Last year I sold my car and bought a bike — and I haven't looked back since. Many cities are hoping their residents do the same. To encourage car-free lifestyles, they are creating car-free zones in city centers, increasing the number of bike lanes, connecting green spaces and improving public transit.

Check out these ambitious efforts by cities to reduce emissions, improve the health of their residents and fight climate change.

Madrid

A woman takes an electric bicycle from a bike-sharing station in MadridA woman takes an electric bicycle from a bike-sharing station in Madrid. (Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

Eco-friendly travelers might want to add Madrid to their list of places to visit after reading about how many sustainable changes the city has implemented over the past few years. First, we've got the car-free zone, an area that is just under 500 acres in size. Only people who live in the zone are allowed to take their cars inside. Those who want to drive in, but who don't live in central Madrid, need to have a guaranteed space in one of the city's official parking lots. If the driver doesn't, he could be hit with a 90 euro fine. Cityscope reported that the city estimated the zone would reduce traffic by a third.

In addition, if you are a driver and you own a gas guzzler, expect to pay higher fees at the parking meters in the Spanish city. The smart meter knows what car you’re driving, and, if it's bad for the planet, you'll have to pay more. Mayor Ana Botella said about the program, "Vehicles with lower emissions will be subsidized, and the most polluting will be punished."

Of course, if you're going to ban cars, you need alternatives for people. Last year Madrid brought in a new bike share program with 1,500 electric bikes (pictured above) stationed at 120 different locations. The city also hopes to add more bus lanes, and make the city more pedestrian friendly.

Dublin

A snowy but still busy street in DublinA snowy but still busy street in Dublin. (Photo: William Murphy/flickr)

If you’ve sat in traffic in Dublin, you know something needs to change. Last year it was named the 10th most congested city, and the sixth most congested in Europe. Commuters during morning rush hour could expect to spend 74 percent longer on their trip than if it was during a free-flow traffic period.

Thankfully, the city has wants to change that. They have proposed a plan, one that the city expects will go through, that will gradually shift the traffic flow. They want to send cars around the city center and transition some of the biggest streets into car-free zones. Instead of cars, pedestrians, cyclists and buses will have the run of the road, as well as a new tram line. New bike lanes and wider sidewalks are also in the works.

"Dublin won't become car-free tomorrow, but as we improve our light rail network there are fantastic opportunities to create car-free areas where you can breathe, think, and hear yourself speak," said Ciarán Cuffe, chair of the city council's transport committee, about the proposed changes.

Hamburg

A view of two bus lanes and a middle street in Hamburg.A view of two bus lanes and a middle street in Hamburg. The city intends to expand its car-free zone. (Photo: Ingolf/flickr)

Hamburg has an ambitious goal. The city wants to transition 40 percent of the city to a car-free zone by 2034. To do this, city officials are creating networks of green spaces filled with bike paths, parks, playground, promenades, sports centers, cemeteries and gardens. All of those car-free public areas would allow cyclists and pedestrians to traverse the city without four wheels.

According to Inhabitat, Hamburg has good reason to want to reduce its emissions. Over the last 60 years, the average temperature has increased. Sea levels have risen by 20 centimeters (nearly 8 inches), a number that is expected to grow by another 30 centimeters (almost 12 inches) by the turn of the next century.

The added bonus is that additional green spaces will contribute to the health of the residents. City spokesperson Angelika Fritsch said of the changes, "It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics and restaurants, experience calm and watch nature and wildlife right in the city. That reduces the need to take the car for weekend outings outside the city."

Copenhagen

Cyclists ride and walk with their bicycles in CopenhagenCyclists rule in Copenhagen. (Photo: Jae C./flickr)

Who needs cars when everyone is biking? Copenhagen just knocked Amsterdam out of first place for the title of best biking city in the world. About 50 percent of the people who live in Copenhagen get on their bikes to commute to work or school, according to the official website of Denmark. Copenhagen has the busiest biking lane in the world with up to 36,000 cyclists using it per day. If that's not enough to convince you of their dominance, the city has more bikes than people. Even families get in on the action with 25 percent of parents with two kids using a cargo bike to bring their child to kindergarten and to the grocery store.

The website has this to say about the country's love affair with bicycles, "With 390 kilometers (about 242 miles) of biking lanes and traffic lights especially for bikes, the city's infrastructure is build on the fact that a bicycle is not only the cheapest, healthiest and fastest way to get around the city, it is also a very important factor in reducing carbon emission. Therefore bicycle culture is a vital part of the city administration’s ambition to become the first carbon neutral capital in the world by 2025."

Helsinki

A train platform in the Helsinki metroA train platform in the Helsinki metro. (Photo: Oleg Kuznetsov/flickr)

In the coming decades, Helsinki is expecting an influx of as many as 250,000 new residents, but officials from the city don't think that’s any reason for the number of cars in the city to increase.

"Even though the city population grows, the use of the private car should not rise," said Rikhard Manninen, director of Helsinki’s Strategic Urban Planning Division. "Key to achieving this goal is improving public transport, densifying existing areas, and expanding the inner city."

Rather than banishing cars from the city streets, by building vibrant close-knit communities throughout the city and connecting them by great public transport, the city is hopeful that people will opt to walk or bike rather than drive. The goal is to have all the new pieces in place by 2050.

Related on MNN: