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.