Hamburg To Become Car-free Zone

Have we ended our love affair with the car? 



Amidst all of the talk about the next best fuel that we should use to power our personally owned automobiles after the oil dries up, there is a newer movement starting to come to the fore – a movement with a very radical slant on the future of living and moving around the urban sprawl of the future.

The northern German port city of Hamburg is famous for many things but now they could become famous for a whole new reason as the city council has announced plans to become car-free in the next twenty years. You may believe that the city has been taken over by hemp trouser-wearing hippies but they are deadly serious in their intent to create a green network of interconnected open areas, called gruenes netz in the German language, to cover some 40% of the city. According to the official website, parks, playgrounds, sports fields and even cemeteries will be sort of joined up to allow people to navigate through the city without having to do battle with cars.

It may sound a bit far-fetched or at least overambitious, but the city authorities argue that the function of the personal motor vehicle can be replaced by walking, biking and public transport. Other cities have made efforts to encourage their citizens to forgo car usage and even ownership, but generally this is achieved by making it very expensive to own a car, as is the case with the CoE scheme in Singapore or congestion charges as you would find in London. Some other cities, though, are starting to look at encouraging their people to forgo the car by offering a viable alternative form of personal transportation. Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is a good example of this as they are building a series of cycle superhighways that radiate out from the city centre.

For all the driving enthusiasts out there, this may all sound a little bit depressing as faceless bureaucrats in some grey office dictate a new set of rules designed to take away our prized possession, but in the 100 years or so since Henry Ford started the democratisation of car ownership, global vehicle numbers have ballooned to over a billion. New research from Professor Michael Sivak (read also Research Shows Americans Driving Less) of the University of Michigan would seem to suggest that this growth spurt may well be over and the billions being spent on increasing production capacity in the car industry, particularly the mega growth experienced in China, may in fact be money badly spent as experts the world over start to plan for the era AFTER personal car ownership.

Sivak’s research and calculations seem to show that “motorisation” in the United States might have reached a peak in 2008. Since then, the figures have been on the decline. Even when you factor in the world economic downturn and its negative impact on car sales, there is an undeniable reduction in car ownership and usage or “motorisation” as Sivak refers to it.

The Professor theorises that this is not a passing fad but a real trend created by a number of contributing reasons. Chief amongst the list of culprits is the increase in people working from home, which with modern broadband, computing technology and cheaper communication costs is now a real alternative to the daily grudge of commuting. There is also a major trend for people to move back into the cities.

Sivak believes that the research data for the USA fits other developed countries, such as the UK and France, but probably would not fit developing countries at this time. In fact, many cities in China had or are looking to restrict car ownership in a bid to limit the growth of these mega cities.

There is a developing trend called Car-Lite by Dr David A King of Columbia University, something that Sivak seemed to pick up on when in a recent interview he said, ‘New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, each have more than 30% of households without a light duty vehicle. In fact, the figures show that 56% of households in New York which tops the list don’t have a car. I think that will be surprising to most people. It was surprising to me, and I am in the business.’

When you consider the cost of owning a vehicle and parking in major cities like New York and London, where a garage recently sold for the same price as a house, far outweighs travelling by the extensive public transport networks, this becomes less surprising. What did surprise most in the report was the Car-Lite households in Silicon Valley – the bastion of the pony-tailed hemp trouser-wearing brigade, the town that is bringing us the Google-Pod and Autonomous Mobility on Demand – the Car-Lite households are a mere 5.8%

So, could Hamburg be a sign of things to come? Sivak offered an analogy:

‘I think it’s an interesting target to aim for. I would compare it with a target in the traffic safety domain that was imposed by Sweden about 20 years ago,’ he said. ‘Their goal was to have zero traffic fatalities. Now, nobody expects zero fatalities on the road any time soon, but it is good to have a target that you are driving towards.’ Sorry, was that an analogy or a PUN?

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