When you think about it, car-free cities shouldn’t seem like such a radical idea. Cities, after all, have been around for thousands of years, while cars date back just a century or so.
And yet, the automobile has so worked itself into our way of life over that time, that doing without it seems all but unthinkable.
That attitude is changing, however, as urban centers around the world have begun to consider going entirely car-free, or at least experimenting with the notion. In fact, says longtime car-free advocate Joel Crawford, the idea has become so popular that it’s started to feel a bit superfluous.
“It’s been gaining momentum to the point where people are no longer very interested in what I’m saying because it’s mainstream now,” says Crawford, author of the books Carfree Cities and Carfree Design Manual.
"The automobile has so worked itself into our way of life over that time, that doing without it seems all but unthinkable."
That might be bad for his book sales, but, he says, it’s good for urban dwellers around the globe.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of car-free policies is the reduction in automobile-associated pollution. But Crawford suggests that’s just the start of it. There’s also a host of broader lifestyle and aesthetic benefits.
“You get boots on the street. People come out,” he says. “It starts at the pavement level: ‘Well, that doesn’t need to be there if there aren’t any cars.’ And then as you look higher up, dozens and dozens of signs disappear, as do traffic signals. The sidewalks can be wider, with more trees, and on and on.”
Perhaps the easiest way to go car-free is to never have them in in the first place. Take, as an example, Fes el Bali, a portion of Fes, Morocco, founded more than 1,000 years ago that, with no cars and a population of more than 150,000 people, is thought to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area.
Venice, Italy, is another spot whose history and geography have made it something of a “naturally occurring” car-free city. (Though you’ll have no trouble finding a motorboat.)
But localities that have traditionally been more intertwined with automobiles are also looking to cut back, if in a bit more limited fashion. For instance, in 2009, New York City announced plans to ban auto traffic from Times Square, turning large portions of the “crossroads of the world” into a pedestrian plaza. Launched as an experiment, the move was such a hit that the city made the change permanent the following year.
"Perhaps the easiest way to go car-free is to never have them in in the first place."
The Spanish capital Madrid is taking things even further, with plans to enact an auto ban across some 500 acres of its city center by 2020. Likewise, Oslo, Norway, aims to eliminate car traffic in its city center by 2019. In Copenhagen, Denmark, city officials have been working to drive down auto traffic by boosting bike use. According to a story from The Guardian, published last November, bikes outnumber cars in the city’s center for the first time, 265,700 to 252,600.
“Copenhagen now has the highest bike share of any city in the world,” Crawford says. “And it certainly doesn’t have the best climate.”
In other words, if you can do it there, you can do it everywhere, and, indeed, that, essentially, is Crawford’s prediction.
“To me, it’s self-evident that in 50 years, most cities will be mostly car free,” he says.
That pretty much narrows it down to two options: everyone will be walking and biking, or else we’ll have finally gotten those jetpacks we’ve all been waiting for.