the planting of new trees and revival of more than 100 hectares of green space has likely had a positive environmental impact too.

“A lot of these green measures make it easier to cope with the kind of heatwaves we’ve been seeing recently,” says Istenič.

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Yet the most radical change of all, says Sopotnik, has been in the mindset of the population. 

Whereas families might previously have owned two or three cars to travel around, “most only own one per family, because you simply don’t need a second or third,” Sopotnik says. 

Istenič, who works in the city centre but lives a little outside of the pedestrianised zone, says the quality of life in Ljubljana has markedly improved as a result of the pedestrianisation. 

“The lack of noise, the clean air, the street furniture and the live events make it feel so much livelier than it was before. It makes it so much more pleasant to socialise,” she says.

Istenič adds that a number of companies in the city have adapted too, offering bicycles to employees for getting to work. Ljubljana’s shared bicycle scheme, meanwhile, offers the first hour of riding completely free of charge. 

Ljubljana is far from the only city to have pushed forward with plans for pedestrianisation over the years. Everywhere from Copenhagen to Paris, local officials have ploughed ahead with plans to nudge out cars from city centres.

Almost always, these officials are met with the same resistance and fury that Janković experienced in the early days of the transition. Almost always, residents fall in love with the project once it’s done. 

In Ljubljana, the most recent survey found 97 per cent of the city’s residents wanted to keep the newly pedestrianised centre in place.

According to Sopotnik, this resistance is less about people’s love of cars and more about a natural disinclination for change. 

“We are human beings. We’re afraid of change because we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. As soon as we see that things are turning out well, we start to change our minds,” he says.

Istenič thinks that Ljubljana may have been lucky when it came to pedestrianisation. The city is very small and very flat, meaning that cycling is rarely a challenge.

“It’s such a tiny capital that we had the advantage of doing it without actually making major changes to the majority of people’s lives. It only takes about 20 minutes by bike to get from one end of the city to another,” she says.

Nonetheless, the transition was still dramatic in some ways. One of the roads that now carries thousands of pedestrians a day once saw thousands of cars pass over it, says Sopotnik.

“One of the main squares that we closed off used to be a major crossroads. The other one was the city’s biggest car park,” he says. 

After Ljubljana was awarded the European Green Capital Award in 2016, dozens of foreign officials visited the Slovenian capital for inspiration to take home, something Sopotnik has been encouraged to see. 

And while boldness and determination are certainly important to make a transition as successful as Ljublana’s, Sopotnik’s top piece of advice is one imparted by Janković himself: 

“Do it during the first year of your mandate. Afterwards, you’ll have to start thinking about the next elections.”

Despite several countries appearing to roll back on climate commitments in the face of an increasingly volatile energy market, Sopotnik says there’s never been a better time for cities to take bold action towards creating cleaner streets.

“With everything going on in the world right now, with Ukraine and prices going up, this is actually an opportunity. It could help accelerate the transition.”

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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