Extinction of the Personal Car? - Obsolete Week

For those who have been fantasizing about flying cars of the future, think again. A city where automobiles are extinct is the future goal for many urban designers. Since the late 1960s, the automobile industry has increasingly addressed urban environments as car owners downgraded from big-to-small, gasoline-to-green energy.

However, the industry may soon be forced to make an even more radical shift, as urban designers seek to eliminate the personal car from major cities. A recent study from IHS Automotive and Groupe Futuribles found that congestion in cities will lead to a drop in the number of cars driven globally, causing a $30 million decrease annually in auto sales by 2035.

To combat the problem, representatives of Hamburg, Germany recently announced plans to become a car-free city within the next two decades. The proposed project, “Gruenes Netz” or the “Green Network Plan,” aims to create a “green network of interconnected open areas covering 40% of the city.”

Open areas such as parks, playgrounds, sports fields, allotments, and cemeteries will be created to connect the green network of the city. If Hamburg accomplishes the task of redesigning the center of the city to fit the criteria proposed by the Green Network Plan, it would significantly lessen congestion and carbon emissions. The personal car will quickly become an unneeded commodity as city dwellers are given the opportunity to commute from place-to-place by foot or bicycle.

During World War II, automobile motors, fuel, and tires were in short supply and many workers relied heavily on public transportation. Today, the desire for the freedom and flexibility that the automobile provides has not changed. However, when we consider the influence of automobiles on the center of cities, it is clear how cars restrict the freedom and flexibility of movement for both the driver and the pedestrian.

It’s not surprising that cities like Hamburg are adapting to society’s changing means of mobility; motorization peaked in 2008 and has been on a drastic decline since. The global recession, soaring fuel prices, and an increase in unemployed youth must be taken into account for the decline in car sales.

In 2011, one out of every ten families in America was without a car. In fact, 2000-2010 is the only decade in automobile history in which the driving age population grew more than the number of personal vehicles owned. The number of American households without a car reveals an increasing change toward living a motor-less lifestyle. Additionally, the movement of populations back to city centers is quickly popularizing the car-free one.

Prior to the 20th century, nearly every city in the world was car-free. However, a hundred years later all major American cities have been redesigned to fit the growing congestion caused by personal automobiles. Cities filled with expanding businesses and growing populations–independent of personal automobiles–are still in existence, just not in America.

The EU has taken the reigns as the environmental elitists, for many of Europe’s urban designers have successfully created ways of preventing the popularization of car populations within major cities. Most of the car-free cities in Europe are small in geographic landscape and population. For instance, Venice, Italy has its centuries-old bustling waterways; the 40-mile coastline of Sark Island, UK limits transportation to horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and tractors; and the two feet wide streets in Medina of Fes-al-Bali in Morocco, where even bicyclists struggle to ride down narrow pathways.

The economy of these cities is largely sustained by the high-traffic tourism that car-free cities tend to attract. The traveler seeks the authentic city, whose ancient culture has been preserved in the cobblestones of narrow walkways, and tight-knit communities whose economy thrives on the lively energy of walkers, bikers, boaters, and even animal transport.

Gary Hack, a Professor of Urban Design at the University of Pennsylvania, found that a city of walkable retail areas–without all those loud honking, greenhouse gas-emitting automobiles–promotes healthier living patterns. His recent study includes assembled existing data, published studies, and consultant reports on the subject of walkable shopping areas. The report reveals how walkable communities are important for revolutionizing businesses, communities, and promoting healthier ways of living.

“Businesses appear to do better in walkable commercial areas than in areas attracting mainly drive-to patronage. While there is a great deal of turnover in neighborhood shops, over time the accumulated loyalty and equity in businesses helps breed success,” Hack wrote.

Living in a car-free metropolis greatly transforms a city dweller’s perspective of every day living, as it would revitalize the communal sense of economy and street life that existed prior to the invention of the automobile. Spaces where cars once traveled would become designated “people spaces” which would unrestrict walkers and cyclists, allowing them to traverse the city more freely. Not having to confine your daily path to fit between the lines of busy traffic would help to eliminate daily anxieties and mend the damaged social fabric of communities.

In attempts to reinstate a healthy pedestrian street life, cities have taken strides to decrease roadways by increasing bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and public transportation options. In New York City, for example, urban designers recently redesigned two sections of Broadway to block off all car traffic in Times Square and Herald Square.

Redesigning cities not only changes the environment in which people live, it also changes how people view themselves within the scope of their environment. Stuck in the congestion of traffic while in an isolated car, a commuter feels disconnected from the vibrant energy of the working class, and the romance of street coincidences that make cities so alluring. In New York City, which is often romanticized, only 50 percent of households own a personal car.

Urban planners will actively seek to extinct personal automobiles from the center of cities, although the effects may not be seen for 15-20 years. But redesigning cities could reconnect divided neighborhoods, protect the safety of drivers and pedestrians, decrease obesity, and lessen air and noise pollution, according to JH Crawford’s “Carfree Cities.”

“We should begin now to prepare for the change, which is an opportunity to build urban environments superior to any ever known,” wrote Crawford.

In the future of redesigning urban landscapes, we should predict the wear and tear our actual footprints, rather than our carbon footprint.