DUBLIN, IRELAND — If you’re a car nut, don’t even think of living in the German town of Vauban: four-wheeled transport is banned. In this suburb of college town Freiburg, “Instead of the roar of traffic, the residents listen to birdsong, children playing and the occasional jingle of a bicycle bell.”
Europe has gotten anti-car fever, and its enhancing the quality of life. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of car-free oases in Europe now — check out a few of them here. I’m in Dublin, Ireland, and for a taste of the local flavor, I made my way over to famous Grafton Street, where I found street dancers, buskers and caricature artists all doing a brisk business from strolling crowds eating ice cream.
Grafton Street, remembered from nostalgic Van Morrison songs*, was set up in 1708 and has been car-free since 1979. Street performers, including at one time Glen Hansard (the “Falling Slowly” guy), made it a destination immediately. Bono plays there every year.
By contrast, my hotel neighborhood whizzes with traffic, but its street life is quiet, with many of the businesses shuttered and few people out walking. But nearby St. Stephens Green (a gorgeous urban park set up in the 19th century) is full up with Sunday strollers. Wherever cars are discouraged, human life flourishes.
In Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, the “Green Network” program means that huge areas of the city will be car-free by 2034, and public transit, walking and biking will rule. London charges a congestion fee for commuters who drive into the center city, and Stockholm and others followed suit. But these are not isolated cases; the whole continent is moving in that direction.
“Europe’s war on gas-guzzling motor vehicles just stepped up a gear,” says a disapproving The Week. “Although many of the continent’s largest cities already have ‘congestion zone’ taxes, the European Union wants to take it a step further and ban gas and diesel-driven cars from city centers completely.” According to Siim Kallas, the European Union transport commissioner, “That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centers [electric vehicles will be allowed]. “Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behavior.”
Here in Dublin, Grafton Street is an experiment that city officials are looking to extend to other neighborhoods. “When you close the roads and set-up a pop-up bike repair stand or sell some home-grown vegetables, a vibrant festival atmosphere becomes apparent. People appreciate the extra space and really love it extended,” said Lord Mayor Oison Quinn. He’s proposed a car-free zone one Sunday a month in the city center, “temporarily pedestrian-izing some roads and allowing markets and stalls to be set up.”
I’ve noticed that the business community tends to react viscerally to any proposal to ban cars. “Nobody will come,” they say at public hearings. Actually, the opposite is true. Just visit the awesome Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., where magicians, jugglers and street musicians vie for space with jostling crowds, and every café is full. Urban planners should take a closer look, and maybe we'll catch anti-car fever, too. In the U.S., bicycle groups have carried the weight for carving out some people-oriented space, but it really should get more mainstream.
Third Street, like Grafton Street here, is a destination on a human scale. It’s a magnet for people, and it works. World Car-Free Day isn't until Sept. 22, but we should be getting ready for it.
* On Grafton Street in November,
We tripped lightly along the ledge
Of a deep ravine where can be seen
The worst of passions pledged.
Van Morrison, “Raglan Road”
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