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More Cities Ponder Going Carless

This Nov. 25, 2011, photo shows heavy midmorning traffic amidst air pollution in Beijing, China. While some European cities are pondering going carless, or at least reducing traffic, emerging markets also are grappling with the matter. Beijing, Shanghai and a number of other Chinese cities have been enacting rules to reduce the number of new vehicles that can be sold and registered. ADRIAN BRADSHAW / EPA

Few countries have had as intense a love affair with the automobile as the U.S. — except perhaps for Germany, home of the high-speed Autobahn. Yet, the country’s second largest city is studying ways to go carless.

The northern German city of Hamburg has laid out an initial concept, dubbed the Green Network plan, that would expand public transport and add more routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. But the most controversial aspect calls for a steady phase-out of automobiles in the city center over the next two decades.

And Hamburg might not be alone. The idea of banning, or at least reducing, the use of automobiles in the center city has become an increasingly hot topic among urban planners, especially in Europe and some other industrialized countries trying to deal with issues as diverse as congestion and smog. And with a number of different approaches under study, the auto industry is struggling to find ways to appease the call for cleaner, quieter, less crowded urban environments.

“Other cities, including London, have green rings, but the green network will be unique in covering an area from the outskirts to the city center,” Hamburg city spokesperson Angelika Fritsch told the British newspaper The Guardian. “In 15 to 20 years you’ll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot.”

There are already a handful of car-free communities around the world. But they’re typically small and often focused on tourists seeking a quaint throwback in time, such as Michigan’s Mackinac Island and Sark Island off the English Channel coast of the U.K. Perhaps the largest is Venice, which simply has no way to open up roads linking its network of small islands.

But a number of major cities, including the likes of Paris, London and even New York, have been exploring ways to at least reduce the number of vehicles on their streets if not to ban vehicles outright.

The British capital introduced a much-debated congestion charge for vehicles driving into the center of the city in 2003. The program had a dual purpose: reducing commuter traffic while also raising new funds to support the city’s expansive mass transit system. The charge is 10 British pounds per day.

Several other cities have adopted a similar approach — though former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bid to put one in place in crowded Manhattan was blocked by state lawmakers. Nonetheless, there have been changes made in several parts of Manhattan, including a stretch near the theater district, to create pedestrian zones to absorb the mass of tourists.

Many urban planners accuse automobiles of killing street life, with roadways often dividing up once-connected neighborhoods, and vehicles responsible for endemic air and noise pollution, as well as a major factor in pedestrian deaths and injuries.

Lord Richard Rogers, a well-respected British architect — he designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris — and a long-time adviser on urban issues, suggested last year that London should become “a people space rather than the car space it currently is.”

But the website CarFree.com cautions that simply banning automobiles won’t be a quick fix. “The challenge is to remove cars and trucks from cities while at the same time improving mobility and reducing its total costs,” it says.

Going forward, urban planners have an array of alternatives they can draw from as they try to make cities at least less dependent upon automobiles. That includes congestion charges and more limited car-free zones, such as the popular Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. A number of British communities are exploring the creation of similar restricted spaces.

Other cities, such as Paris, have raised the idea of banning some, but not all, automobiles. One approach would put a restriction on the use of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, while electric or hydrogen-powered automobiles would still have free rein. In some instances, such vehicles are already exempt from urban congestion charges.

That is a trend that the auto industry sees as increasingly unavoidable and is trying to adapt to with, among other things, more battery-car offerings. A number of the latest plug-in hybrid models, such as the new Porsche Panamera Plug-In, meanwhile, allow drivers to stick to gas power on highways coming into a city then switch solely to electric propulsion to gain access and avoid toll charges.

While pressure to push cars out of urban centers has become most intensive in older European and some American cities, urban planners in even some emerging markets are beginning to consider the challenges posed by the automobile. Beijing, Shanghai and a number of other Chinese cities, for example, have been enacting rules to reduce the number of new vehicles that can be sold and registered. And with some of those cities already reaching gridlock, it’s a question of whether more radical solutions might follow.

How the public reacts remains to be seen. A number of efforts to create pedestrian malls in the U.S. have failed, and motorists — and the businesses that support them — make up a powerful lobbying force. So, the concept of carless cities is likely to generate a loud global debate in the years ahead.

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