The battle against the automobile might well be the defining struggle of the next generation. Automobile dependence has fostered sprawl, marginalized the poor and elderly, pushed the environment toward ruin and made our cities less fun. Trains, buses and bicycles will all play a role in a world of renewed urbanism. More basic than all of those will be a return to walking. There is no quicker way to bring the power back to the pedestrian than by turning parts of our cities into car-free zones, permanently set aside for pedestrians only.
There are excellent examples of pedestrian-only zones throughout the world. Medieval cities such as Krakow, Prague and Vienna have such places in the hearts of their old towns, where cars are banned, asphalt is traded for cobblestones and tables are able to spring out of cafes and take over the streets. Such places are oases of strolling, shopping, street food and people-watching.
One of the world's largest car-free zones is in Copenhagen.
The Strøget district, first set aside from the automobile in 1962, comprises more than a kilometer of tiled walkways. Some of the city's finest shops and restaurants can be found in this quarter, filled with locals and tourists. It's not uncommon to see art exhibits in the summer. On sunny days, the area becomes an urban park bustling with activity.
In California, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade provides another example. Not much bigger than Blue Back Square, the promenade was a derelict part of town only a few short years ago, but now is one of the city's most popular places. Closer to home, New York City has recently blocked off Times Square and Herald Square from cars. Responses so far are positive. Tourists seem to love it and traffic is reportedly moving smoother along the adjacent avenues.
In Hartford, the idea of a car-free zone might not be too far off.
Allyn Street, between Union Station and the XL Center, is often closed off for block parties. Permanently setting aside Allyn Street for pedestrians would not only help the pubs and restaurants that are already there, it could also help attract new business, possibly even new construction. Brick paving and well-chosen trees could really create ambience. In the long term, some of the parking lots in the area could be better used as shops, apartments or public space for fountains or art.
Even more ambitiously, it's not hard to imagine a downtown almost entirely devoid of car traffic. Much of the area within the Star Shuttle's route could be reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists only, with cars routed to garages on the fringe of downtown or to commuter lots.
There's comfort and exhilaration in walking through a car-free city. In the cities that do it, the car-free zones seem to draw more people than areas that are choked with traffic. It's something for Hartford to think about.
•Anton Rick-Ossen of Hartford is a graduate student at Trinity College.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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