We just spent a couple of days on the southern North Sea island of Juist which was a bit like travelling back in time when the main means of transportation was by bike or horse-drawn carriage.
All that could wake you in the morning is the sound of seagulls or the passing of the odd horse and carriage on the cobblestone streets. Children are on the streets playing ball or driving go-carts.
The German island is just 17 kilometres long and half a kilometre wide. The only cars allowed are from the fire and rescue services. So it is quite an anomaly in a country known for its love affair with the motor car and virtually no speed limits on the autobahn.
The only other place I know that does completely without the car is Venice where there are no roads linking the network of islands. But Juist provides for even more solitude because you don’t hear the sounds of motor boats. I do enjoy motor cars and have a faible for the open-top classics of the 1950s and 1960s but it is time to rethink the role of transportation, especially in big cities where the quality of life has been ruined by congestion and smog.
The northern German port city of Hamburg has laid out plans to eliminate cars completely in the inner city during the next two decades, by creating a green network improving public transportation and the bicycle path network.
Several other big cities are rethinking the role of the motor car. London introduced a controversial congestion charge for vehicles driving into the city centre. New York has debated similar plans.
While in the 1970s the car was still the most efficient mode of transport, this has changed with traffic in most urban centres going at a stop-and-go pace. In many modern cities we are indeed today no faster than a horse-drawn carriage in the 19th century. We waste hours of our precious life-time in traffic jams.
Growing traffic density and the move from rural to urban areas in many developing countries is demanding a major rethink to our mode of transportation and maybe a future without cars. We need to reoccupy our cities and make them more human again with green belts of parks and trees and a network of paths reserved for the bicycle or small electric vehicle.