This story happens in a near future where environmental concern has become a critical issue. Cars are just got banned within the limits of all major cities out of necessity. Rail public transport (above and under ground) has slightly improved (more stops, faster, broader...).

How (and how fast) would the design of cities change?

Edit: a needed precision, all vehicles are banned from the city limits. Goods come in through rail (or boat if it's possible like in Paris or London), waste goes out the same way.

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    $\begingroup$ Some European cities already ban cars in their medieval centre to some extend: Siena, Italy and Carcassonne, France for instance. The concerned areas are small enough for walking. $\endgroup$
    – mouviciel
    Nov 18, 2014 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ and many cities have undergound parking garages several levels deep, 6-7 floors is not uncommon. banning all cars from city centers would make them obsolete $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2014 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat: The question didn't say that the city is in the USA. ;-) Anyway, I would hope the fire brigade and police are exempt, or there would be a very good reason to move out :-) $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Nov 18, 2014 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat Plenty of people still live in Venice, which is an extreme example (in most of the historic part of the city, you can't even move around in a wheelchair because you need to go up and down stairs to cross the canal). People use boats instead. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2014 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ For all of you guys worried about moving fridges: northroadbicycle.com/public/images/content/all/fridge.jpg $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Nov 19, 2014 at 18:53

4 Answers 4


The issues to address

1 - supply chain. You have central distribution centers that receive incoming goods in mass bulk. These goods are then distributed to stores and other sales destinations by trucks. The first thing a city would have to address is how to make a valid distribution system without automotives doing the last leg. Light rail would be a bit difficult as you'd need a rail way to each and every store loading bay really. Is electric trucks an option (assuming the electricity was produced by something other than coal?).

2 - Purchased goods. I just bought a fridge and stove for my home...how exactly do I get my appliances delivered to my home without a vehicle? I'm decently physically fit and could probably push a cart with it (getting it onto a LRT would be great fun)...but the majority of the population would struggle with it. GO one step further...how do we get the construction equipment (supplies and construction vehicles) to the site of a new home?

3 - Garbage. We got the goods to where they get consumed...now how does the inevitable trash get taken away?

Many modern day cities actually do a fantastic job of keeping this supply chain hidden from the populace...done on off hours or early morning and as seemless as possible. One of those functions that you barely notice happening until it fails and you realize how dependent on these functions we are.

Certain cities are more ready for this than others. Calgary Canada is an amazing sprawling city designed well after the dominance of automotives and the road network is designed to help cover this massive area. Ghent in Belgium saw it's rise in early medieval times and could probably go through with a vehicle ban and have little effected in terms of day to day life...they actually have a three tiered transit system of the train for intercity, railcars for common transit routes in city, and buses to service the outlying routes...most North American cities have two tiers of rail + bus. Remember this policy will have a huge impact to cities designed in medieval times prior to the car as opposed to cities designed well after the cars dominance in personal transportation.

Just one to add as difficulties in this: The rich! Don't underestimate the ability to influence policies with money...if people with money wanted to drive on the streets of a city at the expense of every other persons health, they will. Very few politicians would risk losing their parties funding over something that angers their funding base...if they did political parties that oppose this vehicle ban would suddenly find themselves swimming in cash.


Something would have to be done to address the distribution system. I'm actually not so sure on solutions here...an online order system that drops off your purchases at a distribution point where you come to to pick them up would be a possibility (decentralization of purchasing goods and potential elimination of stores), but even then we are facing the challenge of getting your goods back to your home from there. Whatever the solution, the city would have to implement this prior to a ban...even if the implementation includes a phased approach where personal vehicles are gone first while the distribution network remains until a suitable solution to replace it is found.

Public use cars - I'm not sure if you are aware of the 'car2go' program where smart cars are available for people to use as required and then leave on the street (or drop off point) for the next person to use. It's a potential 'phase out' approach to allow people to move their goods as needed.

Streets become obsolete to some degree...why would a city have roads that are no longer used? I'd imagine emergency vehicle use of roadways would still be required in any event. The freed up land can be re-used for either a transit system or whatever replaces the distribution network. In urban centers, streets become open to all pedestrians to walk. In Suburban areas, urban farming or other such ideas could also be used to cover the freed land as well. I wonder how many homes will suddenly find themselves with a nearly useless attached garage?

I can't imagine any of these changes occuring in less than a decade as a combination of city planning and public consultation (yay bureaucracy) along with construction would be a drawn out process...and scarcity of material may become an issue if all cities attempted this at once. It'd be a massive boom to the manufacturing and construction industries at any rate.

Would car ownership outside of cities be allowed? If I owned a car, but lived where it was not allowed to be, would I have to park it outside of the city and come inside from there? Heh, it'd create an interesting phenomenon of giant parking lots surrounding cities at train stops to take people back and forth from their vehicles to their homes.

Added: There might be a population density rearrange...very light (outside of urban and can use cars) would become far more attractive, or extremely high density (easy to be included in the supply chain) would be cheaper to maintain. It may result in the death of the suburban family white picket fence dream

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    $\begingroup$ Ancient Rome did the same thing of hiding the supply chain. Carts were banned from streets during daylight hours, so at night they would rush around to do the required movements while good citizens were at home. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Nov 18, 2014 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ That's a very cool answer :) $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Nov 18, 2014 at 23:12

Partly this will depend on how enthusiastic the populace and the local governments embrace this change. Is this removing all cars? or removing all vehicles? because there are a LOT of goods that need to go into cities and a lot of waste that needs to leave them.

So if all trucks and cars are banned then transporting goods into and around a city will be a big priority. Neighborhoods will become more insular and self-sufficient, because it will be easier to by things within an easy transporting distance.

However, how long? I suspect that if you had a city that was already used to very good public transportation and were very enthusiastic, it could transform itself fairly well in maybe 10 years. Anything less enthusiastic and it would definitely be longer.

Most cities would try and find ways to mitigate the law, maybe only enforcing it on private autos (keeping public buses etc) and/or allowing electric cars instead for private use. Really large cities would likely do it in stages, convert downtown to a pedestrian mecca, routes for delivery vans, electric el's and subways with good coverage and moving sidewalks etc. Then it would push out, likely to give decent coverage to the poorer areas so workers can still commute (and give the richer areas longer time to own their cars!)

I would guess just getting downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul to be carless would be 15-20 years, since they have terrible public transport and in general everyone believes they deserve their car, so taking it away would be a long process, mostly working by turning over the workforce as they retire and hiring new people with a new attitude.

  • $\begingroup$ If you didn't live or shop within walking distance of a rail depot, your store would get no goods in this scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Nov 18, 2014 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Right no matter what, it's logistics that will be the primary mover and shaker in all decisions where to have stores and where to put new transport hubs. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Nov 18, 2014 at 19:58

I assume that ecological concerns do not prohibit car for personal transportation, but combustion engine (as major source of pollutant CO2 causing global climate change).

It would be almost trivial change and we currently have all technology to replace car for personal transportation - the only thing lacking it the will to do it.

Long-distance transportation will be run by electric trains, on slow lines for local and cargo transport, and separate very fast trains (like China, Japan and France has, going 300 mph) for long-distance transportation. Because train stations will be closer to city center, overland personal transport will not be substantially slower.

Carbon-free electricity can be produced by wind turbines on the prairies, on mountain ranges, and offshore. With smart grid, electricity could be free for users during night, when demand is low. As you know, problem with electricity is not how to produce it, because production has to be equal demand - and demand fluctuates. Main problem to use energy from fluctuating renewables like wind (and solar) is how to store huge amounts of electricity to span production and demand.

Solution is to store electricity decentralized way. Every house will have compressor which will convert free electricity during the night to compressed air, and during the day (when price of electricity can fluctuate according to demand), every house will either postpone consumption (turning off air-conditioning), or even produce electricity and feed it back to the network, earning money.

The last mile (from local train station to shop/home) could be done by cars/trucks powered by compressed air (produced by the same free nightly electricity).

With continent-wide network of compressed air stations, you can drive anywhere, and every hour stop to refill your drink and compressed air. Not much different.

Only difference would be covering routes over oceans - and those could be covered by planes.

So here you have it - world with almost no combustion engines - humming around without a glitch. You don't need to ban cars to prevent ecological catastrophe.

  • $\begingroup$ Wind Turbines are a very poor source of electricity even in places where steady winds actually happen. Prairies aren't one of those places. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Nov 19, 2014 at 22:54
  • $\begingroup$ It is hard to teach old cat new tricks. Wind is excellent source of energy, and prairies are in the epicenter, as you can see from this map: en.openei.org/wiki/Map_of_Wind_Farms $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2014 at 22:59

As noted by others, the supply chain, both commercial and personal, is significantly affected. Stores not near train stops will probably go out of business, and it's not clear how people get deliveries of furniture, appliances, building supplies like concrete, and so on. Property near train stations has just become much more valuable, and those living or owning businesses far from stations without the political or economic pull to get new stations will probably move out.

If people have to move anyway, they might as well move out of the city entirely. They can then drive to city limits and hop a train to work (if they work in the city), and meanwhile they have cars available for their other domestic needs. Park-and-rides at train stations at city outskirts will need to be expanded.

You said this is due to environmental concerns, so there's no immediate reason to ban bicycles. Expect to see more cyclists, which will put pressure on the transit system to accommodate cycles being brought onto trains. This lets people reach destinations that are farther from the stations than they'd want to walk. Cycle-based jitneys ("light taxis", so to speak) would also arise unless regulated against.

People will probably shop for groceries and household goods more frequently and in smaller amounts, because you can no longer easily transport a large cart's worth of canned and dry goods (heavy). I see this happen with friends who live in large cities where cars aren't banned but just aren't as necessary (like NYC). This gives grocery owners more eyeballs on shelves, so to speak. How grocers would take advantage of that is unclear, but assume that advertising and weekly (or daily) specials would take it into account.

You've got to do something about emergency services or cities will be unsafe to live in. People will still have medical emergencies, house fires, and crime to contend with. If you allow emergency vehicles, then response times should improve (no traffic). If you don't allow them, then more people will die or get hurt and crime will likely rise.

So, that's all about the cities that are already in place when this decree is made. New cities will be designed to take the new laws into account. New cities are the exception, though (how many do you see now?), so we should expect not so much a new city design as gradual evolution of existing cities. People will move, commerce will move, and the train stations will become the backbone. How quickly? Mass changes like this are hard, so I would expect a couple decades before most of the dust settles.


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