Geo-Joint: Where the Streets Have No Cars

 When you imagine a cityscape, or even a suburban scene, it’s quite likely that your mind’s eye would envision buildings large and small, streets running along those buildings, maybe some trees or parks, streetlights, traffic signs, and inevitably, traffic. Whether the occasional car in a quiet neighborhood, or bumper-to-bumper madness on downtown streets or the freeway, cars are just a fact of life to anyone in the developed world and nearly everywhere else as well. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the sound of an internal combustion engine wasn’t as ubiquitous as the birds singing; the blessed relative quiet that falls over areas of human habitation at night is largely due to decreased auto and truck movement. Escaping from the stress of traffic is one of the biggest perks of hiking deep into the woods or finding a deserted stretch of beach. But surprisingly, there are places in the world where you can have “civilization” without the cars, and they aren’t all lonely outposts.

 

As a matter of fact, the most famous place that has given up the automobile is a world-renowned city recently featured in the Geo-Joint: Venice, Italy. Surrounded by water, and with precious little dry land (less all the time, thanks to climate change and sea-level rise, which is in no small part thanks to cars), Venice has banned cars from all but the terminus of the causeway that stretches from the mainland. There you must stash your vehicle in a parking garage for a bucketful of euro, and begin your tours by foot or vaporetto, a water bus that can take you through the famed canals. The vaporetti are motor powered, but there are far fewer of them to disturb the quiet or pollute the air. While the city is quite overrun with the 30 million tourists it hosts annually, the place is at least spared the permanent gridlock that would result from giving cars the green light. Actually, cars couldn’t really get around much even if they were permitted, given the narrow walkways and stair-cased bridges that do allow the easy movement of foot traffic.

Getting around in carless Venice involves your feet, the vaporetto, or a gondola.

The Netherlands also has a location that got along well enough transiting by canals that it was long able to turn away most automobile use. Sometimes called the Venice of the Netherlands, the town of Giethoorn now maintains its auto-ban only in the town center. The village, about 50 miles northeast of Amsterdam, still has old thatched-roof buildings and the canals that its thirteenth-century settlers dug in order to access the surrounding peat bogs. Being barely above sea level, these excavations easily filled with water and afforded free passage by boat in the saturated landscape. With its 180 bridges and Old World charm, Giethoorn is a neatly picturesque tourist draw.

Hydra Town is perched on hilly slopes, and small enough to walk wherever you need to go.

A wet landscape, then, seems to lend itself to car-less living. Some other locations have also found that in their topography it makes good sense to dismiss the automobile. Hydra is a roughly 13-mile-long island less than 40 miles south of Athens, where the old port of Hydra Town has roads too steep and narrow to be of much use to cars. Since habitation on the island is mostly concentrated in the town, getting to where you need to go is easily done by water taxi, on foot, or by donkey. Extreme verticality has also been a blessing to the villages in Cinque Terre on the northwestern coast of Italy. Winding narrow streets preclude cars, and the villages are connected by footpaths established by vineyard workers long ago. The general area of approach, though, is accessible by car, and railways bring even more visitors. The villages are free of traffic noise, but the legions of tourists seeking scenic solitude have overrun the formerly serene scene.

Fes el Bali—the old city is perhaps the largest urban car-free zone.

Another place that kept cars out to keep the air clear is Zermatt, Switzerland. Skiers who traveled to this alpine gem left their cars a few miles from town, rode a train in, and walked on snow-covered streets in peace. In more recent years, electric vehicles have been allowed due to their zero-emission status, and the ambiance of the town has changed. It’s still quiet and clean, but less safe for people on foot who have to dodge the many electric taxis and hotel shuttles. Other city centers bar or restrict vehicular traffic, at least on particular days or when traffic reaches a certain level. Fes el-Bali in Morocco is the old original section of the city of Fez, and at 150,000-plus inhabitants, it is probably the largest urban zone to be declared car-free. Built long before the advent of the automobile, living there is no doubt more pleasant without the noise and fumes, and travelers are free to wander the old passageways as they have been for centuries.

Horse-drawn carts and bicycles will get you around Mackinac Island.

Not all the carless places are distant foreign destinations. The US has a few places where motorized wheels are not welcome, amongst them Mackinac Island in Michigan. Only reachable by boat or plane, this island, which is largely a state park, also features a town where travel on your feet or horse-drawn wagons has been the rule since 1898. Bicycles are accepted too. The town of Fire Island, New York has a similar arrangement, largely because the island is so narrow that putting in a standard street network would have eaten up too much real estate. Except for some roads at the west end of the island, only car-less, narrow paved lanes and boardwalks define the traffic routes in the seasonal villages.

An anomaly to this collection of the car-free is the small town of Vauban, not far from Freiburg, in southeast Germany. Instead of locals preserving the old ways of pre-motorized simplicity, Vauban was designed in the 1990s to be an auto-free zone, with many other sustainable-city policies. It was conceived as a model for future urban planning incorporating Earth-friendly elements, so its buildings feature every kind of green design idea, waste is kept to a minimum, and alternative energy is preferred. The 5,000-plus residents of this intentional community either park their cars on its outer edges, or have given them up altogether, in favor of public transportation.

The storybook canals of Giethoorn, Netherlands.

The villages of Cinque Terre are even more steeply situated—cars really couldn’t get around.

It’s interesting to note that almost all of these locations, and this is not a complete list by any means, are strong tourist draws. True, many are in beautiful settings, but it’s pretty clear that people are fascinated by places that still hold onto a time when life moved more slowly, and the racket and danger of incessant motor traffic can be escaped. Maybe more cities should consider closing off their already too-congested urban centers to cars. Traffic usually moves at a crawl in these areas anyway, and increased pedestrian use could only boost tourism, shopping, and a city’s reputation for having at least one part of town that is a haven from the constant, annoying presence of the motor vehicle.


You’d have to fly to those carless locales in Europe, but you could drive pretty close to Mackinac Island before having to give up the keys. This Delorme Atlas of Michigan can guide your travels, and it’s available through Maps.com. Click here:

 

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE ATLAS!


PHOTO CREDITS:

caption:  Getting around in carless Venice involves your feet, the vaporetto, or a gondola.
source: Flickr: Shaun Dunmall (CC by SA 2.0)

caption:  The storybook canals of Giethoorn, Netherlands.
source: Flickr: Piotr Ilowiecki (CC by SA 2.0)

caption: Hydra Town is perched on hilly slopes, and small enough to walk wherever you need to go.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Herbert Ortner (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)

caption: The villages of Cinque Terre are even more steeply situated—cars really couldn’t get around.
source: Flickr: Artur Staszewski (CC by SA 2.0)

caption: Fes el Bali—the old city is perhaps the largest urban car-free zone.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Mike Prince (CC by 2.0)

caption: Horse-drawn carts and bicycles will get you around Mackinac Island.
source: Flickr: Mary McGuire (CC by 2.0)

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