Creating Car-Reduced and Car-Free Pedestrian Habitats


by Greg Ramsey

In the last 60 years we have gone from people-centric communities to car-centric lifestyles. We no longer thrive in community-wise American cities, towns and farms, but rather commute to a series of single use destinations via roads and highway systems, fragmenting community and ecology. We are displaced to malls, office parks, big box stores and suburbs, to the top of a mountain, or across the country. We have surrounded ourselves with a landscape of “going” with no place left “to be.”

Going somewhere has become more important than being somewhere. The old-timers used to say “where you going?” and “what’s your hurry?” Every pretext has been used for going: better career opportunities, better prices, more options, and even friction with the neighbors. As a result, we have paid a heavy price. Today the earth is being turned upside down for the going: developing countries are installing interstate highway systems where only effective train infrastructure existed, effectively cutting off endangered species migratory routes forever; low-income, non-car owners are suffering the indignity and peril of walking across five-lane highways with their babies in tow; our children and elderly are languishing from a loss of freedom, mobility and true community.

The negative impacts of car-centric planning are immeasurable. Americans spend more on cars than third-world citizens spend on their entire budgets. The average American household expends 30-50% of its energy on car trips, and approximately 40,000 people are killed in auto accidents every year, with a disproportionate number of them being teenagers. Children and the elderly are stranded and lonely without access to our car-dominated culture, while “family” has become an insular experience, and now usually means only immediate family members. Roads and highways have not only fragmented the delicate balance of the eco-system of our planet, but are responsible for the elimination of 90% of historic American pedestrian connectivity.

Cars are ultimately extremely inefficient. They are designed to drive across the country at a blurring speed not allowing the occupants to appreciate or explore the area they travel – they are shut off from community from the point of departure until they reach their destination. It has been suggested that the solution to making cars “ecological” is running them on renewable energy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The impact of cars (high speed personal mobility) on our already fragmented communities and natural spaces would be exponentially increased.

Imaging Car-Free Communities

How do we reverse these trends and instead move towards car-reduced and car-free communities where woodlands, gardens, ponds, farms, delectable courtyards and workplaces are all within walking distance? Where a largely pedestrian lifestyle is like a healing salve inviting community cohesion and reconnection to nature. Where timeless buildings and nature fuse. Where young and old come together day-to-day and season-to-season. Where “down-time” can mean sitting beside a fountain with infusions of jasmine and the droning of bees, while a tot plays in the sunlight. Where dignity is restored to the movement of a “pedestrian pace”. And where pedestrian spaces beckon activities, setting the stage for meaning and history, anchoring who we are as individuals, as a community and as a culture.

Car-Free Communities – A Planning Model

Our task is nothing less than calming global human habitation to a pedestrian pace. Pedestrians, bicycles and micro-vehicles that travel at 20 mph or less complement communities and nature well. They invite social interaction and drastically reduce the capacity for fragmenting our open spaces and bio-diversity. Fast movement is then left to efficient public transit linking our cities, towns, villages and hamlets.

Car-reduced and car-free community planning can be applied to new or existing communities at any scale, from neighborhood, hamlet and village, to town and city. It will be a slow conversion, but it will increase quality of life significantly each step of the way, as the use of cars is reduced. Planning for car-free communities at every scale will allow us to set up smart development (growth) opportunities for downtown conversions, infill neighborhoods, and convert existing neighborhoods. It will also enable our auto industries to shift focus to producing efficient electric micro-vehicles (possibly powered by photovoltaic arrays – a collection of cells that convert solar energy into electricity), and away from producing cars that are incompatible with community interaction and open space preservation.

There is a place for everyone in this transformation. A block resident can initiate car reduction on their street and even imagine the eventual conversion to a car-free street. Community advocates can retrofit their neighborhood. Developers can develop new neighborhoods, villages and hamlets, and politicians can pass supportive legislation. All of these initiatives will encourage compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-scale development integrated to green belts.

A percentage of the American population is ready and looking for car-reduced/free communities to live in, but the options are limited. Yet outside the typical US car-culture we can find a variety of examples of car-centered communities that are being converted to car-reduced or car-free communities. Existing American models for car-reduced/free communities include co-housing neighborhoods, eco-villages, downtown pedestrian districts, emerging electric cart communities and retirement communities with extensive community transportation. Historic American models include New Orleans and St. Augustine. In Europe entire towns are being converted to car-reduced/free communities by collecting cars at the outskirts of town, and allowing only foot and non-motorized traffic within. Downtown areas have been converted to pedestrian districts for decades. For example, Copenhagen has set a goal of reducing the impact of cars by converting streets into pedestrian thoroughfares, reducing traffic and parking, and turning parking lots into public squares.

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4 Responses to Creating Car-Reduced and Car-Free Pedestrian Habitats

  1. faslanyc says:

    planetizen seems to think car-free communities are a panacea. I doubt if that is the case. i would argue that cars are more necessary than parks.

    but yes, the way they are used/planned for/integrated is hideously ineffecient and way out of balance, the very emblem of excess.

    and there is an unmatched geometric beauty in the bicycle- just two circles and two triangles carrying 10 times its weight 20 miles an hour and having fun while doing it.

  2. Josh Grigsby says:

    I think the shift away from auto-dependence is absolutely critical, but the process is a squirrelly thing. Simply removing cars, by whatever method, probably won’t generally fix anything, and could suck the life out of a place. The real problem, as you mention, is that we have planned and built for cars to such an extent that most people have to have one (or two, or three…).

    I don’t think cars are the problem; rather, that we’ve prioritized and planned for cars instead of people, and that we fail to let each mode of transport do what it does best. Cars, trains, buses, streetcars, bikes, and feet are each the ideal mode of transport for a particular situation. The ideal function of automobiles—providing relative freedom of movement for a small number of people over relatively great distances—has very little to do with daily life for residents of urban places, and so cars should have relatively little influence on building patterns.

    The auto-dependent mindset is inefficient, inhumane, autocratic, and unsustainable. In this sense, Planetizen’s love of all things car-free seems fairly logical. But more than simply trying to make a place car-free, I think we should make and retrofit places that render cars mostly irrelevant.

    Since you mentioned it, though, why do you think cars are more necessary than parks?

  3. faslanyc says:

    Well, the park typology as we know it is still essentially an industrial revolution era innovation. There are other uses now layered onto them or designed into them, but they are largely superfluous (hence the profession languishing in irrelevance for so long)- a nice thing to have for entertainment and leisure, but hardly a necessity in the way that cars are (getting to work, getting big things home, getting out of your particular city). Of course, that does have to do with infrastructure issues and could largely be remediated.

    One could also argue that new landscape typologies (maybe they’re still parks, just different ones) are becoming more important as places of urban environmental engineering and social space design because of the impending environmental apocalypse and the densification and growth of cities around the world. But they still aren’t as important as cars right now; not even close.

    Or not. But that’s what I would argue.

  4. Josh Grigsby says:

    Two different facets of the lives of cities are being dealt with here: the daily experience of people, and the operational processes of commerce and industry. I think parks are more important to the psychological and physical health of most city dwellers than are cars, and a properly urbanized city makes owning, storing, even operating a car more of a hassle than it’s typically worth (and certainly more of a hassle than other modes of transport). Commerce and industry, though, of course rely heavily on motor vehicles and will likely continue to for quite some time.

    My feeling is that absolutes are rarely things to strive for. Car free? Maybe car-reduced is better. Or simply car-independent. Like I said in my last comment, I think all modes of transport have their niche.

    Another question to ask is whether we should be building to accommodate current needs (or anticipated needs within current paradigms), or to support the transition to a more sustainable way of life. Should building be reactive or proactive? Probably a bit of both, I’d guess, but I’d like to see more of an emphasis on the latter.

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