IN 2010, THE NUMBER OF CARS IN THE WORLD SOARED past the 1b mark, and the automotive population has been increasing rapidly since then. So it may seem absurd to talk about the rise of car-free places. But our planet is full of paradoxes, and the world’s wholehearted embrace of the privately owned automobile is countered by a growing movement to create (or maintain) sanctuaries without the internal-combustion engine.
From Beijing to Mexico City to Dehli, car ownership has skyrocketed, leading to widespread congestion and pollution. These huge metros have taken steps to fight the problem: Temporarily banning cars. Forcing a switch from diesel to natural gas. More sales tax for new car owners. One thing is clear: Cars are increasingly unwelcome. Here are six more places where the war on cars is raging.
As of 1 July 2016, Paris will no longer allow cars registered before 1997 to enter the city on weekdays between 0800 and 2000. (Classic vehicles at least 30 years old and bearing a Carte Grise de Collection collector-car sticker will be exempt from the ban.) By 2020, those older cars will be banned entirely, and only 2011 and newer cars will be allowed. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s antipathy toward polluting tailpipes has become a hallmark of her administration: Last September, Paris tried out a “day without cars” across large swaths of the city, and this year, Hidalgo expanded her “Paris Respire” (Paris Breathes) air quality improvement programme by turning the busy Avenues des Champs-Élysées into a tourist-friendly pedestrian walkway on the first Sunday of each month (to coincide with the Parisian museums’ monthly free-admission day).
The Norwegian capital’s centre city could be car-free as early as 2019 to reduce pollution, assuming the plans don’t succumb to the opposition of business owners, who complain that such a ban would remove automobiles from 11 of 57 shopping centres. JH Crawford, who founded the advocacy website CarFree.com in 1996, said that Oslo would be the first world capital to ban the automobile. “In Europe, car-free conversion tends to be a relatively slow, growing process with little or no going back,” he said. That’s not the case everywhere. Crawford recently moved to Bhaktapur, Nepal, because it was supposed to be going car-free, but he said the promise hasn’t been kept. “Ninety percent of the problem is motorcycles,” says Crawford. But Oslo’s looking to fashion a town centre devoid of motos and cars alike, catering to pedestrians and cyclists — but the centre will still be serviced by buses and trams, reports say.
Great City, China.
China is now the world’s largest car market, with far more annual Buick sales than the US. This planned satellite city of Chengdu in southwest China, with a projected population of 80,000, is a departure from that headlong embrace of the private automobile. Only half of Great City’s roads would allow any motorized vehicles, according to plans by Chicago architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. The team expects the city to generate 60% less carbon dioxide than communities of a similar population, and significantly slashing the amount of cars on the road is one way of achieving that goal. Public transit will get commuters to nearby Chengdu, and many residents will be able to walk to work in the dense, high-rise community itself. But Great City, which could be a model for other urban developments in China, has to be built first — a plan to finish it by 2020 ran into some zoning problems.
In 1960, the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen bought a house on the Greek island of Hydra, writing to his mother, “I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years.” That’s still true. Hydra, on the Aegean Sea, maintains a time-honored way of life, and one of the most effective preservatives is its ban on vehicles (other than small garbage trucks). The cobbled streets are for slow-paced contemplative walking, or maybe rides on the donkeys that also do the local hauling. Hydra’s charm is not destroyed by parking lots or gas stations, and a prohibition against new construction preserves its beautiful architecture. And for an out-of-the-way paradise, Hydra has been surprisingly busy over the years. The writer Henry Miller visited in 1939, and proclaimed, “Aesthetically it is perfect.” The Sophia Loren movie Boy on a Dolphin was filmed there in 1957, and visitors have reportedly included Richard Burton, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, members of Pink Floyd, Joan Collins and Jackie Onassis.
It is ironic that the traditional centre of the US car industry would be home to the country’s only car-free state highway, the eight-mile M-185 on Mackinac Island, in Lake Huron. With a permanent population of only 500 (but many more tourists in the summer), the island has made its views on cars clear since 1898, when it banned “the running of horseless carriages within the limits of the village.” Aversion to new-fangled automobiles was rampant at the turn of the century, as was legislation against them, but Mackinac Island never repealed its law. These days, as ever, visitors and locals alike get around on foot, on bicycles and even by horse-drawn carriages.
Not far from Detroit, the Michigan city of Ann Arbor is home to something a bit more futuristic, but no less disruptive to driving: The University of Michigan’s sprawling Mcity testing facility is a self-contained mini-town built to develop autonomous vehicles, complete with simulated buildings, multi-lane roads and traffic signals. The rise of self-driving vehicles and ride-sharing programs could be a death knell for car-crowded cities.
“It is entirely possible that cities will become increasingly free of private automobiles as shared automated taxis, public transit and walking become the primary modes,” says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “With automated vehicles, there is a reduced need for parking in the urban core, so parking can be re-purposed for other land uses. European cities are particularly suitable for this because they already have compact cities, high densities and narrow streets.”
New York City. Manhattan is visited by more than a million and a half cars every weekday, so it’s hardly car-free. But its High Line pedestrian promenade, built on a defunct 1930s-era elevated rail line and extending 1.45 miles from the Greenwich Village neighbourhood to 34th Street, has won universal acclaim for encouraging city dwellers to skip taxicabs in favour of a flower-lined stroll, 30ft above Manhattan’s West Side. “People do performance art and get married up there,” said Deborah Gordon, director of the Carnegie Endowment Energy and Climate Program, and co-author of the book Two Billion Cars. And other cities — including Chicago, Sydney and Seoul, South Korea — have introduced plans to replace old highways and railways for aerial parks of their own.
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. And while you're at it, join the BBC Autos community on Instagram.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.