Giethoorn is a small Dutch village that was built in the 13th century; it’s also one of the most popular destinations in the world for Chinese tourists, drawing hundreds of thousands of them each year despite having a population under 3000. Why do the tourists come? Because Giethoorn is car-free. Founded by convicts and later populated by Mennonites, it doesn’t even have roads. (The reason this is so appealing to Chinese tourists will be apparent to anyone who’s ever witnessed firsthand the smog-clouded horror of a heavily-trafficked, crosswalk-less Chinese city.)
Car-less cities have become a 21st century urbanist Holy Grail, and cities are racing to see who can get there first. It hasn’t always been easy going, though. When the Belgian city of Ghent banned cars from the city center in 1997 (Europe is always ahead of us in this area), the mayor received a bullet in the mail, and had to go around in a bulletproof vest for months afterwards. But now the car-less downtown is supported by over 70% of the population. Madrid didn’t ban cars from its city center, but it did institute a $100 fine for anyone who drove their car downtown. And when Paris saw China-like levels of smog last year, they slashed traffic by banning even-numbered license plates from the city. (Now ban the odd ones too, and you’re onto something.)
But the most advanced car-free city is probably Oslo, in Norway. When a new progressive government took office in 2015, one of their first priorities was to “pedestrianize” the city. But like Ghent, they experienced unexpected resistance. After initially banning cars, there was a backlash among shopowners and some residents, complaining that the city was “bullying” drivers, and that the new rules would make Oslo a “dead town.” After a year of arguing, city officials came up with a clever workaround. They wouldn’t ban cars; they would ban parking. Most of the street parking spaces were soon converted into small parks or bike lanes, and the compromise has been so popular that officials are planning to expand the car-free zone – as well as reconsider the original car ban. The takeaway for other cities is probably that an incremental agenda is best, and that once people get a little taste of car-free living, they overwhelmingly support it.
But could it work here? In some places, it already is. Times Square, in Manhattan, has been closed to cars since 2009, a move that’s been so popular that they’re considering closing other areas of Manhattan to traffic. It’s a little-known fact that Manhattan was almost the first city in the world to institute a car ban, all the way back in the Seventies. The proposal would’ve banned all cars from midtown Manhattan from 11AM-4PM, Monday through Friday. Metal street signs for the ban were even made, but at the last minute, the mayor nixed the ban, fearing a backlash. (In fairness, America probably wasn’t ready for a daily car ban back then.) On the other hand, based on later bans, the public probably would’ve approved of the car-free landscape, once they got a taste of it. The Manhattan car ban was almost fifty years ago; who knows what New York would be like today, if it had gone into effect?
Of course, as we’ve seen in politics recently, progress is not always linear. Sydney, Australia has some of the worst traffic in the world, but instead of discouraging drivers, it’s taking the opposite approach. Officials have widened main roads in the city, often by eliminating bike lanes, only to find that more roads don’t mean less congestion – they just mean more drivers. It’s only a matter of time before those newly-widened roads get blocked off and turned into concrete soccer fields. In the meantime, our urban future is now looking like a contest between a pedestrianized zero-car village-style city, and a buzzing metropolis swarming with driverless cars, all controlled by some A.I. hivemind. Either way, the days of Todd from Marketing obliviously crunching the tires of his SUV over my bicycle as he checks his fantasy football team on his phone are probably numbered.