The Book: Carfree Cities

The Book: Carfree Cities

T.J. Binkley's Review of Carfree Cities


The Ultimate Traffic Solution

April 28, 2000

Would you like to live in a truly genuine community: where local shopkeepers, familiar faces, and quiet streets recreate the small-town ambience so many of us crave? ...And yet the magic and excitement of the city is also just fifteen minutes away... aboard a fast, safe, clean, energy-efficient train ( a metro, that stops at your stop every four minutes, all hours of the day, and continues running all night)?

Would you enjoy living in a place where the kids can get to school in the morning; to soccer practice in the afternoon; to grandma's over the weekend; and to their friend's house anytime.... without having to ask mom for a ride? Where senior citizens may sit in nearby parks while children play; instead of being sentenced to the isolation of a retirement 'community'? ... Where they can reach the nearby doctor or the market on foot?

For the intrigued skeptic, J. H. Crawford's, "Carfree Cities" provides a comprehensive review of existing, successful patterns of urban development; as well as several proven technologies for conveniently and efficiently transporting people and freight. The accompanying website... offers a quarterly update of developments in a few new car free residential neighborhoods ( in Amsterdam, Vienna and Hamburg ); as well as the popular and growing car free districts in many historic city centers: in Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Crawford, a former public transport ombudsman for the State of New Jersey, combines the best of all of this into a brilliantly coherent Reference Design for a car free city. A benchmark, which can be adapted to fit the unique needs and topography of almost any area.

This Reference Design details how a series of infinitely variable, tight-knit, well-defined neighborhood districts, could be linked up along the loops three figure-8 metro train lines that all intersect in the center of downtown. These six loops surround huge tracts of permanently open space. The circular shape of each district puts the village center, with its metro stop, post office, shops, daycare, etc., within a five minute walk of every resident. Five blocks out from the center in any direction, is the well defined edge of the neighborhood; beyond which lies raw, unsullied nature; preserved and accessible to all.

This striking contrast between real city and real nature represents the quintessential void of modern suburbia. Where, absent both the stimulation and excitement of the city, as well as the serenity and delight of the countryside, we often find ourselves alone in front of a flickering screen... bored, frustrated, and increasingly suspicious.

Replacing vast, asphalt parking lots and arterials with human-sized streets, may have far-reaching repercussions. Streets filled with a shuffling, observant, irritating, and enchanting melange of glance-exchanging human traffic ---instead of the noise, stench, danger and disconnectedness of auto traffic--- just might change the world.

Crawford considers how popular and governmental support for carfree cities could be developed. "There are active anti-car movements in most of the richer nations of the world.... Perhaps the most important lesson that activists have learned is the importance of fun and humor." A recent demonstration in Lyon, France is described, during which "...large numbers of passersby joined the organizers in dancing in the street, and almost nobody got angry." He notes that many expensive resorts are essentially car free: "Switzerland, probably the richest land in the world, has carfree areas in most of its cities. Residents and visitors alike flock to these areas." Some common objections are addressed: "...people won't use public transport unless it is of extremely high quality. Frequent service, on-time performance, efficient route systems, comfortable vehicles, easy use and assured personal safety are essential." On overcrowding: "The perceived congestion of modern cities is largely the result of motorized transport. On a summer afternoon there may be more people per square kilometer in Venice than anywhere in the world, yet it does not feel oppressively crowded. Once streets are dedicated to human uses, very high densities are no longer unpleasant and offer rich social opportunities."

Would you like to live in a neighborhood where every kid has a big park beyond his back patio, and other kids of all ages to play with, while neighboring families keep a watchful eye? A place where you still have a car, safely tucked out of sight in a garage at the edge of town? The car is parked ---perhaps fifteen minutes from your doorstep--- near the approaching busload of tourists, eager to glimpse the magical streets on which you live: The broad boulevard through the center of town, teeming with life; the cozy lanes lined with rows of beautiful three and four-story houses; and the narrow cobbled paths which wind through intimate courtyards.... some sunny and filled with children; others shady and silent....

Crawford examines important tools that can be used to plan carfree cities, including intensive public design workshops; computer simulation of transport systems; large, 3-D, scale models; even on-line, virtual walk-through tours of an entire city. He then proposes several ways to begin developing the first modern large-scale carfree projects:

"In many metropolitan regions in the USA, a new trend is emerging: people want to live in cities again. Demand for housing in cities and older, denser, inner suburbs is increasing. Quite a few people have had enough of sprawl, endless commutes, and places that are not communities at all... That this trend should arise in the USA, that bastion of automobility, indicates that urban car usage is poised to decline." "It is also worth noting that the demographic picture in the USA is changing: there are fewer (large) traditional families and more single parent families and people living alone....These households are not well served by conventional (suburban) single-family housing..." "As the baby boomers begin to retire in large numbers...(they) are likely to demand solutions that permit them to live dignified lives, after they have had to give up driving... This generation is large, active, and accustomed to having things its way... I believe that a market exists in the southern states for carfree developments."

Crawford closes with an afterword entitled: 'Making Magic':

Many people have never experienced a magical place, and they are poorer for it... Magical places are characterized by human scale, rich detail, beautiful setting, harmonious sounds, evocative scents... People involve themselves in the magic, helping to sustain it... You can feel it when it happens. The creation of such magic is one of the highest achievements of mankind.
Imagine leaving a quiet park: you pass beneath a thick stone archway, through a building, that opens onto a lively plaza... with a corner grocery store, a sidewalk café, and a cozy bar where familiar faces are to be expected...

Imagine a city, where big rigs are replaced by sunken metro freight trains that furtively unload directly into the basements of commercial and industrial buildings... Where the closest thing to a freeway is the high-speed, dedicated bicycle lane running through the middle of each district... Where the loudest sounds on the street are human footsteps.

If you are tired of being stuck in traffic and genuinely curious about viable alternatives, you will be encouraged by this book. Those familiar with the writings of Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs or James Howard Kunstler, will delight in Crawford's discerning synthesis and expansion of some of their best ideas. Everyone who is interested in a compelling means of improving the quality of all our lives, while substantially reducing our collective burden on the earth, will undoubtedly savor the persuasive and timely conception presented in J.H. Crawford's Carfree Cities.

Dr. T.J. Binkley lives in Ventura, California,
and divides his time between his chiropractic
practice and various architectural design projects.
E-mail Dr. Binkley

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