_ The Zero Emissions Strategy Conference

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The Conference Podium, 17 October 1997

Why We Need Car-Free Cities

The road to zero emissions is not paved with asphalt. The intrinsic advantages of rail-based transport systems can never be answered by road-based systems: low rolling friction and reduced aerodynamic resistance. Rail freight uses a quarter of the energy of truck freight.

There is, however, another reason why we need to move cars and trucks out of cities: the space they consume. A two-track rail system can transport 48,000 passengers per hour in each direction (with seats for everyone); a two-lane road can transport 2000 cars (say 2400 passengers) in each direction. Since a metro track is the same width as a freeway lane, the space savings are about 20-fold, without even considering parking requirements. In some American center-cities, as much as 70% of the land area is dedicated to roads and related infrastructure.

How many automobiles should we remove from the city? Many people think that simply making a large reduction in urban car use is enough. It is certainly a good beginning. But if fewer cars are better, then perhaps the best number is zero. People are scared of this proposal because it is such a radical break with the way we have organized our cities in the 20th century, especially in North America. If, however, excellent rail-based mobility can be provided to everyone, why allow any cars within cities?

The automobile is actually the enemy of urban mobility, forcing destinations to be spread out over vast areas. The space that is saved by turning to rail transport allows us to condense our cities. We no longer need to dedicate vast areas of precious urban land to transport infrastructure. Streets that used to be 50 meters wide can become 5 meters wide, replacing autogeddon with spaces for people. Rail transport systems can be put underground at costs that are not prohibitive; roads generally cannot. Putting the entire urban transport infrastructure underground saves even more space and removes transport-related noise from the street environment.

We have developed a reference design for car-free cities in order to demonstrate the feasibility of this concept. The design objectives are simple, if ambitious:

We believe that the reference design succeeds in these objectives. A quality of life comparable to that of Venice can be created, but with somewhat wider streets and bigger courtyards between buildings than are found in Venice. Expansive green areas (parks, forests, lakes, farms, wilderness) are only a 5-minute walk away. The footprint of the built-up area is as small as can reasonably be achieved without recourse to buildings more than 4 stories high. Mixed-use neighborhoods put shopping and work places within a short walk of residences, and in some cases residential units will be built above ground-floor commercial space.

A highly effective transport system is essential to a car-free city. The reference design provides this by means of a compact rail system which is very densely exploited, so capital costs are moderate. In a city of a million, no two doorsteps are more than 33 minutes apart. No new technology is required. A container-based freight distribution system offers rapid and highly automated transport of all goods within the city. Most freight is delivered directly to factories and stores. Deliveries to locations not directly served by the freight system are made from stores and depots near the center of each neighborhood, and thus located within a 5-minute walk of the final destination. Simple carts can be used for small deliveries. Slow freight tugs used to move containers on the rare occasions when this is necessary. The only conventional motorized vehicles on the street are police, fire, and medical emergency vehicles; no vehicle travels faster than a brisk walk unless its siren is on. Within the neighborhood, the pedestrian owns the street. A central boulevard provides express lanes for bicyclists traveling between neighborhoods.

Activities that do not belong in inhabited areas are located in peripheral satellite neighborhoods also served by the city’s freight and passenger rail systems. This is where residents and visitors park their cars, but since most residents will go days or weeks without using an automobile, car-sharing is highly feasible. This saves huge amounts of money and offers a powerful economic advantage. Those living outside the city and visiting, shopping, or working in the city park their cars in satellite garages and use public transport to reach their destinations. These same satellite neighborhoods are also home to heavy industry, intermodal freight facilities, marshaling yards, distribution centers, and other uses that demand direct access to the global freight network or which should not be sited in inhabited areas.

The only reason so far cited as evidence that the car-free city will not work is that "people won’t give up their cars." Leaving aside the possibility that fuel shortages may offer no other choice, I think people would be happy to give up their cars if they were offered equivalent mobility. The car-free city actually offers faster mobility than auto-centric cities, and at a fraction of the financial and ecological costs. If people insist on private spaces during the very short times the are on the train (no ride is longer than 20 minutes), these can be provided for those willing to pay for them. I happen to believe that it is a good thing for people of every class to rub elbows with their fellow citizens, but this is not currently a popular notion, and exclusivity can be offered if people demand it.

In short, the car-free city can offer a higher quality of life than has been achieved anywhere except in Venice but without the transport costs that face a city entirely dependent on boats for all passenger and freight transport. All of this can be achieved with less expenditure than required for conventional sprawl development and without imposing heavy burdens on the environment.

I invite everyone to examine the reference design, and I look forward to a lively discussion of this means of bringing emissions from urban automobiles to zero.


J.H. Crawford is president of Crawford Systems, a design organization in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The Crawford Systems Web site is: The View from Mokum. J.H. Crawford has been developing the reference design for car-free cities for about ten years. He received BA in Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University and an MSW from the Boston University School of Social Work. He has worked in a variety of fields, including real estate development and consulting, automation, and public transport management. His CV can be consulted on-line. Address: Crawford Systems, Utrechtsestraat 77-3, 1017 VJ  Amsterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail: jhc@mokum.com. Telephone: +31 20 638 5115. FAX: +31 20 638 5585.

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