Car-free neighbourhoods are no unrealistic utopia –
they exist all over Europe
by Steve Melia
A quarter of households in Britain – more in the larger cities, and a majority in some inner cities – live without a car. Imagine how quality of life would improve for cyclists and everyone else if traffic were removed from areas where people could practically choose to live without cars. Does this sound unrealistic, utopian? Did you know many European cities are already doing it?
Vauban in Germany is one of the largest car-free neighbourhoods in Europe, home to more than 5,000 people. If you live in the district, you are required to confirm once a year that you do not own a car – or, if you do own one, you must buy a space in a multi-storey car park on the edge of the district. One space was initially provided for every two households, but car ownership has fallen over time, and many of these spaces are now empty.
Vehicles are allowed down the residential streets at walking pace to pick up and deliver, but not to park. In practice, vehicles are rarely seen moving here. It has been taken over by kids as young as four or five, playing, skating and unicycling without direct supervision. The adults, too, tend to socialise outdoors far more than they would on conventional streets open to traffic (behaviour that's echoed in the UK, too).
Most of the European car-free areas are smaller and "purer" than Vauban: vehicles are physically prevented from entering the streets where people live. Exceptions are made for emergency vehicles and removals vans but not for normal deliveries, which are made on foot, trolley or cycle trailer. A few peripheral parking spaces are available to buy (usually around one space for every five homes) and a few are reserved for car club vehicles. In all the examples I have studied, cycling is a vital means of transport.
Car-free areas of this kind, with anything from a couple of hundred to more than a thousand residents, exist in Amsterdam, Vienna, Cologne, Hamburg and Nuremberg, among others. There is even a small one in Edinburgh.
There is another form of car-free development, so familiar we have until recently overlooked its potential. Most pedestrianised city or neighbourhood centres in Britain are almost entirely commercial. But a few farsighted councils, such as Exeter, have brought back housing and residents, without cars or allocated parking, into city centres that would otherwise be deserted after 6pm.
Groningen, the Netherlands' capital of cycling, has the largest car-free centre in Europe: half-pedestrianised, entirely closed to through traffic, with 16,500 residents, three-quarters of whom have no car in the household. Forty percent of all journeys within the city are made by bicycle.
Carfree UK, which I coordinate, was set up to promote European-style car-free development in this country. We are not anti-car, we are pro-choice. We have recently run public meetings in London to set up a new car-free association for London, which is beginning to look at areas of the city from which traffic could be removed. We know considerable potential demand exists for traffic-free housing in London, and probably in a number of other major cities. Where else do you think might be suitable?
• Steve Melia is coordinator of Carfree UK and a researcher at the University of the West of England
This piece originally appeared in The Guardian