Sri Lanka, 2012
For those of us who have had the privilege of learning about the potential for car-free cities, it quickly becomes obvious that our cities would be much better places without cars. If we didn't spend so much money on personal vehicles and the infrastructure and fuel they require, we would have that much more money to spend on creating great systems for walking, cycling, and public transit. Plus all the space that cars occupy could instead go to parks, plazas, and whatever else we dream of.
It then becomes ever more difficult to accept the continuing presence of cars in the streets. Why clog so much space with murderous metal boxes? Why make it difficult and dangerous to travel about by the simplest, most natural means, just to accommodate those boxes? Why make our cities ugly with vast tracts of parking lots, when attractive places to socialize and play are often in great demand and short supply?
In Asia, the question extends to motorbikes. The noise, the fumes, the danger, the congestion: are these really what we want in our cities? It all seems an absurdly high price to pay for a delusion of convenience which traffic jams quickly cancel.
And so the inevitable happens, though far more slowly than one might have expected. People in cities begin to reclaim space from the car and motorbike. In some streets in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the locals put up signs or obstacles to block quiet streets on the weekend or at other times, allowing children to play and adults to socialize. Other cities make their main shopping street pedestrian-only, or their downtown core free of motorized vehicles.
And so the small city of Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is attempting to do...with the half-steps that show the feasibility, beauty, and difficulty of reclaiming our city streets from those aggressive intruders, motorized vehicles. The so-called "No engined vehicle quarter" extends for several blocks in the heart of the old city, which (the heart, not the whole city!) is itself car-free.
But when I first visited it, people kept telling me, "It's free of motorized vehicles, but not right now." What does that mean? Finally I consulted the information provided about the city by my hotel, and there I came across these complicated rules: No cars or big vehicles in ancient town. Motorbikes not allowed 8-11 am, 2-5 pm, and 6:30-9 pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and the Full Moon festival.
The details seemed mind-boggling. Who on earth could remember when not to ride their motorbike through the ancient town? But after frequent visits, I finally understood that, ridiculous as the system seems, it does work. At each entrance to the ancient quarter, a guard slides a planter with a sign into the middle of the street when it's "engined vehicle free" and blows his whistle at any would-be violator. He (I only saw men at this job) then slides the planter to one side of the street when motorbikes are allowed.
During the times when motorized vehicles are not allowed, the difference on the same street between the motorized and non-motorized sections was striking. In the motorized section, tourists seemed to enjoy their meal despite the roar of engines as they sat outside looking at the river across the road...but, once one entered the ancient quarter, the roar of motors ceased and the road was full of people strolling, cycling, and even roller skating.
Everything seemed to slow down. Peace reigned. I took to eating dinner at one of the restaurants in that section, preparing to flee when the traffic returned at 9 pm. A local woman informed me that it was particularly lovely during the Full Moon festival, as the entire area is lit only with old-fashioned lanterns, and people wander at leisure through the magical streets.
This is all very well as far as it goes. Hoi An is a small city with only about 100,000 inhabitants and roughly a million visitors a year. The entire city can easily be visited by bicycle. The ancient quarter, with its narrow streets and lovely architecture, is clearly meant to be enjoyed at slow speeds, but even going at a leisurely pace on a bicycle, the entire city just isn't so big that it requires an engine. Yet many of the bicycles I saw were electric. The heat, admittedly, can be intense, but so it was during summers in Hanoi when I lived there in the 1990s, and that didn't stop people from cycling much greater distances.
If the locals seem to prefer to travel assisted, is the partial ban on motorbikes mostly for tourists? It seems likely, though most of those I saw moving about on the street when it was free of motorbikes were locals. Those hours were clearly the time for people to enjoy themselves, and stalls along the river do a good deal of business among the locals. This suggests that in a city without tourists, local residents would be deprived of the enjoyment and other benefits they would otherwise gain from having non-motorized streets.
How does that make sense? And if it works so well for several hours a week, why couldn't it work every day? This gets into the seemingly irresolvable argument about car-lite versus car-free. I had thought that banning vehicles at some hours would allow people to realize the benefits so personally that they, and especially businesses, would push for extensions. Gradually people would realize that a full life is not only pleasanter but absolutely only possible without the car or motorbike. Alas, things instead seem to get stuck in one limited place: one magnificent non-motorized shopping street or a few streets in downtown, and the rest of the city allowed to be dominated by the car and/or motorbike.
There must be profound reasons for people's failure to take things to their logical next step. Similarly for people's inability to see that many of the changes that would be needed to address climate change could actually make our lives better, not worse.
Obviously there are powerful interests that would lose big if the beauty of car-free caught on, and they are sure to inject messages about the importance of and our so-called love affair with cars into films, movies, the Internet, and so on. But are those corporations (oil, cars, road-building, big-box stores, and so on) the only reason why it is so difficult to achieve even small successes and to expand them into bigger victories?
If we had a broader understanding of the barriers we are up against, perhaps we would be better at overcoming them and creating the sorts of cities that are not only healthier, cleaner, and more prosperous, but are also vastly more conducive to human happiness.
Text and photos by Debra Efroymson