Car-Free Cities: An Idea with Legs

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The Guardian/UK

Car-Free Cities: An Idea with Legs

Car-free neighbourhoods are no unrealistic utopia – they exist all over Europe

Steve Melia

'Not anti-car, just pro-choice' ... a cyclist in Vauban, Germany. (Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features)

A quarter of households in Britain – more in the larger cities, and
a majority in some inner cities – live without a car. Imagine how
quality of life would improve for cyclists and everyone else if traffic
were removed from areas where people could practically choose to live
without cars. Does this sound unrealistic, utopian? Did you know many
European cities are already doing it?

Vauban in Germany
is one of the largest car-free neighbourhoods in Europe, home to more
than 5,000 people. If you live in the district, you are required to
confirm once a year that you do not own a car – or, if you do own one,
you must buy a space in a multi-storey car park on the edge of the
district. One space was initially provided for every two households,
but car ownership has fallen over time, and many of these spaces are
now empty.

Vehicles are allowed down the residential
streets at walking pace to pick up and deliver, but not to park. In
practice, vehicles are rarely seen moving here. It has been taken over
by kids as young as four or five, playing, skating and unicycling
without direct supervision. The adults, too, tend to socialise outdoors
far more than they would on conventional streets open to traffic
(behaviour that's echoed in the UK, too).

of the European car-free areas are smaller and "purer" than Vauban:
vehicles are physically prevented from entering the streets where
people live. Exceptions are made for emergency vehicles and removals
vans but not for normal deliveries, which are made on foot, trolley or
cycle trailer. A few peripheral parking spaces are available to buy
(usually around one space for every five homes) and a few are reserved
for car club vehicles. In all the examples I have studied, cycling is a vital means of transport.

areas of this kind, with anything from a couple of hundred to more than
a thousand residents, exist in Amsterdam, Vienna, Cologne, Hamburg and
Nuremberg, among others. There is even a small one in Edinburgh.

is another form of car-free development, so familiar we have until
recently overlooked its potential. Most pedestrianised city or
neighbourhood centres in Britain are almost entirely commercial. But a
few farsighted councils, such as Exeter, have brought back housing and
residents, without cars or allocated parking, into city centres that
would otherwise be deserted after 6pm.

Groningen, the
Netherlands' capital of cycling, has the largest car-free centre in
Europe: half-pedestrianised, entirely closed to through traffic, with
16,500 residents, three-quarters of whom have no car in the household.
Forty percent of all journeys within the city are made by bicycle.

Carfree UK,
which I coordinate, was set up to promote European-style car-free
development in this country. We are not anti-car, we are pro-choice. We
have recently run public meetings in London to set up a new car-free
association for London, which is beginning to look at areas of the city
from which traffic could be removed. We know considerable potential
demand exists for traffic-free housing in London, and probably in a
number of other major cities. Where else do you think might be suitable?

• Steve Melia is coordinator of Carfree UK and a researcher at the University of the West of England

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