Life without cars: Can we make it happen here?

The New York Times today tells the inspiring tale of a town on the German-Swiss-French borders that has more or less done away with cars. Vauban was completed just three years ago, and its radical, exhaust-free lifestyle was accomplished by telling home owners that if they owned a car, they'd have to park it in one of two garages on the outskirts of the development. Those spaces, purchased along with homes as a package, cost $40,000. Where garages or driveways should be, houses have bigger yards or more rooms. The result: 70% of locals don't own a car, and 57% of new arrivals sold their car before they moved in.

You could call it a novel way of looking at a urban planning. Except that's the way towns used to be, before cars took over.

The Vaubanese aren't isolated by their lack of personal vehicles. Rather, homes were arranged so that a tram to the nearby town of Freiburg would be easy for everyone to reach. Stores and banks were placed within walking distance of all homes, not zoned to remain in a cluster miles from home. For longer trips, residents use jointly owned cars or they belong to "car clubs" and book wheels for the day. That's a lot of bills people don't have to pay each month: no car payment, no insurance, no registrations, no fuel. And, as one local father points out, he's not afraid to let his kids play in the street now.

Although some American islands, college campuses, and tiny developments share the car-free outlook, there's no town in America that has yet followed Vauban's lead. Outside Oakland, California, there's a hoped-for development called Quarry Village that aims to repeat Vauban's success, but so far, it hasn't garnered enough investors to get off the ground. Indeed, zoning laws actually mandate parking spaces for each residence.

A lifestyle reinvention like this is perhaps more possible somewhere like Europe, where public transportation is already treasured and infrastructure is already in place. I think many Americans would be perfectly happy to give up the car as long as they didn't have to give up their freedom that comes with it, but as it stands, we simply don't have the means of movement. In many European cities, there are a dozen frequent and inexpensive ways to go from Point A to Point B. A suburb-bound American, though, has only one: a car. Idealistic urban planning such as Vauban's simply isn't possible yet, and it won't be until Americans agitate for more transportation options.

America used to have plenty of fine networks of trams and trains. A hundred years ago, Los Angeles had the most extensive light rail system on the planet (yes, you read that correctly -- more than 1,000 miles of track). From Baltimore to Buffalo, the story was similar. But in the 1950s, people caught car fever and bus companies played dirty. Most of that valuable infrastructure was torn out, and we were abandoned to diesel and rubber. When we complain about feeling imprisoned by $4-a-gallon gas, we have our grandfathers to blame.

In my own city, New York, the authorities are in the process of reversing some of those mistakes. They are installing bike lanes on several of the main avenues that cut through town. Cars traditionally have five wide lanes of zooming traffic on each avenue in New York, plus two for parking, while bikers have had to risk their lives to thread through the free spaces. A new bike lane was completed last month near where I live, and its presence means that cars lose one of their lanes. As drivers and bikers alike adjust to the new scheme, some locals have taken the temporary uptick in traffic confusion to mean the whole idea is a failure, and they've started to complain. It seems that although Americans have been begging for things to change for years, when it comes time to actually make that change happen, they lose their backbone.

But adjustments like this take time, and although a new bike lane may be half-empty when it's constructed, it will fill up as people realize it's available for them to safely use. I don't own a bike, but seeing this new bike lane near my house, and knowing I will no longer be run down by a delivery truck if I try to cycle through town, I am now inspired to get one. That's how urban planning works, for better or for worse: If you build it, they will come. The question is whether you want the cars to come, or if you want to make it possible to get across town again without blowing your mortgage.
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