Monday, May 18, 2009

Envisioning City without Cars

Traffic congestion is one of the chronic problems in many American cities, including in Savannah. The traffic congestion is getting worse year by year. The growth of road developments is slower than the growth rate of vehicle ownership.

When a new highway was built or a road was widened, it will only solve the traffic congestion for a short period of time. After a few years, the new highway will fill with traffic that would not have existed if the highway had not been built. Similarly, the widened road fills with more traffic in a few months. Such phenomenon is called induced demand. Because of the induced demand, neither building new roads nor widening roads are the long-lasting solution to traffic congestion.

There are several possible solutions to eradicate traffic congestion problems and one of them is the reduction of private vehicle uses. I read an article in the New York Times (May 12, 2009) on a suburb town without cars in Germany with great interest. Streets in this upscale town are completely car-free except the main thoroughfare and a few streets on on edge of the town. The residents of this town are still allowed to own cars, but parking is relegated to two large garages at the edge of the development.

The Vauban town, is located on the outskirt of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders and home to 5,500 residents. The residents are heavily dependent on the tram to downtown Freiburg and many of them take to car-sharing when longer excursions are needed. Seventy percent of Vauban's families have no cars. They do a lot of walking and biking to shops, banks, restaurants, schools and other destinations that are interspersed among homes. The town is long and relatively narrow and provides an easy walking access to the tram for every home.

Creating places with more compact design, more accessible to public transportation and less driving is the envision of urban planners in the 21st century. The Vauban town is an exemplar of the 21st century urban design in response to the threats of greenhouse gas emission and global warming and the dwindling oil supply.

I could argue that the Vauban's urban design is the expansion of the New Urbanism. The New Urbanism is a school of urban design arose in the U.S. in the early 1980s. This school of urban design promotes several key principles including walkability and connectivity, mixed land uses, and high density. There have been many the New Urbanist towns in several countries, but cars still fill the streets of these towns.

The efforts of creating a car-free city in the U.S. has been initiated by the CarFree City USA since 2003, but there is no successful car-free suburban project in the U.S. In California, a town accessible without a car to the public transportation is being developed on the outskirt of Oakland. The town called Quarry Village is a masterpiece of the Hayward Area Planning Association. This town will allow the families to reduce the car ownership from two to one, and potentially to none.

The Vauban town provides an example of the possibility of creating city without cars. The walkable and mixed-land-uses urban design, difficult and expensive parking, easy access to public transportation and excellent public transportation system as demonstrated in the Vauban town are the components for creating city without cars. It makes sense to envision and is not all impossible to create a city without cars.

(An edited version of this article also appeared at The Jakarta Post on June 2, 2009)


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