The Carfree City as a Critical Building Block for Equitable, Sustainable Societies

J.H. Crawford

Alliance for Global Sustainability Conference

San José, Costa Rica

21 March 2002


  • Rapid urbanization will continue, especially in developing nations.
  • Resource and pollution constraints may limit increasing motorization in cities.
  • The adverse social effects of intensive motoring are a further brake on continuing motorization.
  • Billions of city dwellers need a better life, but continuing motorization is a poor means to achieve this end, even if technical innovation offers clean cars and sustainable energy.
  • The carfree city is the logical extension of urban planning approaches that reduce the intrusiveness of cars. Carfree cities, based on rail transport of passengers and freight, provide greater benefits, and at nearly irreducible economic and environmental costs.
  • Evidence suggests that many city dwellers in rich nations are seeking car-reduced living environments as a way to improve their lives. At least some of these people are ready for carfree neighborhoods.
  • The carfree city offers developing nations a sustainable means of greatly improving both the mobility and the quality of life of their citizens.


By 2025, four billion people will live in cities, most of them in the developing world. We must improve the quality of urban life while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Given that limited resources are available to this task, what is the most effective approach? Removing cars and trucks from our cities would make a large contribution to their sustainability while simultaneously reducing pollution and improving socio-economic conditions. It has become evident that auto-centric cities-that is, those cities based on transport by private motor vehicle-do not function very well.

The Car Crunch

If world per-capita car ownership rates rise to US levels, we will eventually see about eight times as many cars on the road as today. Is this scenario even remotely possible. . . or desirable?


Even if we had limitless supplies of fossil fuel, global warming concerns would preclude the actual deployment of so many cars. While renewable sources may eventually supply energy for the car fleet, it seems unlikely that renewable supplies can be developed quickly enough to meet rapidly rising demand.


Air pollution has reached alarming levels in many cities. While further technical advances may bring pollution-free motoring, air quality will remain poor for decades. Noise pollution from cars cannot be entirely eliminated.


If fully automated limited-access highways become feasible, the capacity of existing highways may increase by a factor of three, but this would only further worsen congestion on surface streets.


Economic efficiency is a prime reason for building cities in the first place, but auto-centric cities are economically inefficient. They are so spread out that transport consumes a large share of personal income. Most societies could better spend this money on public transport and social programs.

The Social and Aesthetic Impacts of Cars

Suppose for a moment that we found technical solutions to the resource, pollution, and traffic congestion problems. Would continuing motorization then be the best strategy to improve the quality of life in the world's cities?

What are the social effects of wholesale motorization? Road traffic has turned our public spaces into dangerous, noisy places where people are not inclined to linger, which discourages the casual social contacts that help bind societies together. Until the advent of cars, streets always served as shared social spaces. Children playing in the streets are exposed to socialization by the broader society, but the danger from cars has all but ended this function of streets in the US and Europe.

These days, one scarcely dares to mention beauty as a civic attribute, but I shall take the risk. Streets in auto-centric cities are almost invariably ugly, which further spoils their function as social spaces. Let us compare both beauty and social function in the two extreme urban forms: auto-centric Los Angeles and carfree Venice.

Public Spaces-Slide 1

Many streets in Los Angeles are given over to strip malls, which are well suited to the convenience of drivers. The resulting noisy, ugly spaces do nothing to encourage social contacts. In Venice, stores are concentrated around squares, and customer traffic adds life to these squares.

Housing-Slide 2

In Los Angeles, parking overwhelms other design criteria. Garage doors and asphalt dominate the scene. Parents dare not let children play in the street. In Venice, outdoor spaces are convivial and there is, of course, no parking. Children play in the streets and adults linger to chat.

Churches-Slide 3

In Los Angeles, churches, like all organizations, must provide vast parking lots that offer no secondary amenity. In Venice, the entrance to a church can also serve an informal social function.

Shopping-Slide 4

In Los Angeles, shopping is done far from home at large stores dominated by huge parking lots. In Venice, shopping is done on foot.

Reducing the Role of the Automobile

Many urban planners already agree on the need to reduce the impact of cars on city life and therefore to reduce their role in urban transport. The unanswered question is, "What is the ideal amount of this reduction?" Many would agree that 100% would be ideal, yet few are prepared to believe that this is either possible to achieve or acceptable to citizens.

Improving Life for Three Billion People

How can we improve the lives of billions of city dwellers while minimizing the consumption of land, energy, raw materials, and money? Eliminating cars from cities can do more than almost any other conceivable approach to reduce the demands on these resources while at the same time reducing air pollution and improving public spaces.

Existing cities that are not yet highly motorized can become carfree without occupying more land, whereas adopting the auto-centric model requires rebuilding these cities as vast suburbs connected by broad highways.

In the USA, many large inner-city brownfield sites are ideal candidates for redevelopment as carfree districts. Heavy infrastructure is already in place, so redevelopment can begin immediately and at relatively low cost.

Greatly improved public transport is essential to a carfree city, but the means are well known and the cost comparatively low. Rail systems in dense, compact cities provide excellent service and consume far less energy than cars and trucks in sprawling auto-centric cities. Freight can be containerized and delivered by dedicated rail vehicles that permit fully-automated handling. Local deliveries can be made with low-impact vehicles, including freight bicycles.

Let us consider a design that makes carfree cities both feasible and attractive.

The Reference Design for Carfree Cities: An Equitable and Effective Plan for Better Cities-Slide 5

This slide shows a reference design for a carfree city of 1,000,000 people. The design goal was to provide high quality of life and optimized transport using rail systems. The site is 250 square kilometers, but only about 20% is developed; the remaining land is open space. The three metro lines provide rapid service to all parts of the city in no more than 40 minutes door-to-door and never require more than one transfer. Three utility areas for freight-handling, industry, and parking can be seen at the end of each of the six lobes.

At the next level of detail, we see one of the 80 districts, each providing housing for 12,000 residents and workplaces for 8,000. Districts are 760 meters in diameter and occupy 45 hectares. Transport halts and basic services are located at district centers, within a 5-minute walk of every doorstep. Containerized freight is delivered directly to businesses located along the central freight line.

We zoom next to a view of a single block. Streets are about 6 meters wide, and large interior courtyards are formed, as shown in the photograph. Buildings average four stories tall. The density of construction is high but not excessive, and large green spaces are created within the urban fabric.

If carfree cities are both feasible and highly sustainable, what then of the question of selling them to the public?

The "Freedom of the Automobile"

We come to the crux of the implementation problem: how do we persuade billions of people to forego urban car usage when cars are seen as a ticket to freedom and the ultimate status symbol? I believe that only by adopting large carfree areas in the rich nations can we reasonably expect people in the developing world to see the wisdom of this approach. Given that Westerners are well aware of the high costs of unrestrained urban automobile usage and that recent surveys show about one-third of Americans wanting car-moderated living environments with nearby shopping, I think it will be comparatively easy to develop large carfree districts in many Western cities. Private developers should be able to profit from filling this evident demand. The largest completed carfree residential project is the 600-unit development in Amsterdam, which was greatly over-subscribed.

We must expose the myth that cars offer freedom and undermine their value as status symbols. The "lure of the open road" has not existed for city dwellers for many years now, despite the continuing use of this image to sell cars. Many city residents are ready for an approach to urban transport that will actually improve their lives.


The automobile is neither a suitable nor a sustainable mode of urban transport. The failure of motorization to improve life in those cities that have now been testing it for fifty years is clear evidence that this approach should be abandoned. Carfree cities can greatly improve urban sustainability while also improving the quality of life.


Source on Demand for Car-Moderated Living
Myers, Dowell and Elizabeth Gearin "Current Preferences and Future Demands for Denser Residential Environments" in Housing Policy Debate (Fannie Mae Foundation), Vol 12, Nr. 4 (2001).

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