OT Germans find happiness with "auto-free" living

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Germans find happiness with 'auto-free living'


FREIBURG, Germany (March 10, 2000 2:28 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com)

Lunchtime at the Vauban kindergarten, and parents start pulling up to pick up their children. But there's no convoy of mini vans or station wagons, not even a parking lot.

Despite a bitter cold wind, these moms and dads roll to the door on bicycles, helmets on their heads and pant legs wrapped with reflective bands. Their cars aren't in the shop; they're just not welcome in the neighborhood.

The Vauban development - 280 new homes so far on a former military base - is Germany's biggest experiment in "auto-free living." Once dismissed as an "eco-freak" fantasy, the concept is moving off the drawing board and winning real world converts, even in the land of high-speed autobahns and the Volkswagen "people's car."

"I simply like it better," says Ruthild Haage-Rapp as she bundles two fidgeting 2-year-olds, Simon and Maria, into their seats in a green-and-pink trailer attached to her dusty bicycle.

"The children can play in the street," she says. "It's quiet. You can stand by your kitchen window without all the noise from the street. Then the inconvenience is worth it."

Such sentiments seem to be striking a chord across western Europe as centuries-old cities with their narrow, cobblestone streets become more and more congested.

During France's voluntary "day without cars" last September, even government ministers rode bikes or electric scooters to a Cabinet meeting. Italian cities, including eternally congested Rome, have promoted carless days to cut pollution and promote public transportation.

Cities big and small across the continent also have introduced permanent pedestrian zones in their central business districts.

"It's just like nonsmokers seeking smoke-free space," says German lawmaker Franziska Eichstaedt-Bohlig, a Green party housing expert. "People are looking for places where they're not constantly being confronted with cars."

Amsterdam finished the continent's first big auto-free development, with 600 apartments, in 1998. The first Viennese moved into a similar project in the Austrian capital in December, and another should be completed in Edinburgh, Scotland, this summer.

"I don't think Europeans are as much in the grip of 'I am my car,' which is kind of a U.S. phenomenon," says J.H. Crawford, an American author based in Amsterdam and publisher of the Car-Free Times Internet newsletter.

Reasons include high gas prices, better public transportation and simple geography - European cities are "closer together and denser."

But beyond that, Crawford says, "people here are pretty well convinced that we've kind of reached the limits of automobile traffic - and gone beyond perhaps - and would really like to have less of it than more."

Germany looks to be furthest along, with about 20 projects in various stages of development. Such projects face special hurdles because of building codes stemming from Nazi policies that required developers to provide a parking space for each new living unit built.

Vauban solved the problem by building a garage outside the auto-free areas of the development, which covers 94 acres in all. Those who want a parking space pay about $18,000, or about 10 percent of the average cost of an 1,100-square-foot apartment.

Car-free households aren't completely off the hook: They have to contribute $3,500 to a fund that holds a plot of land in trust in case more parking is needed someday. If they later buy a car, the payment will be applied toward a garage space.

"Our goal was not to be so dogmatic - making people promise till the end of their lives never to get a car," says Claudia Nobis, who oversees traffic issues at Vauban. "But whoever doesn't have a car gets a big financial break."

About half the 280 households in Vauban's auto-free district have so far opted to go car-free. Private cars are allowed through for pickups and deliveries, but can't stay. Anyone who violates the parking rules can be ticketed by the city. But the biggest hazards seem to be the jumbles of bicycles outside almost every front door.

Monika Frowis, who lives in the development with her husband and two small children, admits it was an "adjustment" after they got rid of their car four months ago.

But as she buckled her 3-1/2-year old son, Manuel, into the child seat on the back of her bike, she said she has learned to get around with a combination of pedal power, car-sharing, the train and taxis.

Besides helping the environment, there are other advantages, she says.

"One plans a little more, and you don't take on so much," she says. "You do less running around, which is nice."

Haage-Rapp's family isn't ready to make the leap yet. With three kids - ages 2, 7 and 10 - they're hanging on to their minivan for now.

"But we'll probably use it less," she says. "If you have to walk 300 meters (yards) to the garage to get it, it makes you stop and think."

Address for "Carfree Times"


-- viewer (justp@ssing.by), March 10, 2000


This is soooooo German. On the weekend long walks (like miles)in the woods are considered fun and entertainment.


-- NH (new@mindspring.com), March 10, 2000.

Why can't we do something like that in this country? Sounds great to me. And I live wa-a-a-y out in the country. I'll just ride a horse. Forget the bicycle. Oh, but then there's the methane gas thingy.

-- Very (Grateful@still.here), March 11, 2000.

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