By J. H. Crawford
Feb. 29, 2016 at 6:00 p.m.
We must first remember that all cities were car-free little more than a century ago. Not all cities responded to the advent of automobiles with the same enthusiasm as the cities of the United States. In fact, some cities never did adopt the car. Venice was unwilling to destroy itself in order to build streets wide enough for cars, and therefore has never had them except in a sliver near the mainland. The same situation exists in the Medina of Fez, Morocco, and several other North African cities. These districts are usually the most vibrant parts of their cities.
Cars were never necessary in cities, and in many respects they worked against the fundamental purpose of cities: to bring many people together in a space where social, cultural and economic synergies could develop. Because cars require so much space for movement and parking, they work against this objective — they cause cities to expand in order to provide the land cars need. Removing cars from cities would help to improve the quality of urban life.
Transport modes have always exerted a strong influence on the basic arrangement of cities. The current form began to emerge in the 15th century, when the advent of horse-drawn carriages led to a demand for wide, straight streets. This requirement was adopted by Renaissance planners in most of Europe, and most urban plans of the past 500 years have straight streets that are relatively wide and corners that accommodate turning carriages. In many ways, this change was a harbinger of the automobile.
Transport, however, is not the only important use of streets. Streets are also our most important public social spaces. Most cities in Europe now acknowledge the terrible damage cars have done to this use, which is why cities all across Europe are discouraging automobile use in favor of walking, cycling and public transport. This is most clearly illustrated in Oslo, the first European capital to announce that its downtown core will soon be made car-free in order to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality, as well as to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.