Dear EarthTalk: Are there any car-free cities in the world?
—Elizabeth Vales, Cleveland, OH
Since the dawn of the automobile age, residents of urban areas worldwide have been choking on exhaust fumes and tempting fate every time they enter a crosswalk. According to J.H. Crawford, author of the book, Carfree Cities, as much as 70 percent of downtown space in most American and European urban centers today is dominated by traffic lanes, parking lots and garages, gas stations, drive-through banks and burger stands and, of course
Crawford argues that the abundance of cars in cities takes a huge toll on human health and safety as well as on the environment. Specific problems, he says, include air and water quality degradation, loss of green space, noise pollution and social alienation—not to mention a wide range of human health maladies and large numbers of both pedestrian and motorist casualties.
Economically speaking, residents of sprawling cities such as Houston and Atlanta spend an average of 22 percent of their annual income on automobile and related expenses. Cars aren’t so great for business, either: A recent study of 32 German cities concluded that fewer cars allowed into a city meant increased foot traffic and more retail sales.
Carfree.com, the online companion to Crawford"s book, offers a large listing of car-free places throughout the world, organized into three categories: those completely or predominantly car-free; those with large areas that are car-free; and those with limited automobile traffic. In the United States, essentially car-free locations (though not cities) include Mackinac Island, a resort island on Lake Huron that uses horses and buggies for its transportation, and Fire Island on Long Island in New York. Fire Island makes use of small boats for short dock-to-dock travel, and wagons for wheeling the groceries home. It also has a lengthy network of boardwalks connecting homes on the beach to one another and to the docks.
Most car-free places are in Europe, the largest being Venice, where a canal system takes the place of streets, and movement is on foot or by boat. Giethoorn, in the Netherlands, also relies on canal-boat transportation. Some alpine resorts in Switzerland, such as Zermatt and Barunwald, are car-free as well. A unique location is Louvain la Neuve, a university town in Belgium where streets for cars lie beneath separate streets for pedestrians. There are also car-free cities in Morocco where, according to carfree.com, they have succeeded in preserving much of the medieval style such that streets are very narrow. They are "for practical reasons, substantially car-free, although not always motorcycle-free," says the website.
There are car-free cities and areas in much of the developing world, too, though this is mainly due to poverty. But increasingly, the four billion inhabitants of the developing world seem eager to adopt Western patterns and automobile use is growing. In India, for example, according to the United Nations the number of cars has been doubling every seven years. This fact, combined with poor roads, poor fuel quality and lack of vehicle maintenance, says the U.N., makes vehicular air pollution an alarming issue.
Dear EarthTalk: Is there a way to wash the pesticides off fruits and vegetables before we eat them?
—Michelle, Chalmette, LA
Many fruits and vegetables sold in the United States today are treated with pesticides, and residues of these potentially harmful chemicals often remain on their surfaces. Rinsing all produce thoroughly before eating is always a good idea, but many pesticides, fungicides and other agricultural chemicals are trapped under a wax coating that was added to resist water and prolong shelf life. As such, rinsing produce with just plain water is not enough to do the job. Several companies have developed products that can help.
Organiclean contains extracts from coconut, sugar cane, sugar maple, bilberry, orange and lemon, is completely biodegradable, organic, and is a registered kosher product. The manufacturer claims that the product is ideal for hard-to-clean produce like strawberries, raspberries, spinach, lettuce and broccoli. It comes in an 8-ounce plastic spray bottle.
Another option is Veggie-Wash, from Citrus Magic. Made of natural vegetable-based ingredients from citrus fruit, corn and coconut, and containing no preservatives, Veggie-Wash comes in a 16-ounce spray bottle as well as 32-ounce and gallon refills. Meanwhile, Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash spray is made from citric acid and grapefruit oil, and claims to remove 98 percent more pesticides, waxes and other contaminants versus washing with water alone. Fit comes in 12-ounce spray bottles and 32-ounce refills.
For those inclined to more homespun solutions, various combinations of common pantry items work well, too. One recipe calls for soaking produce for five minutes in a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water, while another calls for spraying fruits and vegetables with a combination of one tablespoon of lemon juice, two tablespoons of baking soda and one cup of water. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports says that a diluted wash of dish detergent followed by a tap water rinse eliminates pesticide residues on most fruits and vegetables. After any such treatments, all produce should be rinsed thoroughly in plain water prior to eating or cooking.
Some analysts think that washing produce is not needed given strict Food and Drug Administration regulations about pesticide residues. "In the U.S., there"s very little produce with pesticide residues anywhere near the allowed tolerance levels," says Elizabeth Andress, a food safety specialist with the University of Georgia"s Center for Food Safety. "If you use a produce wash, you may be reducing the levels of pesticide residues," she says, "but the levels were nowhere near harmful to begin with."
Nonetheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the only way to ensure avoidance of pesticide residues completely is to buy certified organic produce only. The majority of supermarkets in the U.S. stock pesticide-free organic produce for those willing to spend a few more pennies per item. Consumers should note, however, that even organic produce should be washed before eaten, even if just to remove the impurities caused by human handling.
CONTACTS: Organiclean, (888) 834-9274, www.organiclean.com ; Veggie-Wash, (800) 451-7096, www.citrusmagic.com ; Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash, (800) FIT-WASH, www.FitWash.com ; EPA Booklet, Pesticides and Food: What You and Your Family Need to Know, www.epa.gov/pesticides/food.