Aspiring for the Car-Free City
Urban Crossroads #93

The New York Times recently featured an article about the German suburb of Vauban, located at the outskirts of the city of Freiburg. For those who choose to live in this upscale community of 5,500 residents, owning a car is almost banned. To move around the town, one walks or rides a bike as the streets are completely car-free, except for the town’s main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg passes. Moreover, there is no place to park one’s car except for two garages located at the edge of town, and one would have to pay the exorbitant sum of $40,000 to own a car space there. If one needs a car to get somewhere outside town, there is a car-sharing club with communal cars to rent. In the final result, 70% of Vauban’s families do not own a car, and 57% even sold their cars to move there.

The 255-hectare town, which was completed in 2006, takes on a relatively long and narrow shape so that the tram into Freiburg is within a short walking distance to every home. In contrast to conventional suburban developments, mixed-use zoning is employed so that various facilities such as stores, restaurants, and schools can be interspersed within the town, and consequently are more easily accessible by foot.

Energy efficiency is emphasized, not only through banning the car, but also in the design of the town’s houses. Free-standing homes are not allowed. Instead, four and five-storey row-houses are used to maximize energy efficiency and minimize heat loss.

It may seem surprising that a pioneering project of this type is carried out in Germany, the land of the autobahn, which has no speed limits, and the country that manufactures luxury car brands coveted by people all over the world. It is not unusual, however, to see the most critical assessments of technological developments take place where such technologies are developed. In contrast, the countries importing those technologies often accept them uncritically. This is why in the developing world, the overwhelming spread of the automobile generally has been accepted and often left uncontrolled. As a result, very few restrictions usually are implemented to address issues such as emission standards, speed limits, and devoting more of the city’s street network to pedestrians or to public transportation vehicles. In cities throughout the developing world, the result of this lack of effective regulation has been devastating levels of air pollution, traffic congestion, and traffic accidents.

People everywhere have had an intense love relationship with the car ever since it appeared on the scene. One manifestation of this is car advertisements in the media, which present the car as a symbol of freedom, elegance, splendor, and also status. It seems that just about everyone who is able to drive a car and can afford to own a car will buy one. Many of us are guilty of this car obsession to one degree or another. I still remember the excitement I felt when I obtained my driving license and, later on, when I purchased my first car. As the years pass, however, I am finding myself less and less excited about the car. I still own one and I cannot deny its usefulness and convenience, but I am finding myself using it as little as I can and only when I absolutely need to. Whenever I am in a situation where good-quality alternatives to the car are available - whether a pedestrian-friendly street or decent public transportation, I opt for them.

In fact, it is very hard to argue against the fact that the less we use cars, the better off we all are. We will walk more, which is better for our health. There will be less air pollution resulting from gas emissions (transportation accounts for about 30% of air pollution). There also will be less traffic accidents.

Conflicting, and often unclear, trends, however, are taking place around the world in terms of car ownership and usage. In mature economies, there is a slow but increasing acceptance of the need to move away from car-dominated lifestyles and to develop solutions that are based on other forms of movement through the city such as walking, biking, and using public transportation. This of course requires a substantial rethinking of the city in a manner that not only encourages the development of more efficient public transportation systems as well as pedestrian-friendly streets, but also accommodating higher densities. High urban densities allow many components of the city - whether residential, commercial, institutional, cultural, or recreational - to be located within walking distance of each other. Higher densities also result in the availability of larger numbers of public-transportation users, which is needed to develop and sustain public-transportation systems that are of good quality, are cost-effective, and provide high-frequency service. Take that density away, and the result is sparsely-populated, overspread settlements where it is almost impossible to function normally without access to a private automobile.

In opposition to what is taking place in various mature economies, car ownership and usage is rapidly growing in emerging economies. This is not only related to population growth, but also to growth in incomes. It is common knowledge that millions of people are entering the ranks of the middle-class in China and India, and are increasingly able to obtain the trappings of middle-class life prevalent in the West, of which the automobile is a very important symbol.

People in emerging economies have as much right to own cars as their counterparts in the West, who have had high levels of car ownership for decades. Also, considering the poor state of public transportation in many emerging economies, the car under such circumstances is a necessity rather than a luxury. One approach that often is suggested to addressing this increase in car ownership levels is to put in place mechanisms that bring down car ownership levels in mature economies while limiting their growth in emerging ones. The challenge is to convince and encourage people to rethink car ownership in a way that makes alternatives more appealing, and this is best accomplished by developing high-quality high-density urban configurations that are pedestrian-friendly and that are served by excellent public transportation networks.

Although the negative impacts of higher car ownership and use are becoming clearer, particularly in relation to increased pollution, congestion, and traffic-accident rates, most people unfortunately simply ignore these negative impacts and believe that their owning a single car will not make any difference regarding these issues and will have no effect whatsoever on the grand scale of things.

Still, there is one important development that will make just about everyone rethink car ownership and car use. This is the price of oil. In the summer of 2008, the price of oil headed towards $150 a barrel. Prices have retreated sharply since then, but it seems to be only a matter of time before they head up in that direction again. It is an issue of supply and demand. The world’s oil supplies are decreasing, but long-term demand for oil is increasing.

The recent spike in the price of gasoline has brought about a new awareness that a main challenge facing societies around the world relates to energy needs. Current patterns of energy consumption and the dependence on fossil fuels are not sustainable, whether environmentally or economically, and the world will need to rethink energy consumption on every level. In the same way that the past three decades have been characterized by overwhelming breakthroughs in telecommunication and information technologies, it is very likely that upcoming technological breakthroughs will concentrate on energy-related issues. This will greatly influence the city. Not only will there be a new emphasis on energy-efficient building, but also on movement in the city. After all, a good part of the world’s energy consumption goes to transportation, and urban transportation is one of the main forces that define the shape of the city and how one lives in it.

To return to Vauban, its puritanical rejection of the car may seem extreme to many. While car-free urban zones are common for historical urban heritage areas in various parts of the world, the idea of a newly-developed car-free settlement remains most unusual. Still, I expect we will be seeing more examples of it in the future. The majority of such developments most probably will be more accommodating of the car than Vauban, but they nonetheless will incorporate solutions that greatly reduce dependence on it.

In fact, The New York Times article on Vauban mentions that a car-free town currently is being developed in the United States, in the state of California. The idea also is being given serious attention in other parts of the world. One example is the city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, currently under construction. Masdar is a very ambitious project. The 6.4-square-kilometer urban settlement will cost over 15 billion dollars to develop, and is expected to accommodate 90,000 people who will live or work there. Most importantly, it is intended as an environmentally sustainable zero-carbon, zero-waste city, and all sorts of solutions are being incorporated in its design to realize this goal. One of them is that the automobile will not be allowed inside Masdar. Cars will have to be parked at its periphery, and one will need to rely on walking or on its light rail system to move through it. It remains early to tell as to how successful Masdar will be. What is remarkable, however, is that such a project is being conceived in a country with one of the world’s highest oil reserves and also one of the world’s highest per capita energy consumption rates. A change in thinking regarding how we move through cities clearly is beginning to take place everywhere. How extensive is such change and how long it will take to produce concrete results are questions for which answers will be emerging in the near future.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 04, 2009