The Relative Ease of Marketing Carfree Cities

Presented by J.H. Crawford

At the Bremen Initiative: Reinventing Mobility

Workshop: Marketing Sustainability-From Pioneers
to Early Adopters and Market Breakthrough

26 June 2000


Marketing carfree areas may be much simpler than has been assumed. During my recent North American tour, I met hundreds of people who enthusiastically support the carfree concept. While the majority probably still opposes restrictions on car use, almost everyone is aware of the problems caused by cars. Resistance to carfree districts may be less than we imagine, and this may be a good time to propose carfree alternatives.

Is the "Market Breakthrough" Close at Hand?

If we observe people's behavior with respect to cars, we see that they try to spend their time as far away from cars as possible. People understand viscerally that cars reduce the quality of urban life. In North America, the strong preference for cul-de-sac residences and indoor shopping malls testify that this awareness already exists.

In Europe, we see that Venice draws by far the most tourists of any Italian city. We have towns such as Zermatt, Switzerland, a carfree alpine resort where visitors and residents alike must park their cars before entering the city. These carfree cities cater to many wealthy people who could choose to vacation anywhere.

The carfree Kalverstraat is Amsterdam's busiest shopping street. Copenhagen's carfree Strøget is that city's most popular area. In fact, everywhere you look, people are car-aversive.

Clearly, people want every car except their own as far away from them as possible. The marketing question thus turns on a single issue: would people give up their own cars if everybody else did, too?

People will never give up their cars without an excellent alternative. Existing public transport technology is entirely adequate to the task of providing first-class urban transport. In Zurich, 90% of commuters to downtown use public transport, which is clean, convenient, and on time. If public transport met all transport needs, then I believe that many would be willing to join their neighbors in foregoing urban car usage.

Next Steps

The question then arises: How do we build popular acceptance for carfree areas? I will outline immediate steps we can take as well as some longer-term opportunities.

Immediate Public Information Campaigns

People are beginning to understand that the future of the urban automobile is cloudy at best. Rising fuel prices remind everyone of our vulnerability to petroleum shortages, and no thinking person now believes that we can continue to burn fossil fuels at today's rate. It is time for the EU to begin information campaigns to confront the public with the dual realities of global warming and the eventual exhaustion of fossil fuels, and to emphasize the role of private automobiles in these problems. At the same time, we must propose more attractive alternatives.

I believe that any discussion of cars and cities should stress the effects of cars our daily lives. While the technical problems of air pollution and petroleum exhaustion might eventually be solved, the health, social, and aesthetic problems are nearly inescapable, although rarely mentioned. The only technical solution to the human costs is to bury all urban roads, but the cost is simply unthinkable. We must emphasize those problems that can never be solved by technology. Three issues must become topics of public discussion.

Health Effects

Nothing seems likely to bring a halt to the carnage on our streets. Indeed, as cars become safer for their occupants, the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists is not improved (and may actually decline). Bicycle use and walking, known to improve health, are made much less attractive by the presence of car traffic.
  • Air pollution from automobile exhausts may now cost more lives than car crashes. It appears that the soaring incidence of asthma is also related to air pollution.
  • Noise is a public health issue now being addressed by the EU. However, significant noise reductions can hardly be achieved without reducing urban car usage.
  • Is the public prepared to accept the continued health effects of intensive driving? Eliminating air pollution only solves part of the health problem. Social Effects
  • Donald Appleyard demonstrated a clear correlation between the health of a community and the level of car traffic. Working in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s, he showed that as traffic increases, people spend less and less time on the streets, and finally use any means to shut the street out of their lives. This leads directly to a decline in the breadth of social networks, to a diminished sense of community, and ultimately to individual isolation. These effects are large and demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. It is precisely these problems that led to the popularity of the New Urbanism in the USA, which seeks to restore community by reducing the impact of cars on public spaces.

Aesthetic Effects

Let us dare to make the point that cars are ugly additions to cities. This is ridiculously easy. Comparisons of street photographs from a century ago with new images taken from the same vantage point are powerful indeed. No commentary is really required. European cities once were beautiful places.

Longer-Term Activities

We need no longer fear that the public is not prepared to hear the message that car use in cities has gotten out of hand. Everyone knows this already. However, we must bring these matters into sharper focus by helping people to understand the strength of their feelings about urban cars and to show them how delightful the alternatives can be. I propose six different measures.

Slide Shows

The slide show is an evocative medium of communication that could elicit people's feelings about the impact of cars on their lives. This medium is seldom used but is the most powerful means of rapidly communicating emotional messages. As people are put in touch with their feelings of loss relating to the invasion of cities by cars, I believe that support will arise for rapid expansion of carfree areas, thus removing them from the realm of pilot projects and establishing them as a standard option for urban development.

3-D Models of Carfree Districts

A 3-D walk-through model could show citizens how carfree districts would look and feel. We are exploring the feasibility of creating an on-line 3-D model of the carfree reference district shown in my book, Carfree Cities.

Carfree Days

Carfree days have become a staple event throughout the EU and have introduced millions to the delights of carfree environments. The public enjoys these experiences and wants them repeated more frequently. As people experience first-hand how much nicer cities become once the stink, roar, and danger of car traffic are removed, support will grow for more carfree areas.

Enlarging Downtown Carfree Areas

Surveys reveal that most citizens, just as most mayors, understand that we give too much precious urban space to cars. There is solid support for reducing car usage in cities and probably also for expanding popular downtown carfree districts. Here again, greater familiarity will lead to increased demand for carfree streets.

Carfree Housing Projects

The pilot carfree housing projects in Amsterdam, Freiburg, and other cities show that carfree living is already a realistic alternative for many. Most of these pilot projects had first to overcome regulations requiring parking for each residence. As this barrier to carfree housing is removed, private developers will begin to meet the evident market demand. The cost of carfree housing is lower than the cost of auto-centric housing because of the reduced land requirements and lower infrastructure costs, so these projects should enjoy a considerable price advantage.

Pilot Carfree Districts

We should identify good sites to redevelop as carfree districts. Such sites need only be reasonably close to the center city, with good public transport service. Abandoned industrial sites are highly suitable–the 600-unit carfree housing project in Amsterdam was built on the site of a disused waterworks. The redevelopment of brownfield sites has the advantage that no existing population need be displaced; those who do not wish to live or work in a carfree environment need only decide not to take a job or relocate there. We are ready for sites ten times larger than the Amsterdam project, thereby introducing full-fledged, mixed-use carfree districts incorporating housing, shopping, and workplaces.


Circumstances offer us a broad scope for action. Publicity work can begin immediately: the means are at hand and well known, and the facts are almost beyond dispute. However, we must stress the non-technical, human effects of urban automobile usage.

More complex and expensive approaches to educating the public and promoting carfree living should commence as soon as possible. These approaches will ultimately lead to the development of large carfree demonstration projects throughout Europe. I believe that these projects will themselves become the best marketing tool for entirely carfree cities.

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