Vauban took the Subaru out of the suburbs. And the BMW and the Mercedes and every other car. OK: maybe not each and every car, but most of them. That’s because this small suburb near Freiburg, Germany (close to the French and Swiss borders) decided to restrict automobiles on all but just main street and a few byways in and around town. Residents can own a car, but they must park it at the edge of town and pay a staggering $40,000 for a spot, according to the New York Times.
Vauban isn’t brand new. It was completed in 2006. But if it thrives, it will become the poster child for the so-called smart planning movement, which is really just about planning new living communities that look a lot like old living communities. Stores, services and schools are close to homes. Homes are close to each other. Public transportation makes everything accessible and those who have cars don’t need them unless they’re leaving town.
Not Just Smart Planning, but Also New Planning
But, of course, it isn’t easy to build new communities that look like old communities because since the dawn of the family automobile, urban and (especially) suburban areas have established regulations designed to accommodate – if not encourage – using cars. This makes a nascent effort like Quarry Village, a proposed carless suburb near Hayward, outside of Oakland, Calif., a formidable task, as the article notes. More than 100 would-be buyers have expressed interest in the community, which would largely mimic Vauban in its design and from which residents could access the metropolitan Bay Area via a nearby Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stop. One of those itching to developed Quarry Village is Sherman Lewis, the leader of its planning association. As the Times explains, Lewis faces an uphill battle:
“But the current system is still stacked against the project, he said, noting that mortgage lenders worry about resale value of half-million-dollar homes that have no place for cars, and most zoning laws in the United States still require two parking spaces per residential unit. Quarry Village has obtained an exception from Hayward.”
Not Just New Planning, but Also Profitable Planning
Thankfully, zoning laws are being reformed to make communities better suited to foot and bike traffic, as well as to public transportation. These changes should translate into few malls and more mixed-use space, wherein residents live right in the mix of shops and services. Or, perhaps malls will be built – after all, they are a kind of efficient use of space for shoppers on a mission, plus they can support community activities – but no mall shall be an island, far from the reaches of bike paths and mass transit.
Doing business in a carless – or semi-carless – community takes some adjusting but also offers some specific benefits. Having customers in close vicinity to your place of business is an obvious advantage. Retailers may find that customers are more relaxed if they don’t need to worry about feeding parking meters. Businesses might find that employees are more productive and less stressed if they spend less time in traffic – and likely more time walking or biking – as they come to and fro.
Of course, there are plenty of hurdles on the path to carless communities, too, as some of the US-based urban planners and developers in this follow-up to the Vauban article argue. Americans like cars. It’s that simple. So some planner argue that we should forget about trying to turn suburbs into Vauban clones and instead push for communities that simply have less use for cars. The goal is the same: healthier, happier residents who would consume much less energy and interact more directly with each other and their environment.
Meanwhile, businesses that recognize this new approach to daily life are the ones that will thrive – and some already are. Take PlanetTran, a green livery service that gives executives – or anyone willing to pay a premium – a lift when they need one. PlanetTran drivers might not be able to pick up clients in strictly far-free zones, but they can at least connect them with places outside town. And from France to Barcelona to Quebec (and, slowly, in some American cities) bike-sharing companies are seeing explosive growth.
IKEA gets it, too: it provided folding bikes to its 9000 employees in the UK in 2006 and also provided subsidies for them to use mass transit to get to work. But IKEA shoppers in a carless or semi-carless community face one daunting task, however: getting all that big, heavy furniture they buy at the store back to their houses. To address this, select IKEA locations offer customers loaner bikes, complete with rugged trailers designed for hauling all Besta bookshelves and Stockholm seat covers back home.
(photo of Vauban from Carnotzet.)