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Why Oslo is banning cars from the city center

The newly-elected leftist city government will make Oslo's central region a car-free zone by 2019. Some 90,000 people commute to work in the city center every day.

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A snow-covered bicycle is parked on a heated pavement in Oslo, March 8, 2012.

Paul Kleiven/Scanpix/Reuters/File

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Oslo will permanently ban cars in its central region by 2019, the city council announced Monday, marking the first time a capital city has enacted such a comprehensive prohibition of cars.

As part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the ban was instituted by the newly-elected council of 59 representatives of the the Labor Party, the Greens, and the Socialist Left. While local merchants have expressed concerns that the ban will adversely affect business, the politicians say it will benefit everyone in the city in the long run by reducing carbon emissions.

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City authorities hope that by 2020, the new plan will cut Oslo’s pollution to 50 percent of 1990 levels, and reduce car traffic in all of Oslo by 20 percent by 2019 and 30 percent by 2030.

"We want to have a car-free center," Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, lead negotiator for the Green Party in Oslo, told Reuters. "We want to make it better for pedestrians, cyclists. It will be better for shops and everyone."

The soon-to-be car-less central area is home to about 1,000 residents and hosts up to 90,000 workers. Business owners point out that 11 of the city’s 57 shopping centers are in the designated car-free zone.  

Oslo’s overall population is 600,000 (about the population of Milwaukee), more than half of whom are car owners.

As it transitions to a car-free downtown, the Norwegian capital will pave about 37 miles of bicycle lanes and heavily invest in public transportation. Oslo already operates "Ruter," a convenient public transit system of buses, trams, subway, and trains, that will continue to serve the car-less zone.

Special arrangements will be provided to transport people with disabilities and deliver products, the three parties said in a statement.

The city council is still researching the details, they said, including conducting experiments and learning best practices from other cities with similar bans.

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While Oslo is the first capital city to ban cars permanently, other major cities have executed temporary bans. Last month, Paris banned cars for one day to raise awareness about the city’s air pollution. London and Madrid have also banned cars temporarily, as a remedy for traffic congestion.

The tri-party council will also subsidize the sale of electric bicycles and divest from fossil fuels, they announced. The divestment is at odds with Norway’s overall economic nature, say critics, as the oil industry accounts for a fifth of the country’s economy. Norway’s oil boom in the late 20th century contributed greatly to its current wealth.

But the boom has subsided, experts say, and the country must recalibrate its economic model to prevent decline.

Oslo’s bold undertaking may inspire other major cities to follow suit, whether with outright bans or with taxes on high-emission cars. As the United Nations climate summit in Paris approaches, such endeavors will set the tone for a strong resolution against climate change on a global scale.