Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Road Crazed. Road Crazed is a blog about all things relating to roads, highways, and transportation.

For many of us, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a life without killer rush hours, incessant and problematic road construction, and seemingly endless traffic issues. However distant a world without these elements may seem, though, there was once a time when none of these problems existed. It’s hard to believe that barely more than a century ago, personal automobiles were nothing more than a dream for the average individual.

That all changed in 1908, of course, when Henry Ford’s assembly line opened the door for the luxury of unrestrained travel to millions of middle-class Americans. Understandably, the Ford Model T was a huge success. In the words of Henry Ford himself, the Ford Model T was “so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one–and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” Now what doesn’t sound appealing about that?

The personal automobile has transformed the world since then–and that’s an understatement. Cars are both a blessing and a curse in our modern-day society. According to a 2011 article, the world’s car population has surpassed one billion, with the amount of cars worldwide to increase to 2.5 billion by the year 2050. I’m not going to go into a big argument about scarcity of resources and greenhouse gases here, but surely billions of vehicles pumping CO2 into our atmosphere can’t possibly be a good thing…right? Not to mention that the world requires almost 100 million barrels of oil per day, a statistic which is a bit concerning considering that this oil is not an infinite resource.

World Wide Oil Production – Attributed to The Economist

While electric vehicles offer a potential solution to the problem of limited resources and pollution, they do nothing to resolve the world’s other crippling issue with personal transportation–traffic. If you commute by car in a large metropolitan area, rush hour traffic is generally unavoidable. There’s not really a cure for this traffic, either, especially in growing areas. Expanding roads provides temporary relief, but actually makes congestion worse in the long run–a phenomenon which I briefly described in a prior post. To make matters worse, road expansions make conditions much more unpleasant during the duration of the construction itself.

According to this infographic by Nationwide, the average yearly cost of road congestion to each driver is $713, which is more than an entire week’s worth of wages for the average American.

The obvious alternative is the widespread implementation and usage of public transportation. However, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Numerous studies have shown that people are irrationally biased towards automobiles, and many people will choose to drive their cars even in situations where public transportation is proven to be quicker and more economically feasible.

This behavior alone would make the development of a successful car-free city a difficult task, especially in the current-day. However, China is attempting it. Outside of Chengdu, 78 million square feet of land has been set aside for the construction of a new city designed to house 80,000 residents, none of whom will need a car to get around. In this so-called “Great City,” transportation will be provided by electric shuttles, and all residences will be within a two-minute walk of a public park. The city also plans to implement eco-friendly features in order to save energy and minimize waste. However, we have yet to see if this will be successful in China, and whether or not such a development could be successfully built elsewhere. Still, it’s an impressive plan.

Pedestrian Zone in Chengdu – Attributed to little_ram. Original photo here.

While large cities with no cars are basically nonexistent in today’s times, there are a few examples of cities with significant pedestrian-only areas. Freiburg, Germany is a good example of this–Freiburg has both a large pedestrian zone and an extensive public transport system.

Perhaps a more relatable example of a mostly car-free community is the average modern-day university. Even though it’s not entirely comparable to an actual city, many large universities offer education, jobs, housing, and dining all in one constrained space–which is completely accessible by foot or bicycle.

Only time will tell if an entirely car-free city is a current-day possibility or merely an element of an unrealistic utopia. One thing is for sure, however–the world’s irrational aversion to public transit has to come to an end before anything like this can become a widespread part of our future. Once this happens, our future generations just might see the day when no one needs a car to get to where they need to be.

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  1. There are many examples in Europe of cities with large pedestrian zones. These are generally the old cities, built before cars existed and therefore with narrow streets. Every one I’ve been to was a tourist heaven, with the streets crowded with people, most streets lined with retail, and the apartments above all converted to hotels and rentals. People simply love pedestrian towns. Part of this of course is the historic nature of these cities, but a large part is simply the walkability at this density. And in every one there’s a good rail connection – even Venice has a train connecting to one end.

      • Let me play devil’s advocate for a bit (though not really).

        From the beginning of history and through the Industrial Revolution, cities were generally designed around the assumption that most people would be traveling by foot most of the time.

        Starting around 1886 (when the automobile was invented), things started to change. Inspired by the likes of Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier, we started to see cities designed on a much larger scale. Streets were made for cars first, and the accompanying reduction in density catalyzed an anti-urban trend in North America that persisted until only a few years ago.

        However, if you go back to 1885 — or even further — you will not find cities that are free of vehicles. Look at virtually any picture of a city in the 1800s, and you will see horse-drawn carriages. Carriages served several important functions. They made it possible to transport large amounts of cargo; they could speed up journeys for travelers who were in a rush; they could provide an easier journey for travelers who were not willing or able to walk a long distance.

        These days, many of the above roles can be filled by other technology, such as mobility scooters and grade-separated public transit. But I think we’re setting ourselves an impossible task if we try to create cities that are completely car-free. Even the pedestrian areas of European cities generally have retractable bollards for the sake of early-morning deliveries or emergency vehicles.

        I think a more realistic goal is to create cities where walking is the *default* mode of transportation, and where it’s the responsibility of cars to play well with pedestrians, rather than the other way around. People should be free to walk everywhere in the city, rather than being relegated to narrow sidewalks. Roads and buildings and intersection size/spacing should be scaled for people, not for vehicles. These cities actually exist (e.g. European pedestrian zones). If we can achieve that here, then it doesn’t really matter if we’re “car-free” or just “super-duper-car-lite”.

    • I’d also say a lot of it is not just scale (e.g. bell town and parts of capitol hill are actually as dense or denser) but the lack of granularity in american development. Instead of a block with 6-10 buildings on one facade, it’s 1 mediocre building that doesn’t address street very well, or has a couple of stores.

      Freiburg has pretty wide streets for most of its fussgangerzone (pedestrian zone) – the advent of widespread trams and an area mostly closed off from personal cars didn’t come around til after the 70s. In the 60s, the main plaza by the cathedral was a car parking lot.

      Similar story to Milan – where businesses fought the car-free zone, and then once they realized how beneficial it was, asked city to expand it…

      There are sections of Seattle that would make good ped zones… a few blocks of pike, ballard ave, around Pike Market, Columbia City… but that would have to be balanced with adequate mobility – which is an issue Seattle’s really suffering with. We don’t even prioritize transit, peds or biking.

      • People like to say that Seattle is a “city of neighborhoods”. What that really means is, “Seattle is a city with a poor mobility-to-access ratio”.

        I’m in Galway, Ireland right now. It’s far more walkable than any neighborhood in Seattle, and yet despite having only 75,000 residents, it has the same richness and completeness of urban offerings as Seattle’s downtown (if on a smaller scale). Galway, like downtown Seattle and unlike most Seattle neighborhoods, has a rich network of vibrant, active streets. Once you get to Galway, you can easily walk just about anywhere in the city. By Galway standards of distance, the U-District and Ballard would be far-flung suburbs, and Northgate might as well be on the moon.

        I think the right solution for Seattle has two parts. First, slowly start rebuilding the center city for people first, by removing grade separation, giving over more space to non-motorized transit, reducing speeds, and eliminating freeways. Second, start treating the urban centers/villages as if they were self-contained suburban downtowns. Ditch the “high street” model; instead of linear retail strips, build retail “circles” that extend in all directions. Divert traffic away from retail streets and onto parallel arterials. (N 45th is a great example here; given the existence of N 50th, the whole street is a great candidate for a car-free woonerf. The Ave is another, with 15th NE taking motorized traffic and having little/no retail itself.) Eventually (albeit more slowly than the first), these “suburban downtowns” will become urban in their own right, and pedestrianization will make more sense.

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