The question of whether or not a car-free downtown would work in Guelph was top of mind for many Royal City residents on Friday after Mayor Cam Guthrie’s State of the City address.

“Imagine what it would be like if our downtown were a place where the streets were purely designed for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit first — and cars second,” Guthrie said.

While it may take a bit of imagination to picture Guelph’s core void of automobiles, around the world, car-free downtowns are a reality.

From Milan to Mexico City, local governments are finding unique ways to cut down on pollution and increase tourism by restricting vehicle access to certain parts of the city.

Granted, Guelph isn’t a tourist hotspot to the extent that London or Paris is — two more cities rapidly redesigning their core to prioritize people over vehicles — but the economic benefit to our downtown’s shops and restaurants will remain.

The City of Copenhagen, long considered to be the gold standard city when it comes to active transportation, found that society earns €0.64 ($0.93 CAD) for every kilometre cycled, versus a loss of €0.71 ($1.03 CAD) for every kilometre driven.

In Madrid, during the Christmas shopping season, people spent between 3.3% and 9.5.% more in areas where vehicle access was limited.

This isn’t just a European phenomenon either. New York City, renowned for its endless traffic and yellow taxis, has begun experiencing the economic benefits to bike-friendly city streets.

The first parking-protected bike lane was built in the Big Apple in 2007. Two years later, businesses along that stretch saw retail sales rise nearly 49%.

Car-free city centre in Ghent, Belgium

Economics aside, pedestrianized city centres promote exercise, increase social cohesion, and are accessible to all.

This isn’t an apples to apples comparison, I understand that. But it’s certainly worth exploring in conjunction with the businesses that will be affected by such experimentation.

Guthrie eluded to the fact that a project like this will take time.

“We could build on this over a series of years,” he said.

And that’s how it should be done. Incrementally. There is no one-size-fits-all policy for car-free city centres. 

We have to find a solution that is appropriate for the people, streets, and businesses of downtown Guelph. 

I made a two-minute video explaining how people would access the downtown core should sections of it become car-free. My hope for this video was that if people understood the concept and how it’d be implemented, there’d be fewer barriers to it happening.

As younger generations continue to show less of an interest in car ownership and more interest in well-developed transit systems, we’re going to have to get creative in how we design our cities so that we continue to attract the brightest minds to our city.

For all the above-stated reasons, my take is that Guthrie’s vision is one worth exploring further.

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