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Cities make life difficult for cars — only in the tourist centres

July 3rd, 2011 · 86 Comments

Sitting facing the palace of Federigo da Montefeltro in the bright afternoon sun, sipping “water with gaz” and hooking into a rare WiFi spot after my latest two-hour hit of Madonna with Child paintings, not a car in sight on this elegant cobbled street and plaza.

It looks almost like La Citta Ideale, the painting I saw saw inside that depicts an elegant city square, completely empty.

That’s of course been the situation in every historic town and city we’ve visited: Volterra, Siena, Perugia, Gubbio, Deruta, and now Urbino. It’s almost enough to make you buy into the thesis behind this recent NY Times story that one of my faithful correspondents sent me, detailing the way European cities are making life difficult for drivers. (

The problem with all of this, though, is that this kind of car obstructionism — here in Europe or even back home in the Americas — is that it’s limited to a very restricted area: the historic and tourist-oriented centers where it almost makes a kind of business sense to ban cars, as a way of enhancing the city as spectacle and resort.

But, as I’ve written before here, the amount of land consecrated to asphalt and the creation of ugly suburbs and sprawling industrial zones is something that Europeans excel at. I’ve driven through areas of Italy on this trip that make the lower part of King George Highway look like the Champs Elysees. Clusters of big-box stores and plastics factories next to a super-highway and a tangle of roads that serve the new suburbs sprouting up around any Italian city that’s not completely dead. The most recent vivid example for me were the valleys that intersect at Perugia, the north-south valley dominated by the E45 highway and the east-west highway that runs through the valley below Perugia.

Of course, Perugia itself bans cars in the centre and, like many Italian cities, even imposes fines on anyone who tries to drive in the zone pedonale (pedestrian zone). But there are any number of roads and car parks around it, to serve everyone who drives up to the walls and then gets out in order to have their pristine pedestrian experience.

What I’m looking to see is the precedent-setting city mayor who doesn’t just make life difficult for cars in the compact and tourist-oriented urban centres that are now the identity-makers for the city, but the mayor who tries to tackle the issues of suburban road-building. I haven’t seen anyone in Europe tackling this in a serious way, except possibly for French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s competition two years ago for urban planners to come up with a way of creating a transit system and urban plan for Paris’s outer suburbs.

In the meantime, I will stroll back through the car-free streets of Urbino, enjoying my pedestrian experience before I retrieve my car from the carpark just outside the city walls and head on out along the superhighway to Fano and the Adriatic, coping with the inevitable traffic around me.

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