Carfree by choice

When I was up in Umeä last year for the Spring IxD Summit, I happened to spot a book called Carfree Cities lying on a drafting table in the school’s vehicle design program, which shares space with the interaction design faculty. Well, you know me: I ordered it from Amazon on the spot, and found it waiting for me at home in Helsinki a few days later. (I should note my delight at the fact that it was a vehicle design program where I encountered the book, lying there like the proudly-flaunted samizdat of a despised minority party. I’d, myself, be so much happier if the planet’s design faculties decided en masse to teach Mobility Design instead.)

It’s a dead giveaway from the title, but what I appreciate about Carfree Cities is that its author, JH Crawford, is willing to think about the relationship between mobility and urban quality of life in a deeper way than is generally the case, and propose proportionally more radical solutions. Having decided for ourselves that we’ll never own one again, I’m clearly already sympathetic to the idea that the car simply isn’t as necessary to getting around cities as we’ve come to believe it is.

Crawford spends the first part of his book marshaling the usual (but by no means unpersuasive) evidence against the automobile: the pollution, the injury and fatality figures, the waste. I was pleased to see someone putting empirical flesh on my gut take that where cities, at least, are concerned, the seriously inimical artifact isn’t the gasoline engine at all, but the private car built around it. Or, to put it another way, that as a society you could replace the stinking V8s with hybrids, electrics and hydrogen fuel-cells to whatever degree you wanted, but would be likely to find that the problems attendant upon the car haven’t evaporated quite so readily as the clouds of monoxide.

Having identified vehicular traffic as the cause of urban ills beyond number, though, Crawford proceeds to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The title, again, rather says it all regarding the essential weakness of the solution he proposes, because I don’t in my heart believe that any city but the most self-consciously twee and tourist-oriented will ever manage to go completely carfree, and none at all above a certain size. And it’s a shame, because the second half of the book consists in large measure of self-evidently painstakingly worked-out schemas — you can see some of them here, here and here — that Crawford’s devised to provide cities with transit, logistics, supply and maintenance in the absence of cars and trucks.

They’re brilliant, and kind of demented: the kind of thing you might spy a shabby-looking guy sketching out on a stack of legal pads in an all-night donut place on San Pablo, and be genuinely unable to tell whether he’s the next Corb or simply Section 8. Either way, like most “solutions” that require the top-to-bottom reinvention of universal practice, they strike me as an awful lot of effort to go to for results that could probably be approximated in less burdensome ways — and, like the more heartbreakingly utopian passages in A Pattern Language, impossible to achieve in any event unless you were starting de novo.

If you want to cut down on the damage cars clearly cause, for my money the wiser approach — the one more likely to bear fruit for more people — has to be one of harm reduction, using Monderman and Gehl strategies to increase the total surface area available for pedestrians, bicyclists and other uses. But this is already orthodoxy, and properly so; if New York City’s Street Design Manual embraces your way of thinking, you can be sure you’ve left the realm of the radical.

Carfree Cities is a useful text, then, if for no other reason that by espousing an ultra position, it moves the Overton window that much further along the continuum. But as with any stance built around the suffix “-free,” its adherents run the risk of trying to build a coherent way of doing things on a framework of essentially negatory tactics, and this strikes me as a hard uphill slog and a harder sell. What affirmative vision can we mine from Crawford’s text?

We can start by examining just what he thinks is going to happen in a landscape freed of cars. Where I myself would tend not to be quite so determinist, Crawford has no compunction at all about drawing a causal chain tying together transport, topography and affect. Here’s his thesis, directly stated:

Because city form greatly influences the nature of social life in public spaces, the prevailing transport technology exerts a strong influence on the congeniality of every city.

Are we tracking, here? To Crawford, the mode of transportation that dominates in a given place shapes its physical development, which in turn becomes the terrain on which all potential human interactions turn. I’m willing to entertain the notion that here he’s not entirely wrong, though I continue to believe this privileges transportation just a little bit too much.

Los Angeles is probably the example par excellence: it would be foolish to deny that this place above all has been shaped by the internal combustion engine, and its maximum expression in the form of the individual private automobile. Nor would anyone in their right mind be particularly likely to argue that huge swathes of the LA basin — from the Valley down to Orange County and the ocean straight out to San Bernardino — aren’t in fact constrained in the possibilities for social engagement they’re able to offer because of the way the landscape has evolved to support automobility.

Or we could look at Tokyo, more than any other in my experience a city of trains, their elevated rights-of-way and grade crossings. (What captures that city better than the melancholy mechanical gonging of the train approach warning? I can hear it in my mind right now.) Tokyo has unquestionably coevolved with the train: the city’s first subway stations were laid down to mesh with the grand dowager department stores of Ginza, while the commercial development of districts like Shibuya blossoms from railheads established in the 1960s, like some hypertrophic mutant offshoot of the railway towns that went before them. Beyond that, and more to Crawford’s point, rail-driven modes of thinking and doing absolutely condition the city’s social contours, from planning an evening out so it deposits revelers neatly on the last train, right up to the way in which people choose to take their own lives.

So the claim here obviously isn’t completely wrong. But is Venice — the original Venice, that is, not the one lying to the south of Santa Monica — is it really shaped by its reliance on vaporetti? Is the social space of Venice framed in any meaningful way by this transportation choice? Wouldn’t it be more sensible by far to say that here the physical terrain has constrained the choice of transportation mode?

I ask because, while this is surely an edge case among conurbations, it is specifically Venice that Crawford has chosen to use as a template for his project:

We should build more carfree cities. Venice, the largest existing example, is loved by almost everyone and is an oasis of peace despite being one of the densest urban areas on earth.

So there are the affirmative criteria: our aim ought to be the design of cities that are “loved by almost everyone,” that are capable of remaining “oases of peace.” Never mind for a second that Venice’s enjoyment of these qualities is thoroughly overdetermined by its history; Crawford is going to tell you that it’s primarily down to the locally dominant mode of transportation.

The book is not unrelievedly Eurocentric: Carfree does at least glance for inspiration at other places where the car is a de facto impossibility, like the medinas of Morocco. Throughout, though, Crawford clearly situates the grandeur in a recognizably European mode of urban structuration. We recognize the cobblestoned laneways and four-storey blocks not from demassifying Detroit, nor the boomtowns of the Pearl River Delta, but from practice in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, with maybe just a touch of nostalgia for the Mediterranean paseo.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with the easygoing, café-centric, light-rail-and courtyard urbanism Crawford wants to bring into being. Anybody nurtured on Rudofsky and Alexander and Gehl will find it immediately and intimately familiar (if achingly far from realization in most of the world); I wouldn’t mind living in a place like the ones he’s imagined my ownself, for at least part of the time. But the specific layouts he’s plotted wind up bringing him perilously close to certain long-discredited Corbusianisms; with their vertically-segregated traffic and islands of housing amidst sprawling expanses of green, they remind me of nothing so much as a latterday, clean-tech gloss on GM’s original Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Finally, though, my biggest beef with the carfree conurbation Crawford proposes is that for all its radicalism, it’s in its essence a profoundly conservative vision — typical of its ilk in that it ignores fifty years’ worth of technosocial development. Much of the harm done by the car, I believe, has already been addressed by various conceptions of the shared street, and much of the rest will be undone when the selfsame physical object is reconceived of as a network resource, fused with taxis, shared bikes and public transit in integrated mobility services and coherent journeys.

If good design begins with constraint, and I believe it does, then the realist act of accepting the presence of cars in our cities is probably the right kind of boundary condition you need to produce truly insightful solutions. Do I believe in doing everything possible to discourage, disincentivize, undermine and displace the century-long hegemony of the private car? I think you can already tell that I do, for all the reasons JH Crawford enumerates and my own besides. But while there’s a lot of energy, passion and clever thinking to be found in Carfree Cities, I’m afraid I find its spinal thesis ultimately untenable for most of our places. I’m glad it exists, but mostly as an outer marker of a certain style of thought, to which we can occasionally turn for tactical insight and the infectious inspiration of the profoundly convinced.

9 responses to “Carfree by choice”

  1. Kazys Varnelis says :

    Venice as a model? Surely he’s kidding. It’s a dead city, trampled to death by the very love that he espouses.

    As you suggest, the carfree cities model really works if you want a city oriented around consumption and tourism. Wolfgang Scheppe’s Migropolis is a good counterpoint. Unfortunately simplistic thoughts like “get rid of the cars” ignore the fact that cities depend on suburbs for their existence as much as vice versa.

    Even after thoroughly-researched works like Fogelson’s Downtown proved otherwise, we are still far from the point at which the people who jet from urban core to urban core are willing to acknowledge that they also reside within greater metropolitan regions. A shame.

  2. Liz Buckley says :

    The best model for transportation I have seen is the slow/fast designation; when you are in a populated area you go slow, 25mph tops (some town replaced their pavement with cobblestones to enforce this without the use of signs)and when you are out of the area you go 90. It solves the intermodal/transitional problem of movement.

  3. AG says :

    Do you know, I’m not sure you can park this all at the door of “the people who jet from urban core to urban core.” Not when regional planning departments themselves, staffed by the most earnest, least jet-setty people you’ll ever meet, so often fail to encourage vibrant reciprocal flows between core and periphery.

    Then, too, there’s the need to account for divergent patterns of development. What might work for the suburb manifestly will not for the banlieu.

  4. Brian in Bilbao says :

    AG – where on earth do you find the time & energy to operate this site so wonderfully, intelligently and thought-provokingly?
    I have to say, I have developed quite a crush on you (has anyone else out there seen his sexy photo on that motorcycle?!)
    Also, are you Finnish or what?

  5. AG says :

    HAHAHAHA – stop, you’re making me blush. I’m a New Yorker.

  6. enkerli says :

    A reblogué ceci sur The Compulsive Pedestrian and commented:
    From a few years ago, but it might make me blog about carfreedom, again.

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