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On a planet defined by urbanisation and environmental concerns, car-free cities around the world are gaining traction as a solution to combat pollution. With people oriented urban planning and the prioritisation of pedestrians and cyclists, we’ll see what it takes to make a car-free city.
From Venice’s waterways to Copenhagen’s Greenwave, we’ll look at 12 car-free cities and explore a little of their history. But first, what is the main vision of a city without cars?
A City without Cars
The main idea of a city without cars is to create an environment that prioritises sustainable transport over private, individual automobiles. This is done to address the car-centric issues of congestion, noise, pollution, and a lack of public space.
In short, the goal is to make the city a more livable place, transforming urban environments into green, clean and socially inclusive areas. This also aims to future-proof the city, reclaiming streets as public spaces that are for the well being and convenience of its residents and not of its cars.
In most carless cities, there’s an emphasis on ‘micro mobility’ (small, lightweight modes of transportation). This includes traditional bicycles, but also plans for e–bikes and electric scooters. For this reason, expect to see roads replaced with bike highways that stretch across city centres.
Part of the vision of a car-free city might also be bike sharing facilities. The Boris bike in London is one such example, but Europe has enjoyed comparatively an explosion in popularity.
Of course, these aren’t only found in car-free cities, but are indicative of the sort of infrastructure you might expect to see.
Car-Free City Definition
A car-free city is an urban environment where private, motorised vehicles are either entirely banned or heavily restricted within certain parts of the city. This is done to promote sustainability, to alleviate traffic and to once again prioritise people over cars.
The infrastructure usually promotes and prioritises more sustainable forms of transport. You can expect to see bike friendly infrastructure, such as comprehensive bike networks and bike sharing programs.
It’s probably better to think of the definition of ‘car-free city’ as more of a scale. Restructuring cities to remove all cars is an enormous task and may have some complex repercussions.
Instead, what you’re more likely to see are car-free initiatives in specific areas, where cars are not even necessarily banned, but strongly discouraged.
For example, you might see incentives for using more sustainable modes of transportation, such as heavily subsidised public transit. Or, on the other hand, you might also see disincentives for car usage, like higher parking fees or congestion charges.
Whilst we may be able to dream of a car free city where we can cycle in peace (hooray!) projects like this take time. Rather, they are part of an ongoing process to make urban environments more livable.
Car-Free Cities: Advantages and Disadvantages
Improved health: Most modern car-free cities are known to encourage exercise through cycling and walking.
Safer: Fewer cars means fewer road traffic fatalities.
More green space: A greater sense of community and communal living.
Tourist attraction: A lack of cars can be a great attraction to tourists and isn’t just beneficial for locals.
Reduced Infrastructure Costs: Whilst initial investment may be high, reducing the number of cars can save a huge amount of money on road maintenance.
Initially disruptive: There’s an initial period of disruption for residents and commuters alike.
Complex: Car-free cities require complex plans to overcome difficult logistical questions.
Limited Accessiblilty: Do car-free cities do enough for those with mobility issues or particular transportation needs?
Emergency Services: Car-free cities have to consider access requirements and infrastructure to support emergency services.
Local Business Impact: Businesses’ relying on car traffic may have to alter their models to avoid economic shortfalls.
Car-Free Cities Around the World: 12 Examples
In the following sections we’ll look at examples of car-free cities in Europe, USA and Africa to see what it a carless city can really look like.
1. Pontevedra, Spain
In the northwest of Spain, we find Pontevedra. It’s gained enormous international recognition for its urban planning achievements, and is considered a role model in the field.
Pontvedra as a city was suffering immensely from the intensity of congestion. “It was a sad and stressed” place where people didn’t want to live in the centre. But that all changed with the appointment of Anxo Fernandez Lores to Mayor.
A medical doctor by profession, Lores revolutionised the city, attracting new residents and business. At the time of writing, he continues in his role as mayor.
The alterations he’s made have had an amazing impact. The city has seen a CO2 emissions reduction of over 70%, and in 2016, the police in Pontevedra did not issue a single speeding ticket.
Whilst not without difficulties, the initiatives have largely succeeded. The greatest success? A change in people’s mindset. Cars are seen as guests on the streets.
How Pontevedra Became Car-Free
- 1999: Realisation that traffic was causing congestion, pollution, and diminishing quality of life. Experimentation of pedestrianising certain streets, limiting vehicle access.
- 2007: “Peatonalización del Casco Historico” (Pedestrianisation of the History Centre) is launched, gaining huge momentum. Largely car-free city centre permits only essential services and residents’ vehicles. Widened sidewalks and pedestrian plazas were implemented.
- 2009: Introduction of “Zona 30” (30km/h Zone). Increases in road safety, promotion of alternative transportation modes.
- Ongoing: The city remains committed to its car-free vision with continuous public transportation improvements and sustainable urban planning.
2. Venice, Italy
Perhaps there are few cities more infamously car-free than Venice. Interestingly, the city of love is not car-free because of modern planning initiatives, but rather, due to its unique geography and enduring urban design.
Venice is a city known for its geography, more specifically, its canals. The city was built on a network of islands and marshlands where boats served as the primary mode of transportation for people and goods.
The city is really composed of more than 100 islands, each separated by canals. These islands are largely connected by small bridges and footpaths. Whilst being suitable for pedestrians and bikes, this geography made it difficult to construct roads suitable for car traffic.
Quite simply, it is a city that wasn’t built with cars in mind. It has unusually evolved without the need for automobiles, and ultimately, never saw their widespread adoption. On land today, walking and cycling are the preferred ways to navigate its winding streets.
How Venice Became Car-Free
- 5th Century: City founded on a series of islands. Absence of land leads to the development of a city built around canals.
- Middle Ages: Venice grows into a powerful maritime republic, where boats and gondolas serve as the primary modes of transport.
- 19th-20th Century: Steam and subsequent motor powered boats threaten cities’ delicate canal architecture. Efforts to restrict usage are part of ‘preservation’ of Venice.
- Ongoing: Still, predominantly, a water-dependent lifestyle. The absence of cars is celebrated, and helps to preserve its cultural heritage.
3. Groningen, Netherlands
Whilst not entirely car-free, Groningen deserves its rightful place on this list for one simple reason: it’s one of the most bike friendly cities in the world.
Of course, we’d expect nothing less from the Netherlands. The Dutch appreciation for the bicycle is worthy of any utopia. But in Groningen, the culture of cycling is unparalleled. Over 60% of all traffic movement is done by bicycle.
There is an extensive network of bike lanes, paths and routes that are well maintained and are the veins of the city. There’s also an abundance of bike parking and bike sharing programs which integrate well with the public transport system.
But, the most impressive aspect is the attitude. Groningen hosts cycling events, campaigns and workshops that celebrate and promote cycling. The educational initiatives, for children and adults, help to create a cycling-conscious community.
There are zones that are entirely car-free and others where car access is heavily restricted. But, most importantly, people want to cycle.
How Groningen Became Car-Free
- 1977: Groningen introduces traffic plan aimed at limiting car access to
- the city centre and promoting cycling/public transport.
- 1980s: Investment in cycling infrastructure, such as bike lanes and paths. Cycling is encouraged as a primary mode of transport.
- 1990s: Expansion of existing network, secure parking facilities.
- 2000s: Car-free zones, traffic calming measures, incentives for cycling.
- 2010s: Integrated transport system that combines cycling and public transport.
- Ongoing: Cycling is deeply ingrained in Groningen’s identity, not just for residents but for students as well. As of 2015, it boasted the cleanest air of any Dutch city.
4. Ghent, Belgium
Ghent is another vision of a Utopian cycling city. Whilst not car-free, city centre access is restricted or prohibited to cars during certain hours, such as on sundays.
Without so many cars in the city, people actually want to live close to the centre.
As with Groningen, there’s been an emphasis on education and cycling promotion. There are regular campaigns, events and initiatives all to encourage residents to choose cycling.
In fact, it’s so successful that some residents have started to put their chairs out in the summer to sit on the pavements and talk. The streets, one resident said, have become ‘living’.
This is actually part of Ghents goals to work towards a ‘child and youth-friendly’ city, where reducing the number of cars in cities makes kids happier and safer.
How Ghent Became Car-Free
- 1996: Ghent begins implementing pedestrian zones and reducing car access, prioritising pedestrians and cyclists.
- 2007: Expansion of pedestrian zones, introducing car-free areas in other parts of the centre.
- 2017: Introduction of the ‘Circulatieplan’ to make a more people-centric city. Zone management and widespread restriction of car access.
- Unique/Interesting: Occasional ‘Car-free Sundays’ where cyclists, pedestrians and even skateboarders are given “free rein” in the city centre. City chosen for ‘Velo-city’ 2024 (world cycling summit).
5. Mackinac Island, USA
If you’re looking for a car-free city in the USA, then Mackinac Island is your best option.
Located between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, the 4.35 sq mile Mackinac Island is well known for its unique car-free history.
Originally inhabited by the Anishinaabe indigenous people, the island became a strategic location for fur trading in the 17th century.
By the late 19th century, it became a popular summer destination for wealthy tourists, leading to the development of grand hotels and impressive Victorian architecture.
Cars, interestingly, were banned very early on. Concerns of noise were raised in the late 19th century, leading to the decision to ban cars entirely.
The story goes that in 1898, the first ‘horseless carriage’ made its way onto the island by ferry boat. Apparently, the first encounter between horse and horseless carriage was so chaotic, that businessmen filed a petition with the village council to ban them.
Since then, the continual absence of cars has helped to preserve the charm of the island. It continues to be a popular tourist destination to this day, where tourists and residents alike navigate by bike and horse-drawn carriage.
How Mackinac Island Became Car-Free
- Late 1800s: Island gains popularity as a summer resort. Concerns about potential impact of automobiles on the islands natural beauty and atmosphere
- 1896: First known automobile to arrive on the island.
- 1898: After ‘chaotic’ meeting of horse and horseless carriage, council passed a motion banning automobiles from the island.
- 2023: Mackinac Island celebrates 125 years of being car-free.
- Unique/Interesting: The Island’s car-free status is part of its appeal to tourists who want to experience a populated but peaceful environment.
6. Copenhagen, Denmark
Whilst it doesn’t quite celebrate the car-free status of Mackinac Island, Copenhagen definitely has its place on this list.
Copenhagen has a rich history of implementing measures to prioritise cycling and public transport. These days, it is regarded as a leader in sustainable transport and urban planning.
Copenhagen has continued to remain committed to sustainable transport, where ongoing initiatives promote not only traditional bikes, but electric ones as well. Where Mackinac Island is car-free and traditional, Copenhagen is the modern alternative.
The city has introduced Greenwave for cyclists with enormous success. Essentially, this encourages flow for cyclists, meaning reduced journey times and less frequent stopping.
It’s a livable, pedestrian friendly city that isn’t entirely car-free, but is nevertheless a global model for cities seeking to move away from car dependency.
How Copenhagen Became Car-Free
- 1962: First pedestrian street, Stroget, beginning a shift to pedestrian prioritisation in the centre.
- 1990s: Car-free zones introduced, including in historic districts. Car access is heavily restricted or prohibited.
- 2002: Launch of ‘Bicycle Strategy’, where cycling is promoted as the preferred mode of transport. Cycling infrastructure expanded with protected bike lanes and sharing programs.
- 2012: ‘Greenwave’ introduced for cyclists on Nørrebrogade, a busy street in a major shopping district. Traffic lights are synchronised to provide a continuous flow of greens for cyclists travelling at a specific speed.
- Ongoing: Success of Greenwave has prompted the city to expand the initiative. Cycling continues to be the best way to traverse the city.
7. Lamu, Kenya
Moving continent once again, to the historic island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya. A town with a rich cultural and architectural heritage, Lamu is known for its extremely limited use of motorised vehicles.
Dating back over a thousand years, Lamus’ location made it an important centre for trade in the Indian Ocean. Its rich history is a melting pot of Arab, Indian and Swahili cultures among others.
Due to its narrow streets, cars are impractical on Lamu. Similarly to Venice, it’s this impracticality of cars that has resulted in their absence.
Instead of cars, locals and tourists prefer traditional modes of transport, such as bicycles and donkeys. It’s partly thanks to the absence of cars that Lamu is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of a Swahili settlement in East Africa.
More recently, there have been discussions about introducing motorised vehicles to Lamu for emergency services and airport shuttling, however concerns remain about how this could impact the town’s unique heritage.
How Lamu Became Car-Free
- 11th-12th Century: Lamu established as a centre of trade; an intersection between different cultures.
- Pre-Modern Era: Urban design with narrow streets and pathways that were built for pedestrians and donkeys. Little modernisation of infrastructure means this never changed, so cars remain impractical.
- 2001: Lamu’s old town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Problems: Difficulties remain, such as with emergency services. Boat ambulances introduced alongside existing measures to reduce journey times to major hospitals.
8. Giethoorn, Netherlands
If we’re looking for models of a car-free utopia, it’s little surprise that we’re revisiting the Netherlands.
In Giethoorn, charmingly referred to as the “Venice of the North”, canals function as the main transportation routes within the village. Instead of roads, there are mostly footpaths and wooden bridges that connect the village together.
Giethoorn is often considered for its calm and beauty, which is undoubtedly made possible by the lack of roads and subsequent lack of cars.
Similarly to other successful models in Europe, the emphasis is not necessarily on eradicating cars, but rather, promoting alternative means of transport.
The canals provide perfect waterways to transport goods and people, and there’s plenty of bike parking facilities for those who wish to explore on two wheels.
Admittedly, Giethoorn is small enough to largely be traversed by foot. It’s probably a better idea to leave your bike on the outside of the village and stroll through.
Whilst not a city, Giethoorn can show us what a car-free environment can (and should!) look and feel like.
How Giethoorn Became Car-Free
- 13th Century: Giethoorn founded by settlers from southern Europe, canals were dug for transportation and peat extraction.
- 18th Century: Beginning of construction of the bridges that connect the different pieces of land.
- 1958: Popular comedy “Fanfare” shot in the village, saw an increase in popularity.
- Interesting: As of 2020, there were fewer than 3000 people living there but more than 1,000,000 annual tourists.
9. Oslo, Norway
Oslo, like so many other cities on this list, has experienced its fair share of problems with cars in the city.
In the 60’s and 70’s, increased car ownership had ultimately led to traffic congestion. Urban development at the time accommodated this rise in ownership with car centric infrastructure. The city became increasingly polluted and uncomfortable for the residents.
Fortunately since then Oslo has seen a great number of policies designed to discourage private car ownership and get people onto two feet and two wheels.
One of the most interesting principles in Oslo is “Vision Zero”; a road safety philosophy that there should be no fatalities or serious accidents from road traffic accidents.
With Vision Zero as a goal, road safety is taken extremely seriously. There’s been huge changes implemented, from restructuring roads and bike lanes, to investment in public transportation.
Pedestrians are protected with initiatives that install safer crossings and lower speed limits for cars, resulting in less fatalities on the road.
After a considerable effort, in 2019 Oslo achieved Vision Zero; something that all cities can learn from.
How Oslo Became Car-Free
- 1980s-1990s: Efforts to improve air quality and car dependency begin, Pedestrian streets/car-free zones established.
- 2000s: Focus on improving public transport (trams, buses, trains). Cycling infrastructure expanded with dedicated bike lanes and bike sharing programs.
- 2010s: Oslo commits to having a car-free centre by 2019 (Car-free Livability Program).
- 2014: Jan Gelh conducts a survey on public life in Oslo, identifies heavy traffic, disused public spaces, lack of basic infrastructure (benches, fountains) and a lack of green space. This ignites a movement to ‘increase city life’.
- Current: The city, though not car free, has “basically no cars”. The key? Removing parkings spots and replacing them with bike lanes. The gradual approach, but a successful one.
10. Hydra, Greece
Hydra, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, boasts a car-free status, albeit a slightly different one to the others on this list.
Its narrow streets and hilly terrain meant that cars were deemed impractical. Whilst attempts have been made, the local community has persevered and have succeeded in preserving Hydra’s historic charm and tranquillity.
But Hydra has gone one step further. A presidential decree from the 50’s included a rule that all wheeled vehicles cannot be used there. This doesn’t just ban cars, but also bicycles as well. Since most of the town is built on steep, rising hills, this doesn’t seem to matter too much.
There are some inconveniences. Fires on the island are a regular occurrence and can be a challenge to deal with. The solution in the town? Grab a bucket and help out.
Today, Hydra is celebrated for its lack of cars. Despite daily inconveniences (like not being able to cycle!) it is praised as a peaceful and largely silent utopia.
How Hydra Became Car-Free
- 18th Century: Hydra was a significant naval power, known for its maritime trade and shipbuilding.
- Early 20th Century: Cars became more popular on the mainland, but proved impractical on the island.
- 1950s: Presidential decree rules that wheel vehicles cannot be used there.
- 1960s: Mayor proposed introducing cars, but is met with strong opposition.
- Today: The lack of cars has made Hydra a great tourist destination for those wanting a day trip from Athens. Walking, donkeys and water taxis remain the primary means of transport on the island.
11. Zermatt, Switzerland
Zermatt, the picturesque Swiss town, isn’t only renowned for its proximity to the Matterhorn.
Zermatt has always attracted mountaineers and tourists, and with the construction of railways across Switzerland, it became more accessible.
However, early concerns were raised about the negative effects of car traffic on the precious environment surrounding the town.
Today, if you want to drive there, you’ll have to leave your car in the nearby town of Täsch and take a train.
It’s a great destination for an eco-friendly getaway, and the lack of privately owned cars certainly adds to its charm.
How Zermatt Became Car-Free
- 19th Century: Zermatt attracts mountaineers and tourists for its alpine landscapes.
- Late 19th Century: Advent of railways leads to greater accessibility,
- 1960s – 1970s: Discussions about the negative effects of car traffic on the local environment gain momentum.
- 1980s – 1980s: Promotion of alternative means of transport.
- 1991: Private cars are officially banned from entering the village.
- Today: Walking is the best way to get around, but bikes and electric taxis are extremely popular.
12. Vauban/Freiburg, Germany
In the southwest of Germany, we find Freiburg, a city with a history of progressive urban planning.
A city of around 220,000 people, Freiburg started excluding cars from its centre as early as the 1960s.
But what would a car-free city look like if we could build it from scratch? Enter Vauban – a success story in people-oriented urban planning.
Situated just 15-20 minutes (by public transport) from Freiburgs’ central station, this utopian neighbourhood was designed to make the need for a car almost zero.
Here, cars are allowed, but the speed limit is three miles an hour, they must give priority to those not in cars and cannot park on the street. As in Oslo, the solution to removing cars, it seems, is to remove parking spots.
The result? Kids play in the street and can learn how to ride a bike in peace. Now what kind of a Utopia wouldn’t have that?
How Vauban/Freiburg Became Car-Free
- 1950s-1990s: Vauban district was a French military base used after WWII. Occupation continues until the early 90’s.
- Late 1990s: Plans developed to convert the base into a residential area. Sustainability and innovative urban design run at the core.
- Early 2000s: Vauban begins its transformation into a car free community. Public transport improved, pedestrians and bikes prioritised.
- Mid 2000s: Concept of limited parking is embraced, where shared parking is pushed to the outer edges of the district. Communal, green spaces incorporated to promote a sense of community.
- 2005-2010: Residents participate in designing and redesigning the district. Vauban becomes a sustainable model for clean, green urban living without cars.
- Today: Whilst only a neighbourhood of Freiburg, Vauban is truly testament to what is possible. Cars, whilst not banned, are quite simply not necessary for most people. The district is not just a role model for the rest of the city, but for the world.
Car-Free Cities in Europe
- Pontevedra, Spain
- Venice, Italy
- Groningen, Netherlands
- Ghent, Belgium
- Copenhagen, Denmark
- Giethoorn, Netherlands
- Oslo, Norway
- Hydra, Greece
- Zermatt, Switzerland
- Vauban/Freiburg, Germany
More Cities Turning Their Backs on Cars
Whilst there’s a great deal to be learnt from our list of car-free cities, there are lots of other cities that are making similar efforts.
In London, the congestion charge generally discourages people from driving into the centre unless they really need to (or, if they aren’t concerned about the money).
There’s also been the introduction of the ‘cycle superhighways’, but conflicts between boroughs have limited their effectiveness. Whilst most cities have been building more bike lanes, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been removing them from the High Street.
Paris is a city that’s made similar efforts. Its bike sharing program ‘Velib’ is one of the most famous in Europe, and E-bike sharing schemes have become increasingly popular. It’s invested heavily in cycling infrastructure, but has not necessarily done enough to remove cars,
For example, there was the infamous ‘alternate day’ licence plate bans, but unfortunately there was little done to prevent people from buying a second car.
For the 2024 Olympics, however, they’re hoping to ban ‘non-essential’ traffic from passing through the centre. Whilst this could be a great improvement and could seriously reduce air pollution, whether it’s enough to discourage drivers after the event remains unclear.
Are Cars Really Banned in Car-Less Cities?
In car-less cities cars are not necessarily banned, but are more frequently discouraged. There may be zones that are car-free, but due to the practical challenges and needs of residents, this isn’t always appropriate. Instead, it’s more appropriate to reduce car dependency.
If we’ve learnt anything from our list, it’s that getting cars off the road requires a combination of different approaches. This can be done by improving infrastructure for sustainable means of transport, incentivising a switch from a car to a bike or an e-bike, and/or making the streets safer for those who use them.
Whether or not the car-free Utopia can exist remains to be seen. Until then, it’s something that we can all work towards, so that we can not only improve our quality of life but, ultimately, make our cities more livable again.