Cities Without Cars

It snowed heavily on the drive back to Portland from the Bay Area. The weather gurus didn’t know this was coming, no one was prepared, trucks and buses did not chain-up, the roads were not sanded. And then the disaster began.

Traffic came to a halt. No one moved for hours. Long lines of stranded drivers stretched down I5 mile and after mile and then some more. Trucks and buses couldn’t get up the icy hills, cars ran out of gas, it was a monumental traffic jam, better thought of as solitary confinement on the Interstate.

A man jumped out of his car and ran into the woods to do what he could no longer avoid (I am thinking, how are others handling this?); a woman vomited out her car window; drivers pushed their cars onto the siding and walked off to nowhere.

It was then that I thought of Venice and the hill towns of Italy. Venice--the city without cars, the carfree city, the city that never heard of an Interstate or being imprisoned on a roadway, the city that is surprisingly quiet without the roar of motorcycles or four-barrel-carburetors.

In his recent book, Carfree Cities, J. H. Crawford offers a potential solution to the many urban problems caused by the automobile. He argues, without much dispute, that a carfree city saves energy, preserves the environment, and improves the quality of our lives. Crawford expresses his approach this way:

"Imagine life in a city free from the noise, stench, and danger of cars, trucks, and buses. Imagine that all basic needs, from groceries to child care, lie within a five-minute walk of every doorstep. Imagine that no commute takes more than 35 minutes from door to door, and that service is provided by a fast, cheap, safe, comfortable public transport system… the car is a technology that has run wild, and that the time has come to reclaim city streets for human activities."

He describes cities throughout the world that have established carfree neighborhoods or carfree zones and includes what I regard as striking photographs of these places and the life that goes within them. You can glimpse this at the Carfree Times Web site and subscribe to its periodic publication distributed over the Internet. If you review the latest issues, you will notice the many inviting images of carless piazzas in Venice and other carfree cities throughout the world.

I realize it is impossible these days to live without a car or at least without access to one once in a while. Our communities have been designed for automobiles and so they have become a necessity. What then are the practical applications of the carfree concept for contemporary urban communities? Crawford proposes a carfree city planned to maximize the quality of life and provides a fair number of suggestions for implementing the carfree concept in both new and existing cities. I have lived in carfree cities and been in others where carfree zones have been established on certain days and whenever I am in these places I have seen the way they have returned the city and its streets to the people.

Of course, these ideas are not going to help me much in driving into Portland on a snowy winter day, but they will bring the city alive once I manage to get there. And perhaps one day, I won’t have to drive or fly to the Bay Area for the holidays. Instead, I will get on a hi-speed train that will whiz me there in a few hours, whereupon I will proceed into a community where I will have no need for a car of my own. This is not a dream in the cities depicted in Carfree Cites, so I have no reason to believe it isn’t a realistic possibility elsewhere.