Book Review: Car Free Cities

Car Free Cities $29.95

By J.H. Crawford

International Books, 2000


Imagine you live in a city free of the noise, stench and danger of cars, trucks and buses. Imagine all of your needs, from groceries to child care, are within a five-minute walk of your home. Imagine that the longest commute within your city takes 35 minutes door to door, by way of a cheap, safe and efficient public transportation system.

Carfree Cities us a landmark new text by J.H. Crawford which is sure to become a classic and a cornerstone of the movement to rollback the global cataclysm and tyranny of the automobile-starting at your front door. The book compares and contrasts Venice, Italy-the world’s premiere car free city-with Los Angeles, California-the world’s most automobile-addicted city.

Packed with design details and a sequence of summaries providing the argument for car free cities, the book may seem a bit dry and matter of fact at times, despite its exciting importance. Perhaps this is a result of writing the book in hopes of reaching not just those who are inspired to create a world free of automobiles, but for the audience which arguably needs it-the already infinitely dry and unsympathetic city planners and traffic engineers who will ultimately either embrace or reject this concept. Without winning that crowd over, expect a lot of problems when you try to see your dreams realized. As many bicycle advocates say, “never argue with an engineer”. Nevertheless, the book reads well and the ideas flow smoothly, and its wealth of information will more likely empower you should you ever have to argue city planning with an engineer or anyone else-let alone try to understand some of the gibberish they’re capable of spewing. After a rousing forward by the illustrious James Howard Kunstler (author of Geography of Nowhere, etc.), Crawford’s ideas begin with the premise that oil reserves are dwindling, that the automobile (whether or not it uses petroleum) is destroying not only our cities but our entire planet, and that cities are important human centers which are not going away and must become sustainable, livable cities. Crawford brings us textbook-style through a discussion of cities including sections on “Yardsticks for Cities”, loads about the potential for good public transport, and even the chapter, “Wicked Cars”.

Next he delves into the nuts and bolts of carfree design, including sections on design parameters, topology, districts, city blocks, buildings, passenger transport, and the ever tricky, freight delivery. These sections are graced with mandala-like diagrams of his reference design. From the sky, this dream city looks like a bead necklace allowed to fall into a supple shape. The beads are centers of human activity-dense, multiuse development surrounding a central transit stop, where many of one’s everyday needs are met. Most of these circles of development are residential, some are more commercial, and a few are reserved for “not in my backyard” activities like industry. For a small city, the necklace is folded once like a figure eight. For a very large city, the necklace looks more like a snowflake, with inner loops and outer loops organically unfolding like a flower. Everything else is green and open space.

Zooming in on the circles, we find a delightfully crinkly chaos of adjacent buildings, jaggedly patched together as if formed like crystals, similar to what one finds in many older European cities. Some streets are so narrow you can touch the building faces on either side at the same time. Others widen into major town squares and open space. Each block can have it’s own internal open space, which can be shared with the public, or closed to the street and either shared by all who live on the block, or parceled into yards like in everytown USA. I find the publicly accessible shared yard concept vastly more humane and inspiring than the chopped up little private lot model. Other blocks (especially closer to the circle’s center) may have as little as no open space.

Next, and perhaps most importantly, Crawford discusses the problem of actually implementing carfree cities in the real world. Three models emerge: one, to build a city from scratch; two, rebuild a city in decline (e.g., Cleveland or Detroit), making use of the infrastructure wasting away; and finally, three, phasing in carfree sections of existing cities. This last concept is most important from an ecological standpoint. We must stop covering the land with new cities, and instead make better use of what we have. “The greatest challenge in the development of carfree cities is the conversion of vast autocentric cities in the USA” writes Crawford. His plan calls for mapping the future development, increasing density near improved transit lines, and slowly demolishing buildings outside the carfree area. This concept is remarkably similar to Richard Register of Ecocity Builder’s plan for green Ecocities. Both Register and Crawford, while recognizing the value of the bicycle, design primarily for walking and transit, although Crawford includes a rough sketch of a “bicycle city”, saying that while such a city is more resource-efficient, he believes “that the reference design offers a better quality of life than this design”.

Facing up to the difficulty of convincing existing cities to change is the first and biggest step. Once there is political will-whether due to an ecological crisis, public demand, or developer’s incentives-everything can follow. Redeveloping cities is a dicey proposition-not only are developers generally swine, but every carfree area (after visionary activists have poured a pint or two of lifeblood into winning a project) will become potentially lucrative for private exploitation, defeating many of the benefits of carfree cities. Major real estate polls show the number one concern of new home buyers is to live on a street with little motorcar traffic. In places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where cities surrounding the booming Silicon Valley are being rapidly and heartlessly gentrified, maintaining affordable housing and diversity is at an all-time crisis.

But wait, there’s hope! Perhaps the most promising and exciting concept in the carfree cities proposal is that streets can be decommissioned for housing. The average urban street in the USA is capable of supporting a nice dense housing development down the middle, with room to widen the sidewalks for every need including emergency access. Because in general, municipalities own the streets (in Berkeley, almost 30% of the land is streets), the city can choose to license the land to non-profit developers, thereby achieving numerous goals at once: attractive, pleasant, livable areas of the city; affordable housing; increased density near transit (resulting in better working transit to meet increased demand); increased revenue base for cities; decreased cost of maintaining streets and private automobile use; and a potentially effective pressure on the corporate-ladder-climbing yuppie scum to actually stop consuming and be poor enough to be allowed to live in a stylin’ hip-ass urban epicenter carfree development! Why it makes my seat rattle just thinkin’ about it!

Without the incredible burden o supporting private automobile use, cities would have much more resources on hand for actual human needs (e.g., housing, healthcare, education). Environmental racism could be greatly reduced (e.g., freeways crisscrossing through poor/minority neighborhoods) because neighborhoods would be integrated. Poor families would be able to take public transportation to find jobs and to get services. Those that struggle with owning a car taking up to 50% or more of their income would suddenly be greatly relieved of that need. The “brain drain” of urban flight to the suburbs caused by the automobile, which decimated and ghettoized many minority neighborhoods, would be reversed, and people would learn to live together and solve basic human needs more equitably, for everyon
e’s benefit. Crime would be reduced not only by improving everyone’s quality of life but because in a carfree city, there are no “getaway cars”. Public spaces would begin to function in a healthy way and reverse the current trend of locking down the commons, rousting the “undesirables”, hiring more and more police forces, putting anti-sleeping devices on benches, etc. As people began to interact with one another again, the sense of value of human beings would begin to return to societies suffering from automobile-induced decline, and so social policies would become more humane.

Coalitions have been building more and more around related issues that carfree cities can help solve. Health workers, environmentalists, social justice advocates, opponents of globalization and more all have common ground here. Many groups work in relative isolation in hopes of reducing the many health, environmental and other harms of automobile use (whether they target sprawl and its destruction of farmland and habitat; asthma/lung disease; deaths and disabilities from crashes; cultural/aesthetic objections; social justice including opposing environmental racism/classism and increasing affordable housing and access to job and services locally, opposing ruthless genocide for oil globally; increasing affordable housing and access to jobs and services locally, opposing ruthless genocide for oil globally; increasing bicycling, walking and mass transit modeshares; and saving lives by getting people to exercise). Despite all this, the public has been disempowered by the extent of the monopoly over our everyday lives. But the potential for a powerful change is enormous. It’s time to organize hard, show that carfree cities can work, and begin to implement them around the world before the Los Angeles model (already being exported to China) takes their lands as well.

Ask your library and locally owned booksellers to carry Carfree Cities. Crawford has been touring around the world-invite him to speak! Check out