What Car-Free Vacation Spots Can Teach Us About Livable Communities

The good, the bad, and the inequitable.

vintage bicycle on the beach

Linda Raymond / Getty Images

A recent exchange on Twitter highlighted the number of middle-class and/or high-wealth Americans who enjoy dense, car-free, or car-light destinations for their vacations, and yet resist any such model for their day-to-day lives: 

It’s a point that caught my attention, as I returned from a week-long vacation on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. For those not familiar, Bald Head is a small community made up predominantly of vacation homes and rental properties, and accessible only by ferry, yacht, or (since Hurricane Floyd) by hiking across sand dunes from nearby Fort Fischer. While some cars and trucks are seen on narrow roads, these belong to either contractors, vendors, or government services. Almost everyone who either lives or visits Bald Head gets about by bike, golf cart, foot, or skateboard. 

Having spent the week in the maritime forest on the east end of the island, I can report there are many things to love about the experience:

Clean Air and Quiet: Aside from the occasional child squealing with delight on a passing golf cart, traffic noise was almost non-existent. And the air was about as clear and lovely to breathe as you might imagine. We had no way of accessing our car, even if we had wanted to, and this inherently meant we found things to do that were closer to "home"—greatly decreasing the environmental impact of our leisure time. 

Convenience: While the common argument against car-free communities is convenience and accessibility, the fact that Bald Head is car-free means services are set up to accommodate alternative modes of getting around. It’s but a 10-minute ride to whatever you need, and there are places to park your bike or cart wherever you need it. And hopping in a golf cart sure is nicer than jumping in a stifling hot car, especially if your feet are covered in sand. 

Freedom: Similarly, while the car is held up by many as a symbol of "freedom," I was struck by how many children and teens I saw traversing the island without an adult in sight—free to roam because they were free from traffic, and other (real or perceived) threats. 

Abundant Nature: I’ve spent plenty of time on the beaches of North Carolina, but I’ve never seen as much or as diverse nature on any of those trips as I did on Bald Head. From the butterflies flitting about the dunes to the fenced-off sea turtle nests on the beaches, it’s clear that both a lack of real estate devoted to the motor car and a community identity that has embraced conservation—Bald Head Island Conservancy runs a busy program of education and exploration activities—means this is a space where biodiversity has not been squeezed out by development. 

Human Connection: One of the things people don’t realize about car-free travel is how much more connected it makes you feel—not just to the world around you, but to other people too. While our protective steel boxes may keep us from dying on the freeway, they also prevent us from communicating with others on the road. Whether it’s cyclists on the streets of Amsterdam or golf cart drivers on Bald Head, removing barriers between people allows them to negotiate the "rules of the road" on human terms—meaning manners and generosity become a lot more important than fighting each other for space or strictly adhering to the formalities of traffic laws. 

That said, it would be disingenuous to present Bald Head as a direct model for other communities. One of the primary reasons for that is simply who gets to participate. While I greatly enjoyed our stay on the "island" (technically it has not been an island since the dunes connected it to Fort Fischer), the trip was a stretch financially compared to other vacations in nearby towns. And a quick glance around would tell you that visitors skew whiter and wealthier than North Carolina’s population as a whole. 

Of course, whenever I mention equity or justice, I anticipate comments that argue we should focus on climate and the environment. Yet the fact is they are inseparable from one another. Not only is extreme inequality fundamentally unfair and unjust, but it also undermines our ability to deliver a low carbon future. And Bald Head drove that home for me.

The fact is every single one of the folks cleaning houses, serving meals, or removing the trash from these vacation homes and businesses has to live somewhere. And at the end of their long days, they had a short golf cart ride to a fossil-fueled ferry—and then, most likely, a significant commute by a car when they got to the other side.

In many ways, that’s analogous to the downtown "revivals" we’re seeing in many small- to medium-sized cities across the U.S. While it’s great to see more density and activity returning to downtowns, many of the people who work in the restaurants, stores, and salons that make that living pleasant are being priced out into the suburbs and beyond. In my own hometown of Durham, North Carolina, for example, many bike and transit advocates have celebrated a significant jump in the cost of downtown parking. And while there’s good reason to do so, local restaurants are pointing out that many of their staff, who can no longer afford to live in downtown Durham, are being forced to shoulder the cost: 

Walkable, bikable, transit-friendly, dense communities are a fundamental part of the low carbon future. But as both car-free vacation spots and revitalized downtowns show us, the carbon benefits will be largely negated unless they are made inclusive for everybody.