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Transportation

The Uncanny Power of a City Without Cars

Europe’s largest pedestrian-only urban space is also one of its most fragile. But Venice may hold lessons for other cities struggling to adapt to a changing world.
No parking: Cars are banned from Venice's historic center; after a few days, you might forget they even exist.
No parking: Cars are banned from Venice's historic center; after a few days, you might forget they even exist. John Dudley/CityLab

Like the War Against the Machines that spans the Terminator franchise, the War on Cars that urbanists are supposedly waging is unavoidable, and essentially unresolvable. Battles are won and lost, the hardware changes, but drivers and their pedestrianist foes are fated to forever be at each other’s throats, vying for control of the city streets. Perhaps because it’s a conflict that, like so many others, has become bitterly politicized, it’s hard not to despair of the final outcome.

I recently spent time in Venice, Italy, which was like entering some alternative timeline where this war never happened. Venice’s Centro Storico is Europe’s largest car-free space, a medieval city that somehow managed to make it into the 21st century nearly untouched by internal combustion. And, lemme tell you, it’s weird.