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Carfree Cities

Written By mediavigil on Monday, October 27, 2008 | 2:12 PM

Carfree Cities, a book authored by J.H. Crawford offers a practical solution to the many urban problems caused by cars and trucks. The carfree city saves energy, preserves the environment, and improves the quality of our lives.

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. This is the future that J.H. Crawford envisions in Carfree Cities.


Throughout this book, we will be discussing urban form. In order to make meaningful comparisons of various urban forms, we will need some measuring tools to assist us in comparing cities and their success at meeting human needs. Transport systems exert a large influence on urban form and the quality of urban life, and urban form in turn exercises considerable influence on transport systems. Because the relationship between transport systems and quality of life is so important, many of the measures assess the performance of transport systems or the resources they consume.
The first part of this chapter defines a number of measures that indicate how well a city performs its function as the host for civilization. The second part applies these measures to two extreme urban forms: auto-centric Los Angeles and carfree Venice.

Fine public amenities, Zermatt, Switzerland, 1998 Quality-of-Life Measures
Quality of life, as distinct from standard of living, cannot be measured directly, but several numerical measures are useful:
Frequency of days with poor air quality
Infant mortality rate
Poverty index
Unemployment rate
Literacy rate
Incarceration rate
Incidence of mental illness

Near the Torre dell’Orologio, Venice, 1997
This street in Venice is built at human scale. By the standards given here, it is nearly perfect. It lacks a bench, for which there is clearly no room. Public drinking water and toilets are available in Venice.

Except for air pollution, the range of variation on these measures will be relatively small among cities in rich nations.

To these statistical measures of quality of life, we must add one quality that is difficult to quantify: the prevalence of neighborhoods built on a human scale to serve human needs. Such neighborhoods are usually characterized by the following attributes:

Priority for pedestrians
Buildings no higher than six stories
Buildings oriented towards the street
Active street life created by mixed uses
Small signs without internal illumination
Public amenities such as drinking fountains & benches
Nearby, attractive parks

Strip mall, Los Angeles, 1999

This public area was scaled for cars, not people. The paved area is at least ten times larger than what would be required for foot traffic alone. Nobody cares what this place looks like, so it looks awful.

Transport Measures

A transport system is an integral part of a city and affects many spheres of life. Four points of comparison are especially important: travel time, area of land consumed, direct costs, and externalized costs.
Travel Time

The total time each person spends on travel is affected by both the distances to be traveled and the average speed of the trips. The following characteristics reduce the total distance that must be covered:
Compact development, so no part of the city is far away
Basic shopping within walking distance
Work, school, and health care close to home
The following attributes of any transport system, whether public or private, reduce the door-to-door travel time for a given trip:
Short walking distance to transport
No wait for service
No need to transfer from one vehicle to another
Direct routing without intermediate stops
High acceleration
High speed

Suburban sprawl is typified by the US pattern of postwar development. Single-family houses are built on large lots. Nonresidential functions are located in specialized districts, far from home.

Car drivers usually escape walking, waiting, and transferring, but in many urban areas these savings are overbalanced by the effects of suburban sprawl, which forces people to:
Drive to all shopping
Drive an hour or more to routine destinations
Search for parking
Wait in traffic

The Central Artery project in Boston will bury 257 lane-kilometers of highway costing $10.6 billion and will provide capacity for 190,000 cars each day, so the capital cost per daily car is $55,000.

http://www.bigdig.com Land Consumed by Transport
Transport systems must be measured against the area of land they occupy. A road lane and a railroad track are each roughly 4 meters wide. About 2000 cars/hr can pass over one traffic lane. At typical occupancy rates, this is just 2500 people/hr. Trains, on the other hand, can carry 50,000 passengers/hr over a single track. Cars are therefore up to 20 times more land intensive than trains for the same capacity, before any allowance is made for car parking. While railroads can be built underground, roads are too wide for routine tunneling.
The American Automobile Association estimates the direct costs of a mid-sized car at $4504/year.

from “Transportation Cost Analysis”
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
http://www.vtpi.org/tcasum.htm Direct Costs
The direct costs of passenger transport are easily measured. Transport is a large item in most family budgets, and this is especially true of families in sprawling suburbs, many of whom must own and operate several cars in order to meet their transport needs. Travel costs include mileage-based costs, per-trip costs, and periodic costs. The following table gives examples of costs paid by car and urban rail travelers:

Most urban rail systems charge a flat rate per trip, but some systems charge fares based on distance. Of course, if a passenger buys a season ticket, his entire cost is periodic and unaffected by usage.
Car Urban rail
Cost per unit distance Gasoline Nil
Cost per trip Parking Flat-rate
Cost per year Insurance Nil

Proposals have been made to charge for insurance on a per-mile rather than a per-year basis, in order to discourage driving and charge drivers for their actual risk exposure. Passengers usually pay at least some of the direct costs, but governments often subsidize much of the remainder. (In the USA, virtually every passenger transport mode is subsidized, directly or indirectly.) Most car drivers underestimate the out-of-pocket cost of driving and are unaware of the large subsidy they receive. Drivers tend to equate their costs of driving to the cost of gasoline consumed plus parking and tolls, but the driver actually pays much more than this: depreciation and maintenance are large costs that are not paid at the time of travel, so drivers are not particularly aware of them. The system is arranged in such a way that, once you have a car, the cost of driving additional distance seems fairly low, which tends to encourage more driving.

Externalized costs are the monetary and nonmaterial costs imposed on society at large by the consumer of a product or service.
Externalized Costs
While many externalized costs are difficult to measure, they are at least as important as direct costs. Every transport system externalizes costs to its neighbors and to the global ecosystem. For example, car drivers externalize the following costs:
Death & injury to bystanders
Intimidation of pedestrians & bicyclists
Diminished freedom for children
Road maintenance costs in excess of road taxes
Reduced availability of public transport
Noise & vibration
Air pollution & climate change
Loss of beauty to visual clutter
Deterioration of human-scale public spaces

Richard Risemberg was kind enough to share his local knowledge of Los Angeles. He and his son Jack took the photographs of Los Angeles, which are far from the worst examples that might be chosen: this is simply what Los Angeles looks like.

The Yardsticks Applied

The next ten pages contrast various facets of life in auto-centric Los Angeles and carfree Venice, using our yardsticks. First a few words by way of introduction.
Each page contrasts one aspect of life in both cities, taking first Los Angeles and then Venice. For each city, the influence of transport on that aspect of life is taken up first, followed by the consequences for quality of life in that city.

Some reviewers held such a comparison to be unfair, and while this criticism may be accurate, it misses the point. The comparison merely highlights the extreme deterioration of public spaces characteristic of auto-centric cities and shows that repulsive public areas are not intrinsic to modern life.

The miniaturized arches can be seen on page 157
The ugliness of Los Angeles stems quite directly from its auto-centric patterns. Other factors less germane to the subject of this book, such as the globalization of the world economy and the rise of multinational corporations, surely also affect Los Angeles. It is worth noting, however, that both McDonalds and international package express companies found ways to adapt their normal methods of operation to the unique requirements of Venice.

Indeed, the Fenice opera house, one of the jewels of Venice, was devastated by fire a few years ago, but the building will be completely restored. All of the necessary skills and materials are still available.

Even though Venice is centuries old, nothing in Venice could not be replicated today: there are no technical barriers to the construction of new cities just like Venice. Doubtless, some aspects of Venetian construction would be seen as prohibitively expensive today, but the large majority of buildings in Venice are actually quite ordinary and require nothing more difficult or expensive than a modest amount of stone-cutting of a type still commonly seen in new and reconstructed buildings throughout southern Europe.

This chapter concludes with a tabular comparison of Los Angeles, Venice, and the carfree city as proposed in Part II.

Strip mall, Los Angeles, 1999
No place to play Where Do the Children Play?
In Los Angeles, speeding cars make the streets too dangerous for young children, so they must play in fenced-in back yards and depend entirely on adults for all transport. Two small children who do not live next door can only play together if a parent drives one child to the other’s home. Older children may be allowed to bicycle, but the constant danger from cars and trucks makes this a nail-biting event for parents. Few children get themselves to school because traffic makes it too dangerous to walk or bike, so children are driven instead.
The constant travel within the confines of a car delays the exposure of children to the adult world and retards their social development. Only later do they discover the larger world and its expectations regarding public behavior. Children don’t get as much exercise as they need, one cause of obesity among American children.

Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Venice
Carnival, 1997 Venice has relatively few gardens and parks, but the complete absence of cars makes it safe for children to play anywhere, even in the middle of the street. The entire city serves as their playground, and, as children grow, they can explore steadily more of it. Two children who want to play together can safely walk to each other's homes, even from a very young age. Younger children walk to school, and older children sometimes take the ferry.

Because all but the very youngest children can go to school on their own, without adult help, children begin very early to learn how to get along in the real world. If children on the street become obnoxious, a passing adult may correct their behavior, so children begin to absorb social norms from a young age. By the time they reach their teens, children have learned how to behave in public.

The Beverly Center, Los Angeles, 1999
The first five stories are mostly parking garage Street Life
In Los Angeles, almost anybody with enough money to own and operate a car drives nearly everywhere, and since parking garages are often integrated into the buildings they serve, drivers headed for many destinations never even set foot on the street. In most places and at most times there are relatively few people on the streets except for drivers sealed up in air-conditioned cars. Most of the people who spend much time on the streets are poor and even homeless.

The constant heavy traffic makes the streets noisy, smelly, and abidingly ugly. It is unpleasant and even difficult to socialize on the street, and few people do. What passes for street life takes place inside large, privately-owned shopping centers that have little incentive to permit or encourage activities that are not directly profit-making. Unlike city streets, malls close at night.

Street musician, Venice, 1997
Better acoustics than some concert halls In Venice, cars never intrude upon the streets except for a small area near the parking garage at the entrance to the city. Rich and poor alike use the streets at every hour of the day and night. Long trips begin and end with a walk between the door and the nearest ferry landing. Water taxis are for hire at stiff rates, but even their passengers usually begin their trips with a walk down the street.

The streets echo to human sounds: footsteps, voices, whistling porters, singing gondoliers. The stink, roar, and danger of car and truck traffic never inhibit street life. People dawdle without worrying about onrushing traffic. All day long, people are present on the street, which serves as a stage for an endless stream of interesting and sometimes amusing episodes. Restaurants put tables outdoors, from which their patrons watch and participate in the play of life.

Another strip mall, Los Angeles, 1999 Public Spaces
Los Angeles has as many public spaces as any other city, but few of them are arranged for anything but the convenience of cars and the imperatives they impose on commerce. The stores are set back from the street in order to provide parking in front, and huge signs pass terse messages to fleeting drivers. Traffic signs and signals further erode the quality of the area, and drooping overhead communication and power cables complete the picture. The organizational principles are fast automobile movement and convenient parking.

Beauty and the needs of pedestrians are given little thought, and the long strips of low buildings bordering wide streets fail to create a sense of enclosure. Comfortable places where people gather to enjoy city life scarcely exist. Attractive public squares can hardly be found. Graffiti and litter abound in an environment about which no one cares.

Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Venice, 1997 In Venice, public squares large and small are scattered throughout the city. These squares were arranged for the sole convenience of pedestrians, many of whom are intimately familiar with the area, so few signs are required. In Venice, the church acted as a major organizational force, and each parish has its own church, usually fronting on a square that once served as a water catchment and storage area, furnished with a well from which people drew their water.
While drawing water is no longer an activity that regulates daily life, the wellheads remain gathering places, and people cluster around them to enjoy the vibrant street life. Building facades almost entirely delineate these squares, giving them an interesting and comfortable sense of enclosure. A few squares, including the great Piazza San Marco, border on the lagoon, with its arresting water views.

Yet another strip mall, Los Angeles, 1999 Major Streets
In the photograph of Los Angeles, every person in the scene sits isolated in a car: of the 10 or 12 people present, not one is actually visible. These few people almost fully occupy the large amount of space and make the street look congested. In order to offer their customers “free” parking, the stores have dedicated large areas of land to parking. The resultant low-density land usage gives rise to the power poles; underground service would have cost too much. The overriding concern is to minimize capital and operating costs.

The street is no place to stop to look around or to chat with neighbors. Should a motorist stop for any reason, drivers would begin honking their horns almost immediately. Giant signs and power lines blot the scene. No thought has been given to the provision of any amenity except parking. The street fails to serve as a social space.

The steps of Rialto Bridge, Venice, 1997 In Venice, people sometimes nearly fill a street, but real congestion is rare. In this photograph of one of the busiest spots in Venice, many more people are present than in the photograph of Los Angeles. There is room enough for everyone, even though the way is partially blocked by a few people sitting on the steps. The businesses face directly onto the sidewalk and have no need to shout in order to advertise their wares. As in most of Europe, the high density made it practical to put power lines underground.
None of the people are isolated in steel cages, so everyone is actively present on the street. Many stores have no signs at all. Restaurants put their menu cards out on small stands, and the tables in the street are sufficient to announce the nature of the business to passersby. The street is attractive and serves as an active social area.

Traffic jam, Los Angeles, 1999 Passenger Transport
In Los Angeles, driving is the nearly universal way to get anywhere. This has led to terrible congestion on the streets and highways. The once-famous Red Cars (trams) operated over a vast network, but most public transport is now provided by bus. Faced with intractable air pollution, the city has resurrected some rail service and is building a metro of modest extent. Handicapped access is provided mainly by buses equipped with cumbersome wheelchair lifts, although the new metro system provides elevator access.

Air pollution remains a serious issue as traffic continues to worsen. People waste large amounts of time stuck in traffic. Those without a car must endure dreadful bus service in order to get anywhere. Those who drive spend a large proportion of their disposable income for relatively low-speed transport, which is, of course, faster than the bus.

Ferryboats, Venice, 1997 In Venice, walking is the most common way to get around, and congestion is rarely an issue. At a reasonably brisk pace, one can cross the city in an hour. Pleasant, if slow, public transport is provided by ferryboats, but evening service is infrequent, and it is often faster to walk. (The gondola is little used as a serious means of transport today.) Those arriving by car must park in a large garage at the end of the causeway. A small area near the garage is the only part of the city in which cars, trucks, buses, or trains can be found.

The atmosphere aboard the ferries is pleasant, and passengers enjoy excellent views of the city. Arched bridges, necessary to allow boats to pass beneath, abound in Venice. These bridges all have steps, making this one of the world’s least accessible cities for those confined to wheelchairs. Lifts are now being added to the most heavily traveled bridges.

Trucks, Los Angeles, 1999 Freight Delivery
In Los Angeles, freight is usually delivered by truck. Almost all merchandise arriving from overseas is containerized and delivered by ship, with final local delivery of the container by truck. Some bulk cargoes, such as crude oil, are also delivered by ship. There are no inland waterways, so delivery by water is only possible along the harborfront. Rail is seldom used for local freight delivery, although some larger shippers do have rail access. However, many of the containers arriving by ship are transshipped to trains for through delivery to the hinterlands.
The use of trucks to deliver so much freight aggravates the already-severe road congestion. Most big trucks are diesel-powered and emit clouds of stinking exhaust, and all trucks exacerbate global warming because they burn fossil fuels and waste energy.

Freight handling, Rialto bridge, Venice, 1997 In Venice, virtually all freight is transported by boat, except for a small area near the train station that has direct rail and road service. The narrow waterways and low bridges restrict the size of freight scows, so their capacity is quite limited. Freight must be transshipped between rail or road and the delivery boats, a time-consuming and expensive task. Final deliveries, except to destinations along a canal, must be made by hand cart. The steps on the bridges make this a chore for the very fit, and it is doubtless a bit dangerous as well.

Despite these problems, freight gets delivered in Venice, and even the overnight express companies have managed to cope. Street and water traffic never interfere with one another, and congestion on the water rarely becomes an issue. While the diesel-powered boats do emit some pollutants, they are reasonably quiet and rarely intrusive.

City Hall, Los Angeles, 1999 Civic Buildings
The photograph shows one of the most important civic buildings in the Los Angeles region: the Los Angeles City Hall. This facility was clearly designed with the needs of cars and their drivers foremost in mind. The obvious expectation is that most visitors and employees will arrive by private car. This necessitates the huge parking facilities that swallow up the entire foreground. In the background, the city hall itself can just be seen.
The problem of car parking is insoluble. While multistory parking garages do reduce the amount of land required, they are never attractive structures. As long as the car remains the primary means of access, the design of beautiful public buildings in attractive surroundings will remain an impossible task. Despite its importance, this building could quite easily be mistaken for an ordinary office building.

Doge’s Palace, Venice, 1997 In Venice, the Doge’s Palace is clearly the most important civic building. No one arrives by car, so there is, of course, no car parking at all. One facade faces the Riva degli Schiavone, a busy waterfront where a variety of boats moor. This is as close to a parking lot as exists anywhere in the vicinity.
The moored and moving boats, rather than detracting from the appearance and habitability of the area, actually make it more interesting. While the monumental architecture of the Doge’s Palace is best appreciated from other vantage points, even here on the back side, one sees the attention paid to making the building beautiful. The principal facade of the Doge’s Palace faces the Piazza San Marco where it and the adjoining cathedral form the grandest architectural feature of the piazza, and thus of all Venice. The importance of this building is unmistakable from any prospect.

Oriental Mission Church, Los Angeles, 1999 Churches
In Los Angeles, churchgoers pile into the car and drive to church. There is no procession of people in their Sunday best through the streets. As with all public buildings in auto-centric cities, a vast parking lot must be provided, and, as usual, the most convenient and space-saving location is between the buildings and the street.
Most of what is visible from the street is parking lot. In this instance, a few token trees were added to shield the expanse of sizzling asphalt and the mass of parked cars, but the entire arrangement inspires awe only by the breadth and depth of its ugliness. Only the cross marks this site as different from any other. The building itself is in no way remarkable (this one was probably converted from a failed store). The fence and the gate imply that only some people are welcome, and this church provides no amenities whatever to passersby.

Church on the Záttere, Venice, 1997 In Venice, those going to church begin to meet each other in the streets during their walk to church. The social function thus begins well before their arrival at the church itself. Since everyone walks to church, there is no need to make any provision for parking. The street is narrow enough that the cost of stone paving was reasonable.
This church faces directly onto the street. The rich architectural details are seen from close up and intended to be appreciated by passersby as a sign that this building is important enough to be worthy of decoration. (By Venetian standards, this church is only barely worthy of note.) Great care was lavished on the design and execution of the lovely stone paving. This particular church is generous enough to provide a pleasant amenity to the general public: a sunny place to sit and watch the world go past.

Nine cars and nine garages, Los Angeles, 1999 Housing
In Los Angeles, housing is designed with the assumption that all transport outside of the immediate neighborhood is by car. The extreme reliance on automobile transport means that most adults need a car, which explains why there is never enough parking, despite the city’s requirement that developers provide parking spaces for all apartments.
A large percentage of almost every building site must be devoted to parking and access roads, leaving little room for public spaces. The ground floor may be dedicated entirely to garages, as here, so there is often no human presence at ground level, which makes the area hostile, forbidding, and even frightening. Few architectural elements can be more difficult to make beautiful than garage doors, and most housing is overwhelmed by these faceless artifacts of automobility, which foil every effort to design attractive buildings.

Housing, Venice, 1997 All residential buildings in Venice were designed with the assumption that everyone would arrive either on foot or by boat. No provision need be made for parking lots or garages. Most buildings that front on a canal are provided with landing stages for boats, although almost everybody makes all local trips on foot.
Absent the need for car parking, open space is invariably devoted to human uses. It is true that open space is scarce in the older parts of Venice, and much of this takes the form of private gardens. Parks are few and small, but the high quality of public spaces and the omnipresent water views offer a delightful alternative. The surroundings are never threatening. In the absence of the need for garages, the design of attractive buildings is a relatively straightforward matter, even here, where the style here has been kept rather simple.

Bulk food store, Los Angeles, 1999 Shopping

In Los Angeles, most retail sales are made by large enterprises housed in huge, featureless buildings from which a large staff serves a vast geographic area. Only inexpensive automobile transport made these enterprises economically feasible, and the traffic they generate exacerbates highway congestion. These businesses generally construct a new building to their own specification, complete with huge parking lot.
Because customers and store employees come from a wide geographic area, they seldom know or even recognize each other and rarely have any social contact outside the store. Should a customer burst into tears, no one would know why. The store is owned by a distant corporation and managed from afar. The business knows its customers only by their demographic profiles but does its best to accommodate them, for its livelihood depends upon it.

The people who work and shop in these stores know each other, sometimes quite well. Both customers and staff usually live within the same neighborhood, so sometimes they meet on the street. They know the local gossip and the recent misfortunes. A customer who is recently bereaved can expect to be greeted with compassion when entering the store for the first time since the death. The proprietor is present during opening hours. He has learned the special needs and desires of all his customers and does his best to accommodate them, for his livelihood depends upon it.

Crawford argues unapologetically that the car is a technology that has run wild, and that the time has come to reclaim city streets for human activities. He proposes a city planned to maximize the quality of life for individuals and communities, and gives practical suggestions for implementing this basic design in both new and existing cities. Crawford believes that sustainable development can only be achieved by ending car use within cities.

In the face of passive acceptance of declining quality of life, Carfree Cities is a beacon of hope and sanity that offers a practical solution to the danger, pollution, and breakdown of social systems caused by autocentric development. By rejecting the assumption that continued car use in cities is inevitable, Crawford takes us a step closer to the tantalizing possibility of a return to the pattern of lively, attractive streets that we had enjoyed for thousands of years, until the advent of automobiles.


See especially Cities and the Wealth of Nations Mankind first settled in cities about 7000 years ago, and cities have served as the cradle of civilization ever since.
I believe that the future of cities is assured. Culture is hosted by cities because only cities can support great libraries, symphony orchestras, extensive theater districts, major-league sports teams, and vast museums. Cities also provide the principal setting for economic activity. Jane Jacobs believes that the wealth of nations is generated mainly by innovators located in urban areas with the broad infrastructure base needed to support the establishment of new enterprises. Innovators need a vast range of goods and services close at hand, plus, of course, good transport and communications. Only cities can provide such depth of resources.

Cities ought to be places where great buildings and lively outdoor spaces are found, which was usual until modern times. The European capitals still provide many wonderful examples of good urban spaces. Piazza San Marco is perhaps the greatest of them all, peaceful yet vibrant. Most Italian cities have gorgeous squares, a few of which have been protected from cars. New York, Boston, and San Francisco still have great districts, as did most US cities until cars and suburban sprawl bled their hearts dry.

Auto-centric cities are those based on transport by private automobile. Infrequent buses offer indifferent public transport. Car ownership is nearly essential, even for the poor. Los Angeles is the archetype.

When thinking about cities, we must remember that suburbs are an urban, not rural, form. This reality clashes with the suburban leitmotif: fleeing the city to live in the countryside. However, few US suburbs still offer even the illusion of country life, and they depend on central cities for work, health care, and culture. The "national automobile slum" is thus the worst of both worlds: vast areas of forest and farmland are turned into low-density residential neighborhoods organized around automobile transport. Inhabitants of these auto-centric areas must drive great distances through repulsive surroundings to reach virtually every activity.

Rural areas supplied the people, food, and resources to fuel the urban engine that produced the bulk of our technical advances. Although some of these advances turned out to have a dark side, there can be little doubt that technology has generally improved our lives, and we have our cities to thank for this.

Predictions abound that virtual reality will reduce the need for physical presence and thereby the need for cities. While virtual reality will provide an alternative to face-to-face meetings for some task-focused groups, I believe that most people will find it an unsatisfactory substitute for personal contact. I am no technical reprobate: I have computers in my home, make extensive use the Internet, and enjoy playing computer games. But for me, no form of virtual reality will ever replace a pleasant evening stroll among the neighbors. I believe this is true for most people.

For as long as people continue to want to meet in person, the future of cities is assured.

This small square is built to a human scale. The stone pavers are about the length of a human foot. The windows are smaller than the human form, and the door is, of course, somewhat larger. In the narrow streets just beyond, you can touch both walls with outstretched hands.

Cities & Community

City streets are the host for community, and community is central to the maintenance of a civilized society, which depends on a certain level of shared experiences and expectations. It is in the streets that the chance encounters essential to the sustenance of community occur. One indicator of the importance of this function is the degree to which its disappearance is now recognized and lamented in the USA. As classic "main street" towns have disappeared, the social space they once provided has been replaced mainly by shopping malls, a tepid substitute indeed. Not all social encounters on the streets of a well-functioning city are pleasant, but the friction that sometimes arises does serve an important function: it helps people to learn how to tolerate and get along with one another.

In the New World, quite a few social groups have been so marginalized that they no longer have a true place in society. At the same time, some of the richest members of society have in essence completely withdrawn from public life. They live in gated communities, to which the poor are only invited to wash the floors, clean the pools, and tend the gardens. Some rich people only venture into the outer world when isolated in their cars, and then often to travel to members-only venues.

In late 1999, many activists gathered in Seattle to protest secret negotiations being conducted by the World Trade Organization. Police mishandled the demonstrators, almost all of whom were practicing nonviolence. The confrontation has become known in some quarters as the "Battle of Seattle."

A carfree place for kids to hang out. But it’s not bus-free: a small, slow electric bus can be seen in the background. Kids play safely in the streets here. The French Revolution showed how dangerous it is for a privileged aristocracy to isolate itself from the population. No one who could say "let them eat cake" could possibly have had any understanding of what life was like for nearly all her subjects. I fear that a divide is arising in modern Western societies as the degree of segregation and alienation rises. As the "Battle of Seattle" showed in 1999, leaders must maintain some sort of common ground with the rank-and-file or risk unexpected and unpleasant confrontations with those who feel that they have been disenfranchised.

The splendid isolation in which most leaders live surely does not increase their sensitivity to the plight of their constituents. Most leaders are surrounded entirely by people like themselves: rich, powerful, well-educated, and assured of a place at the table. This is true not only among national leaders but also at much lower levels of government. Almost all leaders travel by car and rarely rub elbows with those who elected them. The restoration of streets as public spaces used by everyone will help to assure that citizens from every part of society maintain at least a modicum of contact with one another and to promote conditions under which civilized societies can flourish.

Cities & Transport

Transport is vital to cities: no city can function without its passenger and freight transport systems. As large cities based on car and truck transport approach gridlock, it has become apparent to almost everyone that a better solution is needed. So far, however, only half-hearted solutions have been proposed. While many of these proposals might somewhat improve the livability of our cities, most of them cause adverse effects, some of which are roughly as serious as the problems they are intended to cure. We must examine the prevailing assumption that continued automobile use is inescapable, and that examination is a major theme of this book.

The amount of space that an urban transport system absorbs has a critical effect on urban form. Cars are the most space-intensive form of urban transport ever devised and have forced cities to expand into rural areas. In many cities, attempts to accommodate cars required the construction of urban highways that severely damaged the neighborhoods through which they were driven. Other means would have provided better transport at far lower costs.

Rapid improvements in urban and intercity rail systems during the period 1850–1935 offered mankind the best transport that had ever been seen, but in the USA, cars began as early as 1915 to erode the quality of public spaces and to impede public transport vehicles operating on the streets. So began a long downward spiral in the quality of life in US cities.

The delivery of freight in cities has been problematic since Roman times. The chapter on freight delivery proposes a means to deliver freight in our cities simply by extending the use of standardized shipping containers. Such containers are now routinely moved by the thousand around the globe aboard ships, barges, trains, and trucks. The means I propose merely extend existing, proven technology, much of it fully automated.

The automobile industry has become such a large segment of the world economy that many fear any change that might threaten the continued production of tens of millions of cars each year. Any large decline in urban car usage will certainly cause major economic dislocations, so the change to carfree cities will require careful economic planning and implementation in phases (which is, in any case, almost essential). The auto industry will continue to sell millions of cars a year to those living in rural areas, for whom it is difficult to imagine any other practical means of transport.

Carfree Urban Areas

San Marco, Venice, 1997 Some will scoff at the viability of life in carfree cities, but remember that every city was carfree until about 100 years ago. Venice clearly demonstrates that carfree cities can at the very least continue to function in modern times. It is risky, however, to use Venice as the sole proof of the feasibility of carfree cities. Many regard Venice as a dying city and note the dramatic decline in population since 1945, from about 200,000 to around 75,000 in just 50 years. Venice is, in fact, a victim of its own success.

The combination of the delightful carfree environment, together with a large helping of the world’s art and architectural treasures, has made Venice one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Rich people bought up many houses in Venice, and many of these buildings are vacant for most of the year. Other buildings have been converted to hotels to shelter the visiting hordes. Housing prices rose so much that many Venetians were forced to move to Mestre on the mainland, leading at least in part to the dramatic decline in population. Even in winter, however, Venice does not seem like a dead city: it feels like the bustling, good-humored small city that it is.

Most large industry in Venice has relocated to nearby Mestre. Smaller industries, however, still continue to thrive. Murano, an island just north of the two main islands of Venice, has been a leading producer of fine glassware since 1291. Dozens of small glass factories still operate here, so it is evident that small industries with moderate freight requirements can survive despite the problematic freight system.

A reference design is a benchmark, used as a point of departure. Normally, a reference design is not actually built, although it should in principle be employable in some real situation. The reference design for carfree cities could be built without appreciable modification in several Dutch polders and other flat, sparsely-settled tracts. Local conditions will usually dictate substantial deviations.

A very few cars are still permitted to enter the downtown area, but it is effectively carfree. Trams provide a convenient alternative. Most difficulties that beset Venice are intrinsic to its location in the middle of a shallow lagoon or related to its unique place in history. When building new carfree cities or converting existing cities to the carfree model, we will usually be able to design around constraints of this kind. Venice serves us best when we regard it simply as evidence of the high quality of life that is possible in medieval cities: four-story buildings, crooked narrow streets, and relatively high density are in themselves no barrier to a high quality of life, so long as cars are not permitted to terrorize the streets. I would argue, in fact, that it is precisely these qualities of Venice that make it so successful, and many aspects of the "reference design" for carfree cities are indeed based on the Venetian model.

To be sure, other models are also feasible: all that is necessary for the basic carfree design to work is to achieve a sufficiently high population density to support excellent public transport. This can be achieved in many different ways. At one end of the scale are the towering Modernist skyscrapers of Hong Kong and Manhattan. At the other end are low-rise, high-density urban areas like Burano (a small island near Venice) and the old lilong neighborhoods of Shanghai. (Most of the lilong areas have been demolished in favor of high-rise buildings, but when I was in Shanghai, the locals spoke longingly of the warm social environment that had characterized the narrow streets of these carfree areas.)

Further evidence of the workability of carfree cities can be seen in Europe, where many cities have made parts of downtown carfree. In a few cases, such as Freiburg, most of downtown has been made largely or entirely carfree. These areas have been popular with residents and tourists alike, and the initial opposition of merchants has generally changed to strong support within a year or two: most merchants saw their business improve once the cars were gone.

Some cities in the USA have also experimented with carfree areas, although usually on a more modest scale. Some of these experiments have been deemed unsuccessful and reversed, but it appears that most of the unsuccessful trials were in fact "transit malls," which is really another name for an outdoor bus station. Removing cars in order to replace them with diesel buses does little to improve the street in question.

Finally, we must keep firmly in mind that carfree cities demand excellent public transport. Some existing examples of top-quality public transport will be cited later. The only barriers to achieving first-class service for all transit users are political: no technical problems remain to be solved, so long as the necessary population density is achieved. All that is lacking is the will to make the needed service improvements.

The USA is nearing the end of an experiment begun a century ago, an experiment also conducted in lesser degrees by the rest of the world. The experimental hypothesis is simply stated: private automobiles offer everyone the best possible urban transport.

The conduct of this experiment required the demolition of streets, houses, stores, and factories and their reconstruction in new locations. It scattered populations across the countryside, devastated city centers, damaged social systems, and battered the planetary ecosystem. Rich, detailed, human-scale neighborhoods were replaced by hideous, gigantic areas scaled to the needs of cars.

The few good urban environments that still exist in the USA were built before the needs of cars subsumed centuries of urban planning craft. These areas are almost invariably the most beautiful parts of the city (usually also the oldest parts of town), and typically see the heaviest use. In fact, the desire for housing in these deeply-satisfying areas overwhelms the supply and drives up real estate prices. This pattern can also be seen in Europe.

The experiment was supported by the most costly civil works program in history: the construction of the US Interstate highway system. Without fast highways connecting the center city to rural areas, the exodus to the suburbs could never have proceeded so far or so fast.

Even if sufficient resources can be found to sustain the experiment indefinitely, there remain many reasons to remove cars from our cities: cars are wasting our time, wrecking our lives, and destroying our societies. In the 20th century, cars have done more to damage our cities than wars, terrible as they have been. No city except Venice has been immune to the ravages of cars. Urban automobile usage amounts to an undeclared war between drivers and everybody else. Just as in a real war, there is a lot of "collateral damage." We see it around us every day in the form of the awful environments built since the needs of cars and their drivers came to dominate every aspect of urban planning.

These ugly environments seem inseparable from auto-centric development. They have had a devastating effect on the civic functions of the public realm. These dreadful environments discourage people from spending time in public places and broadcast the message: this mess is so awful, nobody cares what you do here. It leads to isolation, cynicism, hopelessness, and antisocial behavior.

See Donald Appleyard’s work for a thorough examination of the effects of cars on communities. While many problems with cars are of a technical nature and therefore susceptible to engineering solutions, the most serious problems are intrinsic and cannot be solved by any application of technology. I regard the damage that cars do to social systems as the most serious problem they cause in cities. No technical improvement to cars can restore the vital function of streets as the host for community: as long as anything as dangerous and intrusive as cars and trucks rule our streets, civic life will vanish from the street.

For more on life in contemporary US cities, see Jackson, Kay, and Kunstler. See also this book’s foreword. At a deep level, Americans are finally beginning to understand that something is missing in their lives. The sudden emergence of suburban sprawl as a topic of national discussion indicates that many have realized that something was lost when sprawling suburbs replaced walkable, human-scale cities. This discussion is perhaps less evident in Europe, which was slower to adopt widespread car usage and where cars were never permitted to do as much harm to cities. (We shall see later that Le Corbusier proposed to demolish most of Paris in order to build highways and tower blocks. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed.)

As evidence of the seriousness of our design errors, I offer the passion we now exhibit for the preservation and restoration of old urban neighborhoods. Today in the industrialized nations, almost any proposal that would damage these artifacts of civility is instantly shouted down.

We have recently seen a spate of books proposing solutions to the urban transport crisis and the problem of suburban sprawl. While this marks the dawning of awareness that automobile usage in cities causes many intractable problems, the solutions so far proposed are only palliatives. This book proposes a solution that is at once radical and reactionary: radical because it proposes major changes to our cities, and reactionary because many of these changes are actually a reversion to urban patterns still widely applied just a century ago.


"Traffic management" is not really a solution to anything. Only when kids can play ball in the street without worrying about cars has a sufficient improvement been achieved. While some traffic management schemes do improve conditions for some people, most strategies carry less-obvious drawbacks that make life worse for others. While speed bumps do slow cars down for a moment, the net result is a small decrease in average speed coupled with a significant increase in noise and exhaust emissions, a situation arguably worse than before the bumps were installed.

A woonerf is a residential street to which cars are only admitted on the condition that they proceed at dead slow. Street furniture creates a winding path that effectively enforces this condition; high speeds are impossible, and most streets are dead ends.

The Dutch woonerf really does improve the quality of life for residents, based as it is on the presumption that cars are admitted so long as they proceed at a walking pace and do not disrupt other activities. However, the woonerf approach is not extensible beyond local neighborhoods because cars require reasonably high-speed streets in order to provide quick transport. The woonerf solution may also simply displace traffic from one street to another, such as happened in Berkeley, California, where some residential areas were turned into a maze of dead-end streets. Traffic that had used the local streets was simply displaced to the main arteries.

A real solution to the problem of the urban automobile can only be achieved by moving cars entirely out of the city. Only by this means can we restore true peace in our streets and provide a safe environment where people are invited to linger, without fear of traffic.

If we replace auto-centric urban transport with rail-based systems, we can retain and even improve our current levels of mobility at a cost both we and the environment can bear. A carfree city designed around rail transport would greatly reduce the resources currently consumed by urban transport while providing a fast, comfortable alternative to cars.

In order to make effective use of rail systems, carfree cities will require a considerably denser pattern of living than the suburbs, but denser, carfree living can help restore community to our neighborhoods. The design for carfree cities provides a way to establish nearby parks and open space, regain peace and quiet in our homes and offices, and begin the reconstruction of social systems damaged when the automobile drove life off the street. The required density increases are by no means extreme: densities that are still common in European city centers are entirely sufficient. Even sprawling Los Angeles has a few neighborhoods that are more densely populated than the districts proposed for carfree cities.

The changes I propose are far-reaching indeed: the complete removal of cars and trucks from city streets is as sweeping a change as I can imagine. While many compromises with this radical approach are possible and probably quite workable, I think that we should adopt a policy of completely removing motorized traffic from city streets. Only in this way do we obtain the full benefits of carfree cities. However, Part III does consider design compromises that permit some level of continued urban car usage while still yielding streets that are entirely carfree.

The reference design proposes a return to traditional forms of city building, because these forms have shown their worth through the ages and because people still seem to value these areas the most. However, many architects (and a few others) continue to believe that Modernism is mankind’s salvation. Modernism could be accommodated in its own district, as Léon Krier has proposed. The rest of us would be free to live elsewhere, in districts based on older, more comfortable patterns, such as those identified by Christopher Alexander.

One element of the reference design in particular has aroused considerable opposition: my proposal to adopt Alexander’s pattern limiting building heights to four stories is strongly opposed by some, including a few people whose views I otherwise largely accept. While tall buildings are not essential to a successful city, there is no reason why a district could not be reserved for skyscrapers. In fact, the division of carfree cities into districts makes it easy to provide locations to accommodate a wide range of preferences.

The message of this book is simple: Get the cars out of the cities. The rest is simply a proposal for how to achieve this. Other methods besides those I propose would probably also work, although some might require technically-advanced transport systems whose practicality has yet to be demonstrated. Any promising method should be tested.

The more carfree areas that are developed in the coming decade, the better. Some efforts will doubtless work better than others, but even the attempts that do not achieve complete success will provide interesting environments and useful lessons. I believe that nothing will sell the idea of carfree cities better than the experience of carfree areas, and Venice is certainly the best advertisement for carfree cities that I have ever seen.

Carfree cities can offer rich human experience, great beauty, and true peace. They can greatly reduce the damage we are doing to the biosphere. They permit the construction of beautiful districts in the manner of European city centers, with parks but a short walk away. Carfree cities are a practical alternative, available now. They can be built using existing technology at a price we can afford. They offer a real future for our children.

Organization of the Book

The book is divided into three Parts, each beginning with an enumeration of its chapters and summaries of their contents. Part I considers cities in general and transport in particular. Part II presents the reference design for carfree cities as well as some variations on the reference design. Part III examines ways of implementing carfree cities in the real world.

Table of Contents

Front Matter
Foreword by James Howard Kunstler

Part I: On Cities
Yardsticks for Cities
Cities & Transport
Wicked Cars
Better Public Transport
Sustainable Cities

Part II: Carfree Cities
Design Parameters
City Topology
City Districts
City Blocks
Passenger Transport
Freight Delivery

Part III: Going Carfree
Support for Carfree Cities
Planning Carfree Cities
Some Modest Proposals

Resources at Carfree.com
The Bicycle City
The Auto-Centric Carfree City
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