An old idea becomes new again: Car-free cities
- April 1, 2023: Vol. 10, Number 4

An old idea becomes new again: Car-free cities

by Benjamin Cole

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Long before the invention of the internal combustion engine and the motorized vehicle, cities and towns were, of course, car-free. To this day, the results of those early developments are seen in many Old World cities as highly prized by denizens for their livability and charm — with their remaining enchanting enclaves of winding, narrow alleys just wide enough to accommodate foot or hoof.

For decades, modern-era city planners have advocated a return to automobile-free walkways and districts. The success stories of such auto-banning efforts have been many, and the device of motor-vehicle-free zones has broadly entered the toolkits of city planners seeking to revive urban cores and other areas to make the metropolis more beckoning.

The best walking districts often re-fabricate the winning formula that has attracted residents and visitors to urban zones for millennia: entertainment, food, shopping, rest and relaxation, and old-fashioned people-watching. Cities such as Boulder, Colo., Charlottesville, Va., and Austin have been notable for recent successes in introducing car-less districts.

Nevertheless, pedestrian-only zones are facing fresh challenges. One large impediment mercifully appears to be fading, and that is the COVID-19 pandemic that kept people indoors and away from social events and venues. However, car-less refuges do face new hurdles that all retail districts face, such as fewer urban day-time workers and consumers (due to the work-from-home movement), and the relentless rise of online shopping.

Pedestrian zones have adapted, evolved and improved through many iterations since their introduction back into the U.S. urban scene in the 1960s. Some of the attributes of car-free zones are fundamental, even basic to human nature. But new adaptations are likely needed for car-free urban districts to thrive through the 2020s.


Despite recent challenges, districts that prohibit automobiles have proven a useful tool to city planners and property developers. Enjoyable neighborhoods and cities are worthy objectives in their own right, but research indicates neighborhoods and districts endowed with car-free zones are also more valuable.

To be sure, many simultaneous influences come into play when a car-free zone is introduced to a city, including that it may trigger more interest from incipient gentrifiers and concentrate development through city favors, all while cutting commuters off from an artery. The record shows that pedestrian zones do raise property values and retail sales, thus boosting a city’s tax base while creating a more livable environment.

“Again and again, when we look at streets oriented toward people — that is, streets where walking is safe and enjoyable, that people are drawn to visit on foot, and where fast and extensive car traffic is not the No. 1 priority — we find that they are more economically productive than any other style of development,” wrote the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns, an advocacy group, in a recent report.

“Historic city centers are the ones that rise far above the surrounding auto-oriented land in terms of tax value per acre,” in such disparate cities as Des Moines, Iowa; Lafayette, La.; Redlands Calif.; and Traverse City, Mich.; reported Strong Towns.

The positive results on property values in U.S. cities with car-free or pedestrian zones are found globally as well, which suggests re-creating a walking area inside a city appeals to basic human nature and is not a result of U.S. tax codes or city regulations.

For example, Greece has long been implementing pedestrian zones, but with added emphasis since the 2008 global financial crisis, which depressed incomes and limited automobile ownership.

But even in Greece, city dwellers tend to shop more, imbibe more and linger more in outdoor cafes and diners in pedestrian zones, thus raising property values for those who own the retail real estate lining streets, according to the study,  The Usage and Perception of Pedestrian and Cycling Streets on Residents’ Well-Being in Kalamaria, Greece, produced by the Swiss-based journal Land.

Studies in France and South Korea echo the basic theme: City residents like pedestrian zones, and when well executed, the zones enhance not only urban amenities and lifestyles, but property values. But before investing, property buyers should check if the proposed zones have the essential sauces for a successful recipe.


Almost without exception, successful pedestrian zones in the United States feature:

  • Abundant nearby parking and, where possible, public transit. Like it or not, U.S. residents have cars and use the vehicles to cross town. As the construction of serious public transit is expensive and time consuming, most car-free zones must offer nearby abundant parking to succeed.
  • Density and grids. Many smaller storefronts, and short blocks, help a zone stay vibrant and appealing. This layout increases the “permeability” of the pedestrian zone, allowing easy access. Entrances to the car-free zone should have inviting elements such as colonnades, promenades, kiosks, archways, plantings and signage that invite those on foot to enter.
  • Not too big. The right size of the whole zone seems to be what can be walked around in a couple of hours at most, and the right size at ground level calls for streets that are not too broad so they can be crossed rather easily from one side to the other.
  • Many destinations, and not only retail, but dining and drinking establishments, libraries, schools, bank branches, yoga clubs, churches, public transit and entertainment venues, as long as the frontage is generally smaller and limited.
  • Housing. Not at ground level, but upper floors to create a neighborhood and a somewhat “captive audience” of joggers, walkers, regular after-work grocery shoppers and others who populate the zone. Population density in the neighborhood helps too.
  • Shade, plantings, street furniture. Mini-parks, trees, landscaping and plenty of places to sit make the pedestrian zone more inviting. Push-cart vendors can add eyes and ears and a sense of proprietorship to the pedestrian zone. Of course, riverbanks and lakesides offer much to the walking-only neighborhood.
  • Public safety, necessary for the success of any retail district, also applies to car-free zones. Successful pedestrian-only streets often have police kiosks at the entrances.


In most urban planning circles today, the proposal of a pedestrian or car-free zone is common to the point of being cliche, so it is perhaps surprising that many (experts say actually most) U.S. pedestrian malls have notably flopped.

The Kalamazoo Mall (in Kalamazoo, Mich.), is usually cited as the earliest incarnation of a pedestrian-only emporium district, built in1959 under the tutelage of Viennese architect Victor Gruen. No motorized vehicles, only mall denizens strolling about, were allowed in the Kalamazoo Mall, as Gruen remembered revelers enjoying the famous Ringstrasse in his hometown.

Kalamazoo even dubbed itself Mall City, but the iconic car-free shopping mecca had several shortcomings, such as a lack of parking and chilly winters. It is ironic that in many U.S. cities, if a walking-only zone cannot be driven to by car, it lacks for foot traffic, as public transit remains less developed than cities in Europe and Asia. As with many under-frequented urban spaces, vagrants began to claim the quiet confines of the Kalamazoo Mall as their own.

Kalamazoo leaders eventually relented and allowed motor vehicles back into parts of the nation’s first walking mall, and the facility has survived, if never quite reaching its potential.

Surprisingly, given the present popularity in planning circles of car-free zones, pedestrian mall failure has been the norm in the United States.

Governing magazine recently explained: “The most thorough studies of the mall phenomenon have concluded that of the more than 200 of these creatures brought into existence, nearly 90 percent had failed and been shut down by the early 21st century. Of the 10 percent or so that survived, most were in cities with populations under 100,000.”


Like all retail districts and malls, the car-free zones face the new hurdles of declining downtown commuter populations due to the work-from-home movement and online retailing.

Paradoxically, while many cities experimented with sidewalk dining and blocked streets during the pandemic — quickly creating walking zones — the pandemic also accelerated the migration to online shopping and virtual workforces. With face-to-face contact discouraged during the pandemic, “Society quickly found that technology can be used to sustain people in their homes, allowing many to work, shop, eat out [at home], entertain themselves, and even access most public services [including many medical ones] without ever venturing out of their front doors,” reported Urban Design magazine last year.

For pedestrian zones and other retail districts, the future may lie in emphasizing those activities that cannot be done online, such as bars and dining, community and religious meeting venues, yoga clubs and gyms, art and music studios, farmers markets, dentist offices, nurseries, and push-cart vendors, along with dense housing.

With consumers letting their keyboards do the walking, the reliance on retail shops — hitherto a mainstay of many retail districts and car-free zones — will likely have to be curtailed and other uses brought to storefronts.

Notably, some pedestrian-only streets ban automobiles only on weekends or holidays, such as Sixth Street in Austin, a compromise that may make sense given the needs of daily commuters, but under-used central business districts on weekends.

In any event, the car-free street or district is an idea that has matured and been embraced by city planners globally and will continue to evolve to serve urbanites.

Property investors might want to keep an eye on those pedestrian districts that have the necessary ingredients for success.


Benjamin Cole ( is a freelance writer based in Thailand.

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