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Book Review: Carfree Cities by J.H. Crawford

CARFREE CITIES

by J.H. Crawford

International Books, 2002, 324 pages, $17.95

I must first declare my colors. I think of myself as a European, and I live in that large European nation to the west of Ireland called Canada.

My mother lives in Winchester, an English city that has turfed the cars out of most of its center. The people love it, the merchants love it, and the poets and buskers love it. I understand why the tourists flock to places like Venice, Sienna, and other European cities which have reclaimed their city centers from the car. We North Americans may claim to love suburbia, and say we hate high density living, but we sure like to visit high density living when we are on holiday.

Car-free cities are all about people. They are about conversations, coffee-houses, slow wandering, shopping, and the beauty of small details in the architecture. As soon as you are walking, you have time to notice, since you no longer have to keep your eyes on the traffic. (More than 4,000 pedestrians were killed by cars in the U.S. in 2003; 13 people every day. Americans are two to six times more likely to be killed walking on the road than German or Dutch pedestrians, even though the Europeans walk and bike more.)

J.H. Crawford is an American who has travelled the world, been to Europe's cities, and fallen in love with car-free, pedestrian living. His paragon of the perfect city is Venice, where all transport is by foot or boat. The city works brilliantly, not just for its gondolas and architecture, but also for its car-free nature, which is why 12 million tourists flock to it every year.

Could more cities become car-free? J.H. Crawford's book is a song of praise for car-free cities, but it is also a detailed look at car-free designs, the merits of underground metro railways, ways of dealing with freight, and housing and street layouts that could be used to retrofit our cities as car-free. He looks at the Dutch woonerf' system, where pedestrians have priority over cars in residential areas. He looks at the way the Brazilian city of Curitiba has managed to keep a lid on its cars by designing a superb bus system.

How do you design (or retrofit) a car-free city? Within each car-free district, the first element of design is for walking. After that, you design for cycling. For long distance commuting, there is heavy-rail metro, used widely across Europe. For cross-city travel, he favors the underground metro.

But what about freight? Crawford starts with the assumption of containerized freight with standardized containers, which makes sense. For long-distance freight, he looks again to Europe, where the new generation of freight trains operate at high speeds. Once inside the city, we need customized freight-only tracks for use by rail-based metro-freighters, with 20-foot or 40-foot “roller-frame” containers that can be rolled directly into local loading depots. For small, local deliveries, he recommends the return of delivery bikes with trailers (commonly used in Amsterdam today), and small, silent, electric service vehicles for trades-people to ferry the heavier goods around.

I am convinced that in civilizations of the future, the cities that succeed the best at attracting bright, lively people, who will create vibrant, healthy economies, will be those that go the furthest to becoming car-free, as Freiburg, Germany (the world's solar capital) is doing.

It may be a very un-American thing to say, but life is better without the car. See www.carfree.com

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Guy Dauncey is author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change. He lives in Victoria, Canada. His website is www.earthfuture.com. Email Signup
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