Once a year, we take a little time to imagine Life Without
Cars. Many people live without cars today, and also without
bicycles (at least for daily transport use), mostly in urban
areas with good public transportation. In the developing
world also, most people don't own cars, and live in urban
areas with good public transportation. Before 1900, nobody
Unfortunately, when people imagine Life Without Cars today,
they usually imagine today's Suburban Hell, perhaps
with some bike lanes. This is stupid. Suburban Hell is
designed around automobile dependency, which is why even
cyclists feel like lonely refugees in a barren landscape of
gigantic roadways and parking lots. This pattern is typified
by places like Phoenix, AZ, although almost all of the U.S.
today is in one or another variety of Suburban Hell.
You can live without a car in a place like this if you are a
single male aged 18-26 with certain romantic enviro-notions,
and even then only for a little while. Or, if you have a low
income and just have to make do any way you can.
The primary alternative to Suburban Hell in the U.S. is what
I call 19th Century Hypertrophism. This is the
typical pattern of large cities from before 1940, and is
typified by places like central New York and Chicago. As
these environments date from the 19th century, well before
the Age of Automobiles, they are often quite "walkable",
have good public transportation, many excellent examples of
19th century architecture, and particularly for New York,
have many people who live there without cars. The problem of
these places is that, although they have many desirable
attributes from a utilitarian standpoint, they are typically
rather ugly, difficult and unpleasant places to live,
especially for families with young children, women, elderly,
and most anyone who is not a male aged 18-30.
The main reason for the failure of 19th Century
Hypertrophism is that virtually all outdoor places are
"hypertrophic" and dominated by automobile traffic, mostly
in the form of a very wide street with a central roadway
section. In terms of living environments, this is about as
good as it gets:
These better examples of 19th Century Hypertrophism also
tend to be very expensive, so you can't actually live there.
You might live in a place more like this:
"Dense"? Dense enough. "Walkable"? Yes. Efficient use of
space? Close enough. Public transportation? Plenty. You
don't even need a bike. It's even rather enviro-friendly, as
apartment-dwelling carless New Yorkers are far less
consumptive of natural resources than their suburban
Ugly as anything? You betcha. Millions of people commute
hideous distances from the suburbs so they don't have to
live in places like this.
Just imagine pushing a stroller down the sidewalk in a place
like this, or letting your five-year-olds out to play. Kinda
makes you want that suburban yard, doesn't it? The bigger
the better! And so millions of people mortgage themselves up
to the eyeballs to live in Suburban Hell with as big a yard
Oddly enough, 19th Century Hypertrophism is often at its
best at its most hypertrophic, with the addition of 20th
century high-rise architecture on the 19th century grid
pattern. Like this:
However, despite some attractions, this pattern too can be a
harsh and unforgiving place, especially for families with
young children, which is to say, most everyone aged 0-15 and
30-50. The reality of "concrete canyons" filled with the
unceasing roar of automobile traffic can be exciting at
first, but ultimately wearying even to young men, and
certainly even for older men and women who might not have
We have thousands and thousands of examples of 19th Century
Hypertrophism in the United States, most of them built
before automobiles became common in the 1920s. If this was a
successful pattern, don't you think we would have noticed it
Is this your ideal of Life Without Cars? If it is so ideal,
what real-life city in the U.S. exemplifies the "ideal
Pretty tough to name even one, isn't it?
The failure of 19th Century Hypertrophism can be summed up
as the failure to make pleasant Places for People.
The failure of 19th Century Hypertrophism led to what I call
20th Century Hypertrophism. This was enabled by
steel-framed high-rise architecture, a new development in
the early 20th century. Although this is no longer very
popular in the U.S. today, after many failures in the 1950s
and 1960s, it has become very common elsewhere in the world.
"Towers in a park" circa 1960 (lower left corner)
20th century hypertrophism circa 2005: Dubai.
Shanghai. Note cookie-cutter "tower in a park" residential
Although people still build this stuff today, it is not very
popular in the U.S. This is basically a combination of
highrises with a suburban pattern, of gigantic roadways and
"green space," this buffer vegetation everywhere which is
not a park or other useful or pleasant place that people can
use. It's the same kind of buffer vegetation we see today in
every suburban U.S. strip mall and office park. Because,
once you have eight to twelve lanes of roaring traffic, you
want a buffer, right? The result is that, once you step out
of the highrise, you are in a wasteland of landscape
greenery, parking lots and giant roadways. Not a Pleasant
Place for People, no no no. Look at that photo of highrise
apartments in Dubai. Is that where you would want to raise a
family? What an alienating wasteland.
You can kind of see how people thought this was a good idea.
The best parts of 19th Century Hypertrophism (New York) were
places like Manhattan, where the original 19th century
buildings were eventually replaced by highrises. However,
Manhattan is a horrible place to drive. People like Robert
Moses bulldozed neighborhood after neighborhood trying to
bring superhighways to New York City. However, this was a
kludge at best. How much better just to design a big
superhighway in the middle from scratch! The other problem
of 19th Century Hypertrophism was not really the buildings
themselves, which are often either rather nice 19th century
buildings or 20th century highrises. The problem was when
you stepped out of the building, into this noisy mess
dominated by the roar of traffic. So we again adopt the
Suburban ideal, of the yard/buffer around the house.
However, instead of a real park, this typically degenerated
into a landscaping buffer, which is not the kind of place
you would want your kids to play. Once you have a lot of
landscaping buffers and giant roadways, you can't really
walk anywhere anymore, so you either have to take a train or
take a car.
Is this your vision of Life Without Cars? The one with a
superhighway in the middle, and highrises surrounded by
landscaping buffers and roadways, hardly any different than
Now we have three patterns of failure: Suburban Hell,
19th Century Hypertrophism, and 20th Century
Hypertrophism. We've spent decades, and hundreds and
hundreds of attempts all over the world, to make one of
these patterns work and I would say that there is not
one example in the world of a Pleasant Place for
People resulting. I know that a hundred architects and urban
design geeks would claim I'm wrong, but name just one
real-world example of success. Because, if there was
even just one example, then other people would imitate it,
and there would eventually be hundreds of examples, and we
would no longer hate the places we live.
So you see, just riding a bicycle, train or bus in one of
these failed environments doesn't really accomplish
anything. We spent a century riding around the 19th Century
Hypertrophic City in the U.S. without cars, and it was so
great that, once Henry Ford made the automobile affordable
in the 1920s, everybody escaped to the country as fast as
they could build houses in former farmland.
What is the alternative? It is something I call
the Traditional City. Although the
form is as old as civilization itself, over 5000 years old,
it can take many contemporary variants as is common
particularly in Asia. I've written a lot about it elsewhere,
so today, we will just take a trip to some real-world urban
places where you can live happily ever after, with a family,
for the entirety of your life from birth to old age, without
a car. You could even combine Traditional City elements with
highrise architecture, creating a hybrid where you can step
out of your 60-story apartment building into a beautiful
Place for People, not a 19th Century Hypertrophism or 20th
Century Hypertrophism disaster.
That's a long enough intro, so now sit back and enjoy your
walking tour of some Traditional City environments.
This tour is of Tsumago village, in the
Kiso valley of Japan. This sort of thing is common
throughout Asia, with cultural differences of course.
I decided to begin here with a historical example.
However, throughout all of these examples to follow, we
have a certain pattern. That is: what I have been
calling a "Narrow Street for People." This is a street
typically 12-20 feet wide, that is one flat surface from
one side to the other, without segregation into a
central roadway for wheeled vehicles and sidewalks. In
effect, the whole street becomes a "sidewalk." Motor
vehicles are usually not prohibited, and the shops and
so forth get deliveries, trash pickup and so forth from
trucks. But, the environment is dominated by people,
typically walking right in the middle of the street.
They often get along just fine with motor vehicles,
which must travel very slowly.
The second element is that, whether the buildings are
actually attached or detached, they typically have
little to no front or side setbacks. They don't need
this, because there is little to no motor traffic that
they need to create a "buffer" from. However, the
buildings often have rear and side yards, courtyards,
and other forms of private outdoor space.
I think you will find that, whether we are looking at a
historical or contemporary example, and whether in
Europe, Asia, or parts of Latin America, these basic
ingredients are always present.
I don't suggest that all streets be in this format.
Typically, you would have an "Arterial" street nearby,
with a wide central roadway for vehicle traffic. So,
there is typically no place that is more than a
quarter-mile or so from an Arterial. Thus, the
difficulty of driving on the Narrow Streets for People
is not much of an issue, because you would only have to
drive there for a quater mile or less. However, in
practice, only about 20% of the streets (by length)
would be Arterial or larger ("Grand Boulevard"), so 80%
or so of the streets would be these Narrow Streets for
Notice how, even if you have never been to Japan or
maybe anywhere in Asia, you are immediately comfortable
and familiar with this basic urban format.
This tour of the Daikanyama district of Tokyo gives you an
idea of how Traditional City design can be incorporated in a
contemporary fashion not only in an antique village, but a
giant metropolis. Try to find a place like this in any 19th
Century Hypertrophic city in the United States. As you can
see in the video, there are also large Arterials nearby, of
course filled with auto traffic. However, then you take a
right turn and you are back in a place that is essentially
carfree. Daikanyama is only a short walk from Shibuya
Station, one of central Tokyo's major commercial areas. This
is not a "suburb" or "out in the country."
This is an extraordinary neighborhood just outside of
Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the busiest train station in the
world. Yes, these are outdoor "streets," possibly covered.
This walking tour of Dubrovnik, Croatia shows one of the
hundreds of awesome Traditional City places in Europe.
This walk around Mykonos, Greece, is another example of a
great Traditional City environment that is beloved by
travelers. Notice that it is not that much different than
the rural historic village of Tsumago, and not that much
different than Daikanyama, in central Tokyo. The Traditional
City form is similar everywhere.
Can you build a place like this in, for example, San Diego?
Of course you can. It is just a combination of Narrow
Streets for People and buildings side-by-side with no
setbacks. Use whatever architectural style appeals to you.
Imagine how much more popular (and profitable) that would
be, as a travel destination, than just about every other
warm/beachy destination in the entire United States.
Notice how you are immediately familiar and comfortable with
an environment like this, even though there might not be one
single place like this in a 500-mile radius from where you
This is a walking tour of Lyon, France.
Here's another contemporary example. Beijing, China.
Get it? It's so simple.