If A German Town Can Go Car-Free, Why Not America?

An article in the New York Times this week profiled Vauban, Germany, a town without cars. NYTime's Room for Debate Blog asked planners and developers to envision a car-free town in America.

Witold Rybczynski writes, "There are only six American downtown districts that are dense enough to support mass transit, which you need if you're going to be carless: New York City (Midtown and Downtown), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. That's it. The breaking-point for density and mass transit feasibility seems to be about 50 persons per acre, which means families living in flats and apartments, rather than single-family houses, even row houses. Not necessarily high-rise apartments, but at least walk-ups.

"Since most Americans still prefer living in houses, this is a problem - at least as far as carlessness is concerned."

Dolores Hayden, environmental and urban historian, writes "Can the majority of Americans, who live in suburban places, begin to imagine life without cars? The answer lies in imagining new suburbs with better land use as well as better public transportation. Existing American suburbs often isolate single-family houses built by private developers from other types of activities. Land uses are separated rather than integrated around daily neighborhood needs. Public transportation is minimal or missing."

D.J. Waldie, author of "Holy Land", Christopher B. Leinberger, real estate developer and author, J.H. Crawford, author of "Carfree Cities," and Marc Schlossberg, professor of public policy also weigh in.

Thanks to Franny Ritchie

Full Story: Car-Free in America?



Not "car-free" just "car-independent"

We're never going to have car-free towns in America, but we can, and should have cities and towns that don't rely on private vehicles as the primary means of transportation.

Look at Manhattan. It's dense and mixed use enough to support a world-class pedestrian culture and transit system. If they had approved the $7 fee for driving into the southern portion, that'd be about as car free as you're likely to get in America. Off-street parking is scarce and expensive (and that's not a bad thing for Manhattan).

We need to give people good alternatives to driving. This requires changing land use, so that it supports the oldest, and cleanest transportation options: walking, biking and transit.

It's so basic, yet so difficult to get the public to see.

Start with sidewalks

I have seen streets and roads in residential, commercial, and industries that totally lack sidewalks. Maybe a worn out path in the grass, or people having to share the road with cars and trucks. All cities and suburbs should begin today to install sidewalks along ALL roads and streets.
There will be those who would oppose installing sidewalks. It may wreck their landscaping, but most of the property is already owned by the city or suburb.
Put in sidewalks, so that children can walk to school. Put in sidewalks, so that we can walk to the transit stop. Put in sidewalks, so we can walk for exercise. Put in sidewalks, to create a more walkable planet.

Never Car-Free?

"We're never going to have car-free towns in America"

How about Mackinack Island? We already do have a car-free town in America.

Charles Siegel


Maybe so, but what about a model that can be broadly applied? What about something that can work where large numbers of people live and are used to driving? How do those people get around when they leave their island?

We used to have streetcar suburbs before the era of widespread automobile ownership, but now people are used to owning cars.

Look, the point is, even in the large cities that are friendliest to alternative transportation, significant numbers of people still own private cars. I think the question isn't eradicating private cars, which is impossible without draconian, authoritarian measures that would never be approved in a democracy. I think we'd do better to focus on creating the conditions for other forms of transport to flourish.

Restricting, Not Eradicating

I agree that we also need a model that can be more broadly applied, and I agree with your suggestion for that model. But I also think there could be a niche in the US for car-free neighborhoods and towns like Vauban.

If we had car independent cities, as you say, then it wouldn't be hard for people who don't own cars to get around when they leave your car-free neighborhood.

About 50% of the people in New York City don't own cars. It would be very easy for them to get around by bike, but most of them are afraid to bike in traffic. Don't you see the benefit of having *some* neighborhoods where people who don't own cars can walk and bike for everyday tasks like local shopping and taking their children to school without being threatened by automobile traffic.

In Vauban, parents line up at the schools in bikes with trailers to pick up their children. Many of those parents would be afraid to bike with young children in traffic.

"the point is, even in the large cities that are friendliest to alternative transportation, significant numbers of people still own private cars. I think the question isn't eradicating private cars, which is impossible without draconian, authoritarian measures that would never be approved in a democracy."

And in those cities, large numbers of people don't own private cars. The NY Times article about Vauban did not talk about "eradicating private cars." It talked about one car-free suburb that has a small portion of the population of its German city, providing a better option for people who don't own cars.

It also said that someone is trying to develop a similar car-free neighborhood in Hayward, in the SF Bay Area. Would you be against developing that small car-free neighborhood to provide another option for people living in the Bay Area? Would you say that developing that neighborhood is a "draconian, authoritarian measure"?

Would you say that the development of Vauban itself is a "draconian, authoritarian measure" and that it is "eradicating private cars"? I would say that it is just providing people with one more choice of how they can live, and I don't see why anyone would want to deny people that choice.

PS: I belatedly remembered that there is one almost car-free neighborhood in New York city: Roosevelt Island. There is a garage where residents can park cars that they use to drive off the island, but they cannot drive within the island (as in Vauban, where there is a parking garage at the edge of the neighborhood). Again, I ask whether designing Roosevelt Island in this way was a "draconian, authoritarian measure"?

Charles Siegel

Sustainable Freiburg, Germany

Coincidentally, I was in Freiburg, Germany on May 12th, the day the New York Times published the article about Vauban’s car free planning. In fact, I was in Freiburg to study another innovative community named Reiselfeld which is on the western edge of Freiburg. Freiburg is a city with a population of approximately 200,000 in southwestern Germany on the edge of the Black Forest. Freiburg has a well-deserved reputation for sustainability. One of the most dominant features of the city is the wind turbines installed on the hillside above the city.

I took the tram from the city center to Reiselfeld. Development patterns for the suburb are similar to the historic city center and include many sustainable features:

• 4-5 story buildings provide enough density to support transit.
• Retail, office, public, and residential uses are vertically and horizontally mixed.
• Public plazas, parks, community center, library, schools and other facilities are clustered near the center.
• Streets are relatively narrow with on street parallel parking accommodated on permeable pavers.
• Many local streets restrict car traffic, but proved extensive well designed pedestrian and bicycle paths.
• Bicycles are so dominant that even the kindergarten school has rows of children’s bicycles and scooters lined up out front.
• Older school children were exploring the nearby parks and open space preserves.
• Extensive street trees and native plant material were used through the community to create a comfortable environment. By using native plants in informal arrangements, the community has a less manicured look and requires less intensive maintenance (no mowers or leaf blowers!). Also, many people had small vegetable gardens in their front yards.
• Storm water is filtered by permeable paving and bio-swales throughout the community.

It seems that in America, we have two extremes: low density, single family homes; or 20 story high rise condominiums. The first option is unsustainable; the second option is not appealing to many people. The density and development patterns of communities such as Reiselfeld and Vauban are immensely livable. American planners and the public could learn some valuable lessons from studying and replicating the models in Freiburg.

It's all about what large numbers of people will accept

I have nothing against people who choose to live without a car. In fact, I think it's admirable. However, I think it's pretty hard to dispute that there is little demand for car-free neighborhoods in America. There may be some opportunities for small niche communities, and that's great.

I'm just thinking about what can work for the overwhelming majority of the people in the country. We need to solve climate change and balance our transportation system everywhere, not just in places where there are enough people to support a completely car-free neighborhood.

My ideal isn't car-free neighborhoods. My ideal is neighborhoods where cars are not the dominant means of transportation and the cars that do exist are powered by clean-renewable energy (e.g. plug-in hybrids or electric cars).

Cars need to be put in their place (a subordinate place) so that peds bikes and transit can flourish, but it's hard for me to imagine a world where large numbers of Americans give up car ownership entirely.

Agreed, It's A Niche

I agree. Car-free neighborhoods are a niche market, at least in the foreseeable future. For the vast majority of Americans, the issue is building neighborhoods where the automobile is not the dominant means of transportation.

But I am not sure if you really mean "My ideal isn't car-free neighborhoods." Don't you really mean "the practical goal isn't car-free neighborhoods"?

That car-free neighborhood in Vauban sounds pretty ideal to me. From the NY Times article:

“When I had a car I was always tense. I’m much happier this way,” said Heidrun Walter, a media trainer and mother of two, as she walked verdant streets where the swish of bicycles and the chatter of wandering children drown out the occasional distant motor.

The town is long and relatively narrow, so that the tram into Freiburg is an easy walk from every home. Stores, restaurants, banks and schools are more interspersed among homes than they are in a typical suburb. Most residents, like Ms. Walter, have carts that they haul behind bicycles for shopping trips or children’s play dates.

Henk Schulz, a scientist who on one afternoon last month was watching his three young children wander around Vauban, remembers his excitement at buying his first car. Now, he said, he is glad to be raising his children away from cars; he does not worry much about their safety in the street."

Charles Siegel

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