Around the world, cities are finding ways to drastically reduce, or even eliminate, car use. It could happen here too
Illustration by Sylvia Nickerson
In cities around the globe, World Carfree Day is a nice little break from the everyday.
Every year on September 22, dozens of large cities shut down some of their main streets to traffic, leaving them open to pedestrians and cyclists for parties, rallies, mass bike rides, and the sort of leisurely ambling rarely seen on the crowded sidewalks of places like Manhattan and Beijing.
The idea of car-free days has been around since the oil crisis of the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1999 that it was formally organized internationally on a specific date. The number of participating cities has grown steadily every year since then: in Prague last year, 4,000 people joined the largest group bike ride the city has ever seen. In Taipei, a swirling mass of 30,000 cyclists — city officials were expecting 3,000 — took a 16-kilometre route through the normally autothronged city core.
From Kiev, Ukraine, to Florianopolis, Brazil to Sofia, Bulgaria, they left their cars at home and revelled in the freedom of a city that was, for a day, pedestrian-friendly. "It's a unique experience for people in car-heavy cities to get a taste of life without it for a day," says Michael Roschlau, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. But it's a unique experience, he says, "although it's simply unrealistic in today's world, given today's mobility needs," to imagine a modern car-free city.
But in a few places around the world — the list of locations is growing slowly but surely — the populace woke up on World Carfree Day, dressed, and ate their breakfast, then got on their bicycles, put on their shoes, or pulled out their bus pass, and made their way to work on streets mostly free of automobiles. Just like any other day.
These car-free and car-limited communities are scattered around the world, blueprints for the steps that larger cities can take to reduce their reliance on the automobile. These places show that it actually is possible to overcome our history and our habits and start to move away from the auto-centric planning that defines all of North America.
J.H. Crawford, an American author and urban planner who works in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, may be the world's foremost advocate for cities without cars.
Crawford has spent more than 15 years touring carfree communities across the world. He maintains the web's largest database of car-free information (carfree. com), as well as publishing a quarterly newsletter (The Carfree Times). He lectures on how humans can cut our ties to the car and has written two books on the subject: his first, Carfree Cities, was an examination of the world's car-free areas and what we can learn from them. His second, released in April 2009, is the Carfree Design Manual, a step-by-step guide to designing a new city, from the ground up, to be completely free of cars.
While many urban planners see a completely car-free city as a nice ideological goal to shoot for while we try to reduce the number of cars on our streets, Crawford believes it must happen in the next several decades. "Nothing is going to be easy about this," he says of losing our urban addiction to cars. "We're going to be beaten by the stick pretty hard. But there are some fairly juicy carrots out ahead."
The crux of the problem, planners agree, is that our cities are stuck between past and future. The vast majority of the urban planning done in North America was done with the car as its foremost beneficiary, and that legacy is hard to escape. Cities here were built too late to take advantage of the small streets and convoluted layout that keeps cars out of the heart of many of the world's medieval cities and too early to benefit from the emphasis on public transit, environmental sustainability, and livability that has characterized urban planning in the last few decades.
It's why most urban planners and thinkers scoff at the idea of turning Canadian cities like Toronto or Montreal into car-free utopias.
"Trying to eliminate cars from whole zones is tied either very tightly to medieval city centres or cities that will be purposefully designed or redeveloped in the future," says Jim Mars, professor emeritus of urban planning at Ryerson University. "We can't solve the problem. What we can and must do are all the small- and medium-sized things we can do to make it better."
This problem doesn't exist everywhere. There are cities — perhaps the most famous example being Venice — where automobiles are an afterthought and other forms of transportation, from canal to bicycle to subway and light rail transit, account for, in some cases, more than half of all trips taken by the populace.
Most of these cities are in Europe, and most were built in the medieval period. It's a simple history lesson: cities that were not designed explicitly for cars find it a lot easier to do without them.
"Medieval urban forms are superior to everything that came before or has come since," writes Crawford in the introduction to his new book. "Once the needs of automobiles can be neglected, a remarkable degree of design freedom arises."
Medieval designs have provided some of the most familiar blueprints of car-free cities. The largest car-free community in the world, Fès El Bali in Morocco, is home to approximately 156,000 people, and you simply can't use a car inside it. They haven't been prohibited, but the city is walled off from the outside and the streets are so narrow that it is impossible to navigate through the city in a car of any size. It's a common sight to see trucks drive up to the gated city entrance, load their wares into handcarts, and have someone push the goods into the city on foot. Crawford points out that only a special slim ambulance is able to negotiate the streets in a medical emergency.
"If you go through the medinas of North Africa," he says, "what you will find is that most of them have always been car-free, because the streets just aren't wide enough. That's also what happened in Venice.
"In the places where you find fully intact medieval cities, you find few or no cars at all."
On a database that Crawford keeps of the world's carfree areas, nearly all of the largest ones are located in Europe or Africa, and most are the medieval core in cities where it would be, as Crawford says, "nearly impossible" to get around by car.
"You can wend your way through a broad swath that extends from Portugal all the way to Italy, where you'll find medieval city centres that are, if not car-free, then very car-moderated," he says.
The vast majority of the rest of the developed world, however, is already built for cars, so other solutions are needed. There are plenty of techniques that cities large and small have used to curb car use, with an eye toward eliminating them altogether in the future.
Vauban, a small community of about 5,000 people located in Freiburg, Germany, a city noted for ecoawareness, is one of those places where last year's World Carfree Day was just another Monday.
It's also an example of the two approaches to converting people to car-free living that Crawford calls the "carrots and sticks."
There are, he says, two ways to get large numbers of people in a city to change their daily habits: you can offer them rewards for doing so, or you can punish them if they don't. Vauban uses both. Upon moving there, a new resident is offered two things: a parking space and a transit pass. The transit pass is free and all-inclusive, provided the newcomer doesn't plan to own a car. The parking space costs roughly $29,000 and is available only in a garage on the edge of their residential neighbourhood. Only about 40 percent of residents have bothered to buy one.
The end result is that Vauban had only 150 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants in 2006. Canada, in comparison, had 559 cars for every 1,000 citizens as of a 2002 count.
"Essentially, they're pricing," says Mars. "The cost of having a car is the real cost of a parking space and of not having a bus pass."
Road pricing — charging people a fee for having their cars on the road — is not only a rare point that a realist like Mars and an idealist like Crawford agree on, it's one of the most rapidly advancing policy areas.
The idea isn't such a new one: Singapore has had road tolls for drivers since the 1970s, Norway began charging them in 1986, and several other cities also collect them — but it was the London model that has spurred action in car-dominated North America.
In England's capital, motorists entering the city centre must pay £8 (about $14) to the city. They can do it in advance for the entire year, either at the time (via convenience store or text message) or later (by phone or on the internet). A network of cameras records their licence plate as they enter, and there are stiff fines for those who forget to pay.
"The effects of London were fantastic," says Crawford, noting research that shows the toll cut traffic by roughly 20 percent.
"You had a huge fight on your hands to implement it — and now you would have a huge fight on your hands, from the very same people who opposed it, if you tried to take it out." A poll before implementation found that 40 percent of Londoners supported the idea in 2002. In 2006, that figure had risen to 60 percent, and plans were in place to enlarge the zone (which was done last February).
London was already equipped with an extensive public camera network, something most cities lack, but GPS technology is making road toll systems more attractive to congested municipalities by the day.
San Francisco is putting together a plan to present to city council this spring that would install a system to charge motorists for driving on major artery streets. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was close to instituting a similar plan in his city that would charge drivers US$8 to enter the most congested area of Manhattan. Lack of support killed it before it could get to the floor of the New York State Legislature last year. Toronto mayor David Miller declared last year he wanted to look at the idea, before Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and his transportation minister voiced a categorical "no." Miller later said he would only back a regional plan for highways, not a toll fee for entering his city's downtown core. But the idea is gathering steam.
"Driving on streets in most cases is free," says Roschlau, "and if something is free, the demand will often outpace the supply.
"If you ask someone what they consider before deciding to drive their car downtown, their answer will most often be ‘parking,' because that has a real cost attached to it. If people view the cost of driving somewhere similar to the way they take into account the cost of parking, more cars get left at home."
A large part of convincing people to leave their cars at home is convincing them to live their lives closer to home. The concept of the sustainable neighbourhood — with nearly everything you need within walking or biking distance — is the goal of many plans for car-free municipalities.
"Whenever we approve a mixed-use development that has employment and housing as well as shopping, or has government services mixed in, we're taking a step in that direction," says Mars. Crawford has laid out a list of 16 functions that urban planners agree are necessary to create a sustainable district (see sidebar, page 19). The problem right now is: how do we get there from here? We can provide office and retail space in the bottom of high-rises and the middle of subdivisions, but we can't force businesses to open and stay open if they're not turning a profit. We can try to provide a walk-in clinic in every neighbourhood, but people are still going to travel to their preferred doctor or dentist. We can't make employers locate their offices near their employees, and that would be impossible to coordinate anyway. In short, we can build it, but they're not necessarily going to come. "It's impossible to make the market do what you want," says Mars. "That's why I'm always skeptical about sustainable developments.
"I would rather see, particularly when we're dealing with infrastructure renewal, that a lot of that money needs to go toward transit." But even Roschlau, head of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, knows that more transit lines won't solve everything.
"They're simply the backbone," he says, pointing to the most recent census data that showed a smaller proportion of Canadians (72.3 percent, down from 73.8 percent in 2001) were driving to work, and instead more were relying on public transit, biking, and carpooling. "The numbers show that people are looking for alternatives, whether it is better access to transit, more bike lanes, carpool lanes, mixed-use developments, and sustainable neighbourhoods — they are looking for solutions."
There are signs of light on the horizon. Last summer, Montreal closed down 12 blocks of Ste-Catherine Street to traffic from June until September. The city held festivals and parties in the street nearly every week and Ville-Marie borough mayor BenoĒt Labonté showed little sympathy to motorists irked by the inconvenience. "If they get fed up with the traffic, they can use public transit," he said at the press conference announcing the decision.
There are plans to build new cities in places like the United Arab Emirates and Jordan with public transit replacing all but the most necessary of vehicles and solar panels used to power the needs of light-rail transit. Crawford hopes his book will outline a method of building large cities neighbourhood by neighbourhood without the need for cars. It's idealistic, yes, but he thinks North America is nearly ready for it.
All evidence points to a long, tough haul (after all, Roschlau called a mere 1.5 percent reduction in car commuters in the last census "groundbreaking"), but there are enough blocks available to us now to start building. "We are going to have to do something about it. This is not a casual issue. It's not going away," says Crawford. "But it took us a hundred years to get here, and it's probably going to take us another hundred years to get out."