Modern cities are so exciting and full of life. But they are also full of traffic, noise and pollution. When we imagine cities, we see busy streets, cars, buses, trains and pedestrians waiting at the crossings. It is hard to believe that some hundred years ago all cities were free from motor transport, and the only hazards on the road were horse-drawn carts and coaches! How much cleaner and quieter it must have been in those bygone times. But there are cities that haven’t caught up with the concept of cars, and there are those which simply refuse to allow any motor vehicles within their borders. There are still cities which remain carless nowadays and as many people tired of traffic seem to like the concept, there are more about to be created, insha Allah!
Probably the most famous carless city in the world is Venice, Italy, where there are no cars for the simple reason that there are no roads. There are just canals, bridges and narrow passages as Venice is a city built on 118 small islands, so the only means of transport available are walking or boating. There are water taxis, boat ambulances, ferries transporting rubbish, regular water buses and of course the famous gondolas, but no cars in sight!
The biggest carless city in the world, with a population of more than 150,000, is Fez in Morocco, particularly its old part known as Medina of Fez-al-Bali. The narrow streets of this ancient city – some only two feet wide! – do not allow any cars to get through. Moreover, until as recently as 1912, Fez was a closed city, famous for being a non-European city in colonised Africa, and the visitors who overstayed their welcome in Medina could end up with their heads decorating the stakes at the gates. Tourists are now welcome and enjoy staying in this city of yesterday, where old methods are preferred over new, and the labyrinth of narrow streets are crowded with people and animals – this is no place for vehicles.
The Prince Islands constituting the Adalar district of Istanbul, Turkey, are yet another example of an urban carfree enclave. Even though nominally the islands are part of the city, they are everything that the city is not: they are quiet, clean and green with horse-carts and bicycles as the only available means of transport. It’s not the lack of space that keeps the cars away from the place; the islands simply refuse to motorise to protect their serenity and their unique character.
The serenity and relaxed atmosphere of the carfree environment is much envied by the big city dwellers, who face traffic gridlock in their everyday lives and know more about the disadvantages of driving a car than its good sides. That is why several major urban areas around the world have taken steps to reduce traffic, sometimes by banning cars completely from certain parts of the city. This is what happened in Hamburg, Germany, where the authorities aim to completely eliminate private cars from the city centre by 2034. Finland’s capital of Helsinki invested heavily in public transport including shared bikes, ferries, minibuses and driverless cars to discourage the citizens from driving their own cars.
These are just a few examples, but the idea of carless cities is bugging the minds of architects and is at the core of the trend in urban architecture called “new urbanism”. Its other principles are walkability and connectivity, having traditional neighbourhood structures with a public space at the centre; high density, mixed housing and diversity; sustainability and green public transport. The advocates of the new urbanism count its multiple benefits for the residents, businesses and municipalities. They say that less traffic congestion and less driving means better, healthier lifestyles and happier citizens. How? If places of interest are within easy reach then people would walk rather than drive, and that would contribute to a healthier lifestyle, less pollution and financial savings. What is more, pedestrian-friendly communities offer more opportunities to get to know others in the neighbourhood, resulting in a better sense of community and friendlier towns. The ‘walking’ cities are also great places for small businesses, with local customers and no commuting or parking involved. And, as neighbours know each other better and there is a true sense of community, there is also less crime and less tax money spent on fighting it.
Sounds too good to be true? Yet there are new cities planned with the principles of new urbanism, and people who eagerly move into them praise these cities over the chaotic and congested urban conglomerations. One such city is Kentlands in Maryland, USA, where residents have fallen in love with the very un-American activity of walking. They say life in Kentlands is more relaxed, safer and happier. The city is often mentioned as the perfect example of new urbanist architecture, and houses there are very much sought after, which makes them unaffordable for most – quite the opposite to the new urbanist doctrine of mixed housing and diversity.
Another new urbanist and carless city under construction is Masdar City, which is being built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, in the UAE. The city planners claim that Masdar is going to be ”the world’s most sustainable eco-city”, and its main eco-features are lack of private car access, with a variety of electric-powered public transport options and priority given to walking and cycling; the use of solar power and other renewable sources as the sole resource of energy and the combination of passive and intelligent design, aimed at reducing buildings’ energy and water demands by 40 percent.
So is the new urbanism and carfree urban design the way of the future for modern metropolises? As more and more people realise that in order to have a high quality of life, contact with an unpolluted outdoor environment and building of good community relations are necessary, it seems that the walkable traffic-free cities are the perfect solution. Yet we shouldn’t expect any dramatic changes in the city landscapes too soon; driving is still a part of many current cultures and a symbol of status in many countries. As well, the motor industry is a powerful force, so for now carless cities will probably remain an exception to the rule.
But, when trying to change the world for the better, we should always start with ourselves. So maybe it’s time to go carless and invest in some good walking shoes or a bicycle?
Klaudia Khan is a an aspiring eco-Muslimah and a city-dweller, still guilty of driving.