What Would Your City Be Like Without Cars? This City Tried It

People walking in Pontevedra in Galicia, Spain, on a summer day. (Photo: Andres Jabois/Shutterstock)

I've lived in a big city (Manhattan) and several small ones (Syracuse, New York, and Norwalk, Connecticut) and in each of them I was oft-woken late at night, distracted during the day, and frequently irritated by the almost constant hum of car and truck engines, screechy brakes and beeping horns. I now live in the middle of the woods, mostly because as much as I love urban places, the cacophony of the city has become too much for me.

The noise was 90 percent of the reason I moved away.

So color me very intrigued when I heard about the Spanish city that has banished cars. You mean I could have everything that a city offers — museums and culture, walking to get groceries or delicious coffee, a quick subway or bus ride to work — and relative peace and quiet? It sounds like that's what they got in Pontevedra when Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores converted 75 acres of this city's medieval-era center into a pedestrian-only zone.

Formerly, the area had been a drug pick-up zone, and one congested with cars — and the air pollution that accompanies it. People tried to get in and out of the area as quickly as they could. Cars would get stuck in the area when they tried to cross the city, while others circled endlessly looking for parking, which led to frustration on the part of drivers — and plenty of noise for residents to deal with.

Once the area was repaved with granite flagstones and returned to pedestrians, "CO2 emissions are down 70%, nearly three-quarters of what were car journeys are now made on foot or by bicycle, and, while other towns in the region are shrinking, central Pontevedra has gained 12,000 new inhabitants," according to The Guardian. Surprise, surprise ... people want to live in areas that aren't constantly hassled by cars and their associated noise and pollution.

The changing sounds of the city

It's hard to imagine a city without traffic noise, but that's probably just because we're used to it. What might we hear if we lived in a car-free city? Probably birds, many of which have moved into or stayed in urban areas, the sounds of people talking and eating outdoors, the rain on the sidewalks or overhangs, or maybe even people's footsteps. (Take a look — and a listen — to the video above from the many plazas of Pontevedra.)

That's the kind of sound I think I could deal with. And almost all of these more pleasant noises could easily be eliminated by closing a window, unlike traffic noise, which gets through even the thickest glass.

It's worth asking ourselves new questions about our cities: Instead of "How can we reduce pedestrian deaths by cars?" maybe we should be asking: “How can it be that the elderly or children aren’t able to use the street because of cars?” as César Mosquera, the Pontevedra head of infrastructure, asked The Guardian.

Considering the negative health effects of noise are fairly well-known, and pollution from car and truck exhaust is also directly linked to respiratory health problems, eliminating cars from at least some parts of urban areas makes sense. Now that cities around the world (Pontevedra isn't the only one to expand car-free areas — Dublin is another great example — and in the U.S., Santa Monica, California, and Burlington, Vermont, have pedestrian-only zones, too).

Thinking differently about what cities can be and who they're for has already led to healthier, happier urban zones, challenging old ideas about the centrality of cars in cities. After all, as Mosquera asks, "How can it be that private property — the car — occupies the public space?"