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Carfree cities: removing pollution from the front yard

“We’ve been building the wrong kind of city for about 60 years,” says California State University political science professor Sherman Lewis.

The problem: cars are given priority. It’s estimated that about 30% to 40% of a typical American downtown is consumed by parking spaces. And in the suburbs, we designate valuable living space to housing our cars and grant access to pollution in our front yards.

Lewis believes that there is another way to live and he has a plan to build a carfree community in Northern California, but raising the funding for a non-traditional development has proved challenging. As he explained to faircompanies via email: “We have no American models or recognition of the concept. It’s like wilderness before Stegner and Leopold– we have it but we can’t see it as such.”

Across the Atlantic, towns have had more success building on a carfree model, but the model hasn’t been implemented without a fight. During the planning phase for the 250-unit, now carfree community of Floridsdorf in Vienna, one local councillor commented that he could “easily imagine a neighborhood without men, but not one without cars”.

Cars for just “grannies and groceries”

Europe’s largest carfree town took much of a decade to plan. Today, only a few hundred of the 4,700 residents of Germany’s Vauban own a car. Streets are considered “shared spaces” where bikes, trams, pedestrians and kids play space share priority with the few cars.

Since Vauban was developed to be a “neighborhood of short trips”- shops and trams are within close distance to every home-, it’s illegal to park cars on private property or to have a garage, but many residents have bike parking corrals as bicycling is encouraged and there are plenty of bicycle only streets.

Those residents who own cars must park them on the edge of town in the “solar garage” which costs €18,000 per year. Cars are only allowed into the neighborhood to drop off “grannies and groceries”.

Most of the residents had to adapt to a new way of life upon moving to Vauban. Of the now carfree households, 81% previously owned a car and report higher use of car-sharing, buses, trams and taxis post-move. Tram use is free for carfree households.

While Vauban is often hailed as a model eco-town, the carfree system is not without critique. Local architect- but not a Vauban resident- Lorenz Wehrle explained to the Guardian’s Andrew Purvis: “It doesn’t work, and even here, people don’t really accept it. They want their neighbours not to own a car, but for them a car is important.”

It seems the system works for those who have given up their cars, but not as well for those who haven’t fully embraced the idea of carfree living. While residents without cars report high levels of satisfaction with their mobility- 97% say they haven’t even thought of buying a car-, those who do own cars are less content: 67% say they are often bothered by having to leave their car in the community car park.

Replacing cars with Blade Runner type pods

Other German towns have embraced the carfree concept- the autofrei wohnen or “carfree living” site lists over a dozen carfree towns-, but in the Middle East Abu Dhabi’s Masdar is a first. In this part of the world where oil has been plentiful, planners are not only aiming to make the city carbon neutral, but petroleum-free: that is, in addition to using solar to power the town, there are no cars allowed.

Instead of relying on old technology- trams or buses- Masdar planners have come up with something entirely new: PRTs, or Personal Rapid Transit vehicles. Passengers- up to 6 per pod- simply climb aboard and push a button on a computerised screen to tell the vehicle where to go.

Scott McGuigan from the construction firm building Masdar admits it’s fairly futuristic. “If you look at things like Blade Runner, etc., that we had 15 years ago, it’s really bringing that to the fore now.”

Traveling at 40kph (25mph), these computerised, battery powered people movers will take residents, and visitors, within 100 meters of any destination in the 6.5 square kilometer (2.5 square mile) city. There’s no running out of gas, though the PRT’s battery does need to be recharged periodically at stations throughout the city.

When the city is up and running, nearly 2000 of these pods will be available for the 90,000 residents (it’s projected 50,000 people will live here and 40,000 will commute in to work).

Since the vehicles are unmanned, designers have planned ahead for unexpected obstacles. “The vehicle is equipped with a sensor that detects people in their way. If there is a person crossing the road, the vehicle will slow down automatically,” says Ziad Al Askari from United Technical Services (ITS), the company managing the delivery of PRTs to Masdar.  “If the pedestrian stops in the middle of the road, the vehicle will stop completely… it is a very advanced automotive”.

“Good for the kids, but a hassle for deliveries”

While the U.K. doesn’t have anything as massive as Masdar or Vauban, they are experimenting with carfree developments. Considering that 71% of Brits commute by car and they have the longest commute times in Europe- 45 minutes per day on average- by far, creating communities without the automobile is a work in progress.

The U.K.’s biggest, and oldest, carfree development is Edinburgh’s Slateford Green. It has no on-site parking and residents and visitors must park on neighboring sidestreets (exceptions are made for the disabled).

While less than 20% of residents own cars, many still haven’t acclimated to the change in lifestyle. Resident Tracey Whitelaw complained to the construction magazine Building that “car free is good for the kids, but it can be a hassle if you’re expecting a delivery”. Neighbor Gemma Valentine grumbled: “It’s annoying if you have visitors with a car and they don’t know where to park”.

Moving to a carfree environment is one of compromise argues tenancy services director Graeme Russell. “There’s a trade-off between living in a pleasant environment with higher space standards, and that’s no parking. If you want a green environment, you can’t have your car parked at the front door.”

Substituting a garage for shared cars

Although Slateford Green developers never managed to enroll residents in a city carsharing scheme as planned, the availability of shared cars is an important element of many of the successful carfree communities.

In Vienna’s Floridsdorf development, there are only 25 parking spaces for 250 units and these are dedicated to carsharing vehicles and visitors. Only 8% of residents own their own car and 57% are members of the carsharing service.

In Hamburg’s 220 unit Saarlandstrasse development, the few parking spots are reserved for visitors and carsharing vehicles.

When completed, Vienna’s Kabelwerk district will house 3000. While the roads of the former cable factory are closed to individual transport, there will be a carsharing base located onsite.

Vienna’s Sargfabrik housing project has 10 carparks for the 100 units: 3 are used for car-sharing, the rest are filled with bicycles.

England’s BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development) is car-reduced, not carfree, but it relies on its own very popular carsharing service ZedCars.

An oasis outside Atlanta

While North America is notoriously car-obsessed- in the U.S., 92% of families own a car-, there are examples of car-reduced communities. While not deliberately planned to discourage car ownership, Manhattan boasts one of America’s lowest rates of car ownership: only 25% of households own a vehicle.

On a smaller scale, just 5 miles from downtown Atlanta, Georgia, 67 families live on a 18 acre carfree neighborhood (8 acres of housing and 10 acres of green space). The East Lake Commons Ecovillage doesn’t have roads and instead focuses on building community through plazas, semi-private courtyards and places for children to play.

On their website they outline their vision. “Can you imagine a village where children comfortably bounce from house to house? And where, instead of speeding cars serving as walls between neighbors, there are courtyards and squares beckoning residents to wander out and play?”

Resident Pamela Willoughby and her husband bought into the community partly to offer their child the freedom to roam. “We wanted the freedom to open the door on a Saturday morning and not worry where our child was”.

While residents can own cars, they have to park them on the outskirts of the development and since housing is dense, the distance from the parking area to the furthest home is “less than the average supermarket car park” and there are hand carts to help residents get their groceries from their cars to their homes. For those without a car, the community encourages car-sharing through cooperative transportation arrangements.

To make carfree living comfortable, the site was planned so the community would be partly self-sufficient: there is a 4 acre organic garden on-site as well as a Common House with a small library, play areas and a classroom area (in summer, there are camp activities for kids). Work opportunities are encouraged within the community to help reduce commuting needs of residents.

Treasure Island goes car light… stops short of carfree

As San Francisco’s Treasure Island is being redesigned from an army base to a community of 6,000 households, carfree advocates have urged planners to not just make the island “car-light”, but carfree.

Carfree City USA’s Gus Yates argued in a pitch to the island’s developers that by eliminating most of the parking garages and creating narrower streets, about 40 more acres would be opened up for more housing, which translates to more profit.

His response from project manager Kheay Loke, according to Yates: “You can’t sell an $800,000 condominium without a parking space.”

While Yates concedes that the developers are moving in the right direction with their efforts to remove the focus from cars by clustering parking away from housing units and ensuring ferry service into San Francisco, he argues that since 29% of San Francisco households are carfree, why not go all the way.

Loke, in an interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, agreed that Yates’ idea could be the future. “I do agree that people are getting more and more conscience of the impact of cars. People, particularly in the Bay Area, will be driving less and less.” Though he emphasized that he sees carfree communities as an idea too advanced for this next decade. “I don’t think we’re going to get there in 15 years”.

Will U.S. legislation make carfree more attractive?

Loke may be underestimating this next decade. Not only are individuals becoming more aware of global warming and the quality of life impacts of keeping cars in your home, but the government is making it more expensive to pollute, and to drive.

On April 17th 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made the landmark decision to classify carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant and paved the way for further action by congress.

California has passed two benchmark bills to curb greenhouse gases. The first (AB 32), passed in 2006, requires the state to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Since passenger vehicles are the largest single source of CO2 emissions in California- 30% of the total-, cars are now being targeted in the golden state.

In September of 2008, Governor Schwarzenneger signed SB 375, the first law to control emissions by curbing sprawl. Also known as the “anti-sprawl” law, his administration is aware that this could have a transformative effect on mobility in the state.

The description of the law’s effects on the government’s website reads like a prescription for carfree communities. “Just as the railroad transformed California, and decades later our freeway system did the same, SB 375 will be responsible for reshaping the face of California’s communities into more sustainable, walkable communities, with alternative transportation options and increased quality of life.”

It could be a prescription for carfree communities.