Many cities and towns around the world are going car-free, reducing pollution and improving many other aspects of people’s lives. There is a myth going around that removing cars to make room for cyclists and pedestrians will damage local businesses. However, according to several case studies, the opposite is true. For example, Copenhagenize Design Co. estimates from the City of Copenhagen show that society loses €0.71 ($0.81) for every kilometer driven but earns €0.64 ($0.74) for every kilometer cycled. Also, data from a project in Madrid – during which it closed the city center to cars for the 2018 winter holiday season – shows that retail earnings increased by 9.5% on the city’s main shopping street.
And many other examples prove how bicycle users spend as much or more than motor vehicle drivers. Furthermore, commercial corridors with bicycle lanes tend to see an increase in retail sales. Perhaps it’s because cars zip by so quickly that people don’t have time to see what’s on display in shop windows. On the other hand, there is a far greater chance of catching a cyclist’s attention and having them stop for a quick minute to peek inside. Even if someone in a car does notice something they might want to buy, the inconvenience of finding a parking space might stop them; it’s much easier to find a spot to lock a bike.
Decreasing car traffic rates is a crucial step in encouraging cycling, walking, and other forms of transportation. The economic benefit to society goes beyond just helping out local businesses. It also saves money on healthcare costs because of reduced air pollution and fewer automobile crashes. Over 1.25 million people die in accidents every year.
Furthermore, over 95% of the global population breathes dirty air, which is caused by vehicle emissions. The situation is so severe that air pollution kills 4.2 million people annually, placing it as the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide. Tailpipe pollution alone is linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.
The world went down a dead-end street in the 20th century as urban planners designed cities for cars after the invention of the automobile. At the moment, it seemed like a great idea; cars are convenient and practical. However, they came with high economic, social, environmental, and health costs. In addition, they turned out to be smelly, noisy, and dangerous, and they took up precious space. Fortunately, several cities worldwide have made a U-turn by becoming car-free, and many more are following suit.
These cities have managed to eliminate or reduce the presence of cars, taking back areas reserved for public parking, increasing fuel prices, and pedestrianizing streets. The result is a much more enjoyable space. Eliminating public parking makes a drastic difference because around 85% of public city space is parking!
All that freed up space goes to pedestrians and cyclists, leading to a better quality of life. And children can play outside without running the risk of getting hit by a car. If this sounds nice to you, maybe you’d like to visit or live in a car-free city. The following places have always been car-free or have made the transition to improve the lives of their citizens and attract tourists.
Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy
Civita di Bagnoregio is an Italian hilltop village only accessible by footbridge. The dramatic way in and out, and the striking view of the surrounding canyon as you trek the path to reach it, make this car-less city a powerful magnet for tourists.
Venice, also in Italy, is an enchanting network of cobblestone streets and narrow waterways. It’s a car-free, medieval city comprised of 118 islands in a shallow lagoon where you must rely on your feet, Vaporetto (waterbuses), or human-powered gondolas for transportation. Some other fun facts: the city contains 177 canals, 416 bridges, and charming, colorful architecture.
Zermatt is a popular travel destination in Switzerland for people looking to hike, climb, and ski during their vacation. However, to reach this mountain town in the Swiss Alps, you have to get there by helicopter, train, or taxi – the only vehicle with permission to use the road into Zermatt (so that you can be dropped off and picked up at your hotel).
Sark, United Kingdom
Sark, one of the United Kingdom’s Channel Islands is nestled between Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel just off Normandy, France. It is only accessible by ferry. In addition to being car-free, the island doesn’t have any street lights – meaning the view of the stars at night isn’t hindered by light pollution. It’s small but full of gorgeous landscapes, making it the ideal getaway for hiking and biking enthusiasts. Aside from walking, other transportation options include cycling and horse and carriage.
Giethoorn is an adorable village in the Netherlands (located approximately 55 miles northeast of Amsterdam) that relies on a series of walkways, bike trails, and boats in the waterways for transportation. Nicknamed “Dutch Venice,” this car-free town is full of centuries-old thatched-roof houses and 180 bridges arching over its many canals.
Hydra is the picture of paradise – a pristine car-free Greek island in the Aegean Sea with hidden bays, stunning blue waters, beautiful coastal hiking paths, and well-preserved architecture. The only way to go to and fro is by foot or donkey.
The Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Within the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, there’s a historic neighborhood surrounded by medieval walls and modern luxury villas. This car-free section of Dubrovnik is called Old Town, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Step within its borders, and you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time. You can stroll for hours sightseeing all the Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance churches, shopping, and eating delicious food. After just one day in there, you’ll understand why the town has been dubbed the “Pearl of the Adriatic.”
Fes El Bali, Morocco
Jumping continents to Africa, there’s another ancient walled medina called Fes El Bali (aka Old Fes), located in Fez, Morocco. It comprises over 9,000 maze-like medieval alleyways far too narrow for cars. As a result, it’s a car-free urban wonderland that you explore only on foot.
Lamu Island’s town of Lamu is located off the coast of Kenya, and it’s the best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. You can either walk, cycle, or ride a donkey here because the roads are so narrow and winding that a car can’t use them. The architecture is unique thanks to a historical mix of cultures, including Arabic, Swahili, Indian, Persian, and European.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Jumping continents again, but this time to the Americas, you’ll find what many call a national treasure in Michigan state: Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. After a 16-minute ferry ride gets you to the island, you can walk, rent a bike, or hire a horse-drawn carriage to get around. The car-free town has a vintage American feel and is a popular summer destination for being wonderfully old-school while surrounded by nature.
Fire Island, New York
Fire Island is set off the southern shore of Long Island, New York. It draws in travelers looking to get away from the city’s busy streets and emersed themselves in a laid-back, charming atmosphere. The island has many hiking trails, beaches, and surf spots – all easily accessible by renting a bicycle.
La Cumbrecita, Argentina
Making our way down to South America now, La Cumbrecita in Argentina is a tiny picturesque alpine-style car-free village in the Calamuchita Valley. This strictly pedestrian-only place has a European feel because Swiss, French, German, and Austrian citizens exiled during WWII founded it. Thanks to its gorgeous waterfalls, forest trails, and camp zones, it’s an eco-tourism hotspot. Furthermore, it’s nearly completely reliant on renewable energy and a water recycling system.
Partially Car-free Cities (Cities with Car-free Zones)
An entirely pedestrian city has an entire car-free network of streets. However, some cities have zoned off certain areas only to have a car-free network of pedestrian streets. Copenhagen and Barcelona are two good examples. Measures are being implemented to grow the network and promote sustainable mobility gradually.
Poblenau is a neighborhood in Barcelona where parking spaces and car lanes have been replaced with potted plants and benches. In addition, some intersections have been turned into playgrounds. The car-free transformation took place in 2016. It was the city’s first “superblock,” or superilles – a nine-block section (tic-tac-toe shaped) that turns car space over to pedestrians, cyclists, and outdoor recreational areas.
Since then, four other superblocks have been made. Furthermore, the city officially declared a climate emergency and made the entire city a low-emissions zone – so older vehicles running on gas and diesel have to pay a fine.
Before 2017, the streets of Ghent’s historic center were choking with traffic and air pollution. It got so bad that cafes stopped using outdoor tables because nobody wanted to sit outside. Then, in 2017 the city took the initiative. It expanded an older pedestrian zone, blocking traffic and pushing cars in the surrounding area to a ring road. Delivery companies must use electric cargo bikes to deliver parcels in this zone. Air pollution dropped sharply, and people started to sit outside again.
A happy resident told The Guardian:
Personally, I feel like the streets are more alive as they aren’t just for cars anymore. More people put their chairs out in the summer to sit on the pavement and talk, and some streets become ‘living streets’ where the kids can play outside, skate, and adults hold barbecues.
Berlin isn’t a car-free city yet, but not for lack of trying! A group of Berlin-based citizens launched a campaign in 2021 to eliminate private car use within a 55-square-mile area of the city center. The framework entails an area larger than Manhattan limits vehicular transport only to people with mobility issues and public transportation. Many car lanes and parking spots would thus be turned over to cyclists and pedestrians. They go over 50,000 signatures in favor of the transition. That’s impressive for a city located in the country with the world’s highest rate of car ownership!
One of the initiative’s founders, Nina Noblé, told The Guardian:
It’s as much about our immediate environment as it is about the environment at large. It’s about how we all want to live, breathe and play together. We want people to be able to sleep with their windows open and children to be able to play in the street again. And grandparents should be able to ride their bicycles safely and have plenty of benches to take a breather on.
Currently, 75% of road deaths in Germany are pedestrians or cyclists. In the United States, an average of 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed daily in 2018. This is a tragedy because people should be able to get around without fear of being hit by a car, and children should be able to play outdoors without parents fearing for their lives.
Humanity made a grave mistake converting cities designed for pedestrians into cities full of cars. However, if a pro-cars transition was possible, so is reverting to a pro-people situation. Fortunately, so many people want it that Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, won her second consecutive term thanks to a program to eliminate 60,000 parking spaces.
Meanwhile, Copenhagen rid itself of parking spaces decades ago, and London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Barcelona are doing it, too, now. So, it’s time for more cities to jump onboard because car-free streets are crucial for good health, a thriving economy, and mitigating climate change. Everything could be better, and city-dwellers would feel happier in a car-free world.