What It's Like To Live in a City Without Cars

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The Robert Benchley joke telegram is "arrived Venice, streets full of water, please advise". There are indeed streets full of water almost everywhere, and there is a water bus system, the vaporetto, which works well both as transport and as a sort of moving bridge to get across the grand canal.

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But in fact the thing that was most impressive about Venice was the pedestrian network that is the real way that most people get around. Boats are are hard to park and private boats are not allowed on the Grand Canal during working hours, so people walk. They don't have much of a choice, because there are no cars. No trucks. No police cars, nothing on land but people walking. It's glorious.

What happens when you design a city without cars and trucks? You get kids and dogs able to go anywhere without fear of them being hit by cars and trucks. You get a different system of deliveries, garbage pickup, all done by handcart.

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Garbage in particular is fascinating; there is pickup every morning of something, plastics one day, paper the other and then garbage, all done by handcart. They have to do it quickly because of the rats. It is labor intensive but it is efficiently done.

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Deliveries are not so efficient. To do construction, cement mixers have to be brought in by barge and then pumped down narrow lanes to workmen running it in wheelbarrows. Redi-mix concrete only lasts a certain amount of time from when it was made to when it has to be placed; getting it into mixers, barged to the site and placed must take careful planning.

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Every bridge over every canal has steps up either side to allow for boats and gondolas below. All of the supplies for restaurants and stores have to be dragged up one side and down the other. Some handcarts have special sets of wheels to help them climb stairs. Even the couriers have their own boats, and then handcarts to carry it the last few yards.

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Buildings are very close together and walking streets vary in width; the narrowest we found was barely two feet wide, yet it had a name and was on the maps.

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It was tragic to see how venice is disintegrating, dissolving due to its subsidence and to rising waters; ground floors that used to be habitable are now empty as they get flooded out regularly. Metal dams are installed in doorways to keep the water out of houses. A few days before I arrived, most of the streets were under water and had walkways set up. Just after I left, it was flooded again.

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If one was going to build a city without cars, one certainly wouldn't model it on Venice; the elderly have real problems getting up and down the bridges over the canals, and the labour costs involved in doing everything by hand must be extraordinary. I do wonder what the response time might be if you have to call an ambulance. But it is such a pleasure living in a world without cars, sitting in sidewalk cafe´s with no traffic noise, and being able to walk anywhere (until you want to cross the Grand Canal, anyways). It works, in it's wonderful quirky way.

Tags: Italy