Discussion: Are car-free cities possible?

On April 20th, 2014, in the Passing Scene column to your right (or below if you’re reading this on your device), I raised the above question. Peter Woolstencroft was good enough to comment in Facebook, and gave me permission to post his comment below, together with my response. There’s also an exchange with my friend and former student, Dave Danyluk. Here’s the picture I refer to in my response to Peter:

Leipzig6A delivery vehicle in downtown Leipzig, manoeuvring carefully to avoid pedestrians.

Peter Woolstencroft: A car free city is a nice idea, but what happens to the costs of road building, maintenance, and repairs? Who is paying for these expenses? I like the firetrucks and ambulances that go past my house on a paved and well-maintained road. Much appreciated are the trucks that bring goods and services to people in their houses and apartments. In other words, what proportion of road building costs and maintenance are accounted for by gasoline taxes, licenses, vehicle permits, and whatever else motorists generate by way of their economic activity (such as taxes on insurance)?

My response:

You’re asking a good question, but I doubt that the problem you raise is as serious as you seem to suggest. The street scenes pictured in the video all look like European pedestrian malls. They remind me of my favourite German city, Leipzig, where the only vehicles you see in the whole of the downtown are emergency vehicles and the occasional delivery van. (The latter manoeuvre very cautiously around the pedestrians, who dominate the streets, as you can see in the picture.)

I have lots of German relatives, and as far as I can tell, any Germans who can afford cars own them. They use them, as we use cars, for city-to-city travel, holidays and, for that matter, commuting to work if their job doesn’t happen to be located in the Leipzig inner city, a similar one elsewhere, or within easy reach of public transit. There are vehicle roads, evidently with lots of traffic, that bypass the inner city.

As for the costs of maintaining roads, if there are revenue losses from having pedestrian malls downtown, there are also maintenance savings from having mainly pedestrian traffic downtown. All of that doesn’t answer your question, but it does suggest that any revenue hole may not be as hard to fill as you suggest.

Thank you very much for your comment. These are questions well worth thinking through.

David J. Danyluk: What car free examples are there in N. America? I can only think of tourist destinations. Perhaps that tells us something.

My response: Dave, as I’m sure you know, pedestrian malls like the ones pictured in the video are becoming more common in North America. Portland, Oregon, has gone that trend one better by abolishing vehicle traffic from its two main drags downtown. Essentially, the video I posted is suggesting we could push that trend farther. It rightly points out that we could do that more effectively in new cities, built from the ground up with pedestrian downtowns, than in existing ones, but notes that a great deal more could be accomplished in existing cities.

4 responses to “Discussion: Are car-free cities possible?

  1. Strasbourg in France is pretty nice bot not completely car free. Zermatt is also nice for being car free. Can’t really compare them to metropolitan cities though. I expect we probably see smaller EV’s (SmartCar size ) making more of an impact in North America. As they become more mainstream and economical,( sub 15K ) driving an EV will triple the leverage we have on existing roads.

    Also, having trucks deliver to stores in the late hours ( 10 Pm to 5 PM ) would also have a major positive impact .

  2. Hey Chris,

    You might find this idea in the right vein — I personally think it’s a great idea; incremental (the town never has to go into debt to service growth), and tax dense.



    • Thanks, Steve. Piscataquis Village has been in development for at least a couple of years now. It’s a great idea, but it won’t work without a lot more support. An article about it in Atlantic Cities is here and its Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/villageproject.

      • exchange Issues

        I agree, it will require a lot more support to become a viable project, but thats the great thing about it. It escapes the usual “build it and they will come” mentality that we have from our typical tax-supported infrastructure. Instead of the City underwriting all the risk, investors finance the project. If it succeeds, great… More investors will show up, and the early adopters would be paid well for their risks. If it isn’t, then the government doesn’t lose anything.

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