Escape from chock-a-block Car City

Can we have quiet streets, clean air and still get the kids to judo on time? Christian Wolmar says it's possible, and, below, John Arlidge goes to Edinburgh, where a carless housing estate is in the offing
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The Independent Online
Our love affair with the car is a very ambivalent one. We seem to be ready, mentally at least, to jilt her at the first opportunity. A recent survey of Berliners found that 44 per cent were ready to sign away their right to own a car to qualify for a home in a special car- free zone, where all local amenities would be available within walking distance. A further 12 per cent would be prepared to live in such an area provided they could have a car, even though this would have to be parked half a mile away.

The advantages of such car-free areas, such as the one approved by Lothian Regional Council for the Gorgie area of Edinburgh, are on the face of it immensely attractive. The medieval quarters of many towns in France and Italy, built long before the internal combustion engine was conceived of and therefore designed on a scale which makes car use impractical, are widely admired for their cosy and intimate feel. They also tend to have shops and other amenities in abundance, and now that many of them have been pedestrianised, they are in effect prototype car-free estates. Many of their design features could be reproduced by architects and developers.

Removing the need for car parking and car access on a new estate transforms the architecture. Of course, every house would still have to be accessible from a lane which would be for use by ambulances, the milkman, removal vans, refuse lorries, cyclists and pedestrians, but there would be no need for the wide two-lane roads - plus space for two parking lanes - that are currently seen as mandatory on new estates.

According to Joachim Falkenhagen, who is promoting a car-free scheme in Berlin, "our study has shown that the density of housing can be increased by almost 50 per cent by not having cars. With less need for land, there are savings on the building costs of between 3 and 10 per cent."

Car-free areas need easy access to city centres and are probably best located near them. They will, in every case, need excellent public transport. In Amsterdam, people expressing an interest in a scheme to develop a car- free zone in the eastern harbour area stressed that they wanted a tram connection, as they felt that buses were unreliable.

The environmental benefits of car-free estates are enormous. With no cars, the area would be quiet and clean, since there would be much less local environmental pollution from vehicles. Since people would be not be able to drive to superstores, small shops would thrive, much as they do now in the medieval areas of many European towns. And, of course, the wider environmental advantages of reducing car use in urban areas are obvious.

Mr Falkenhagen suggests that to be really effective, a car-free zone would need to be quite big: 2,000-3,000 homes, enough to sustain a primary school, a supermarket with competitive prices, a doctor's surgery and so on. Initially, however, with the money necessarily coming from private developers, smaller schemes such as the one in Edinburgh are likely to be built, which makes good transport links even more essential.

All this is very well, but actually doing away with one's car is very different from telling an opinion pollster that you would be prepared to do so. Society has not developed a car-oriented culture without good reason. The benefits in terms of convenience, cost and speed of the metal box that takes you from door to door for most journeys are difficult to beat. The alternatives put up by green groups often seem too hair-shirtish or unrealistic. Walking and cycling may be good for the environment, but often they are impractical or impossible. A car-free estate raises some of the same objections: how would one drive the kids to their judo class? How would one bring home the heavy shopping? And what about driving granny around when she gets a bit frail?

Carlessness has a poor image. In the past, it has been associated with poverty. Many council estates are built on the same principle as that being put forward in Edinburgh - keeping cars away from flats - and have proved disastrous. But their failure is not so much to do with the absence of cars as with the social make-up of those estates. Dumping a huge number of poor households on estates with few amenities and ghastly architecture is bound to have dire consequences.

We have two conflicting dreams. We want total, immediate mobility, but we want a quiet, pollution-free environment. For the past century, society has favoured the former at the cost of the latter. A Martian landing virtually anywhere in the West would think our towns were designed around the needs of the metal boxes rather than the people in them, since so much space is allocated to them. Car-free estates represent a welcome little step in the other direction.

Nobody is suggesting that everyone wants to live on such an estate. Many people's lifestyles are too dependent on owning a car. However, a significant proportion of relatively affluent people living in the inner city have already decided it is not worth their while to own a car - until recently, three of the five transport correspondents on broadsheet newspapers did not own a car. These sorts of people, who have already eschewed personal motorised transport for practical rather than financial reasons, represent a considerable potential market for new car-free estates. Housing developers, a group not noted for their imagination, may find that an interesting niche market exists, particularly as they could build these homes cheaper than the conventional alternatives.

A little courage is needed. Conventional wisdom has it that we are so attached to our cars that such schemes would not succeed. But, according to Joachim Falkenhagen, we might surprise ourselves. A group of households in Bremen tried not to use their cars for a month, he says: "The majority abandoned their cars for good after that."

Britain's first car-free housing estate is to be built in Edinburgh. City councillors, who have adopted radical public transport policies in recent years, have approved a scheme to build 120 flats for people who agree not to own a private vehicle.

A site near Heart of Midlothian football ground, two miles from the city centre, has been earmarked for the pounds 7m development and two housing associations are drawing up the plans. Building work is expected to begin next year.

The move is the latest attempt by Lothian Regional Council to reduce car use. Transport officials argue that with the fastest growing car ownership in Europe - up 56 per cent between 1981 and 1991 against a UK average of 27 per cent - Scotland's capital needs immediate action to prevent environmental damage and to keep the city moving.

Plans have been laid to improve public transport, banning private cars from the city centre during busy periods. But the car-free estate is the council's most radical initiative. Under the Edinburgh scheme, a single road will provide access for delivery vehicles and the emergency services, but residents will have to sign an undertaking not to own a car, relying instead on bicycles or public transport in the city. For special journeys outside town, such as family weekends away, cars will be available at cheap rates through a local car-hire firm.

To avoid possible legal challenges, the novel tenancy agreements, drawn up by planners and councillors, will not be enshrined in law, but developers do not expect residents to break the rules. Alan Brown, the director of Canmore Housing Association, which is bidding for the contract, says: "We are not going to establish a police unit to see if people are hiding a car somewhere. We think that the idea will work positively because residents will actively want to be car free."

Lothian councillors, who approved the scheme at a meeting last week, argue that with growing unease about congestion, pollution and the rise in respiratory diseases in urban areas, more and more people are turning their backs on Britain's car culture. They are confident that Edinburgh is setting a precedent for developments that will be commonplace in 30 years' time.

Barry Cross, Lothian transport policy manager, says: "Attitudes towards car use are changing. Members of the public are worried about pollution, while economists and planners are concerned that increasing congestion will stifle economic growth. In the past, all new developments in British cities had to include adequate space for cars. But now we believe that there is a substantial minority of people who are prepared to give up their cars to improve their lives. We are trying to accommodate that need."

Mr Cross insists that Lothian's reputation as an anti-car council is unjustified. "We are viewed as a radical authority - some would say strongly against private car use. But we are not anti-car, we are pro-mobility. We think it does not make sense to cram a city with metal until it grinds to a halt. That just leads to worse and worse traffic congestion and the ever-increasing degradation of our urban environment. What we need is a healthy and productive balance between different methods of transport and we believe we can achieve that."

People living in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh, where the car-free estate will be built, have welcomed the plan. David Reid, a 30-year-old sales manager, says: "If there are no cars, things would be much quieter, children would be able to play more safely and the air would be cleaner. As long as there was some access in extreme circumstances and a car for occasional use outside the city, I think a lot of people would sign up."