THE ALLURE OF THE open road and the hum of a well-tuned engine have been romanticised for so long that the idea of a car-free city seems like something out of a sci-fi film—surely we’d only eradicate modern cars to replace them with flying cars, right? But as our cities grow denser, our planet groans under the weight of carbon emissions, and our streets become endless obstacle courses which are incompatible with pedestrians, the idea of leaving cars behind is beginning to look less like science fiction and more like a necessary sacrifice—and that’s exactly what an influential Sydney-based research institute is arguing.
The Committee for Sydney, an urban policy thinktank, wants the harbour city to follow the lead of New York, Mexico City and Jakarta in utilising car-free days to promote cultural activities, exercise, and lower carbon emissions. The committee is arguing that the initiative would be low-cost, while stimulating the local economy by encouraging citizens to spend at local businesses. Car-free days wouldn’t occur every day, probably just once a week for now, but they could create a blueprint for future urban development that prioritises walkability and convenience.
How will a car-free city work? What will it look like? Why is there a war on cars? We understand you have plenty of questions, so we’ve answered them. Let’s get into it.
What would a car-free city look like?
Picture this: a utopia where you can hear your own thoughts without the incessant revving of engines and the blaring of horns. Visualise yourself strolling down a tree-lined street, enjoying the fresh air, and connecting with passersby, all without the constant fear of being run over by someone checking their Instagram feed. You’ve just imagined living in a car-free community.
To make this dream a reality, the Committee for Sydney suggests shutting down major roads known as ‘high streets’, on recurring days. High streets are traditional centres of commerce and culture, with shops, restaurants, and other institutions lining either side of the road. They are already frequented by pedestrians, but cars still dominate these streets.
“Around Sydney there’s a high street with a bustling crowd every Saturday morning,” Sydney festival executive director Chris Tooher said. “What’s common with all of them when you walk them is a stream of traffic not moving, the cars are literally back-to-back.”
Restricting access to these streets for cars will open up more space, allowing more room for foot traffic, and greater opportunities for businesses. A key point in this plan is letting existing businesses take up the free space, expanding outwards, rather than letting pricey food trucks and short-term events siphon away some of the economic benefits.
To make car-free days work, public transport coordination will be vital. In a perfect city, everything would be within walking distance, but Sydney is not a perfect city, and residents will still need some way of getting to high streets that doesn’t involve causing congestion in other areas. Public transport, or mass cycling, are really the only options.
What are the benefits of car-free cities?
The benefits of car-free cities (even temporary ones) are plentiful. Let’s break them all down.
Less traffic: We’ll start off with the most obvious benefit—less traffic. With no cars on the roads, people will be depending on cycling or public transport to get to their destinations, which is a good thing, because both modes of transport are more congestion friendly.
Cleaner Air: With cars off the streets, gone are the days of coughing and choking on exhaust fumes. In car-free cities, the air is fresher than a bouquet of roses, and you can take a deep breath without feeling like you’re inhaling pollutants.
Less Noise Pollution: No more burnout symphonies and honking concertos. In car-free cities, peace and tranquillity reign supreme. You can finally hear your thoughts and have conversations without shouting over the roar of engines. Earplugs become obsolete, and you can sleep soundly without the lullaby of car alarms.
Safety: Car-free cities are a haven for pedestrians and cyclists. Children can play outside without parents fearing for their lives, you can cross a road without checking both ways fifty times, and the streets become communal spaces where people, not vehicles, take priority.
Healthier Lifestyles: In car-free cities, walking and cycling aren’t just modes of transportation, they’re a way of life. Cancel your gym membership, because you’ll be getting enough exercise just by going about your daily routine.
Eco-friendliness: Car-free cities are one of many radical proposals to reverse the impacts of climate change. Less traffic means fewer emissions, which means a healthier planet for us and future generations.
Revitalised Local Economies: With cars out of the picture, streets become pedestrian-friendly havens for small businesses to flourish and expand. Cafés, boutiques, and markets can set up shop and reap the rewards of increased foot traffic. Think of a car-free street as having the same draw as a market, except the beneficiaries are existing small businesses, and not price-gouging food trucks.
A Paradigm Shift: Car-free communities represent a paradigm shift in how we envision our cities. They challenge the notion that cars must dominate urban landscapes and remind us that the future can be cleaner, greener, and more harmonious.
Do car-free cities already exist?
There are already many full-time and part-time car-free cities across the world, with two clear distinctions. First, there are the innately walkable cities. These are usually high-density urban areas that have always been designed—whether through natural necessitation or remarkable foresight—to ensure everything is within walking or cycling distance. Examples include Amsterdam, Oslo, and Venice. The second type is the transitionally car-free city. These metropolises haven’t always had everything within walking distance, but they’re working to improve their walkability, which often means simply utilising car-free days once a week. Examples include New York City, Tehran, Bogota, Mexico City and Jakarta.
So, as we walk our way into the future, we might not be ready to say a permanent farewell to our four-wheeled friends, but we can certainly appreciate the benefits of a world with fewer cars and more life. It’s time we stop prioritising extra lanes and more parking spaces in favour of a future where our communities, health, and planet can all ride shotgun.