Are Cars Killing Our City? Carfree Cities Urges the Question by Brian Smith

Protecting biodiversity, water resources, and clean air are good examples of "thinking globally." But for some urban planners "thinking locally" has become the new battleground to save the planet. This movement aims to fix our cities by ending the destructive reign of the private automobile.

Carfree Cities by J.H. Crawford is the first comprehensive textbook outlining this new way of thinking. Building on the seminal Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Crawford argues that for 7,000 years humans have lived in civil urban spaces until about 70 years ago when our cities were ruthlessly transformed into dangerous, car-ghettos. Crawford explains how cars create urban decay. While driving, we are separated from the world in our own private space. We become anti-social and feel little connection to the environment through which we travel. The less connection we have to the city, the less we care about it.

But car-free spaces encourage people to interact with the world. As Crawford says, "City streets are the host for community, and community is central to the maintenance of a civilized society which depends on a certain level of shared experiences and expectations. It is in the streets that the chance encounters essential to the sustenance of community occur."

Crawford also compiles workable solutions to issues like moving freight, designing streets for walking and biking and creating effective public transit systems that people will actually enjoy using.

In Europe, Carfree Day is a growing movement. This September, I stumbled upon a celebration in Europe unlike anything in the USA. For just one day, hundreds of European cities banned the use of private automobiles in their urban cores. Taxis, trams, bikes and walking were the preferred modes of transportation. People flocked to the city centers to shop, chat with friends, and flirt with strangers.

City streets like this one in Amsterdam, while not totally care-free, are traffic calmed enough to allow community activities in the streets, such as children playing and people riding bicycles and enjoying outdoor cafes, all without the fear and nuisance of fast, heavy car traffic. Cars that do travel on this road do so slowly and respectfully
In Amsterdam, that warm autumn Sunday, families roamed the city center, kids played soccer in the street, and restaurants moved tables onto the sidewalk for dining in a festival atmosphere. People of all ages mingled and greeted one another in their neighborhoods without the threat of a speeding automobile running them down.

Participants in Europe's Carfree day were reminded of a time our great-grandparents knew well. A time when cities were treasured collections of public spaces, where one could do business or just socialize in a pleasant urban environment.

Imagine areas of San Francisco without cars even for just one day. Consider how the Haight-Ashbury from Masonic to the Park, 24th Street in Noe Valley, Market Street from Powell to Embarcadero, Hayes Street in Hayes Valley, Clement Street, Valencia Street between 16th and 24th, sections of North Beach, and Jefferson Street at Fisherman's Wharf would all be improved if we only had the courage to kick the cars out now and then. People would flock to these areas to socialize and shop. Initial opposition from merchants would melt in the face of increased revenues. The financial success of pedestrian/shopping zones like the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica offers proof this works.

Perhaps if Americans experienced just one day in a car-free neighborhood to shop, smile, and laugh with our neighbors, we would find civilization right under our noses and discover a new tool for protecting the environment.