Over spring break we went to Europe. This was a long-delayed trip, in honor of our son’s request, years ago, to visit a city without cars. There are parts of multiple cities that are car-free, and we have visited some of these (including, on this trip, in Bordeaux and Paris), and there are a few car-free places that are more bucolic (like Mackinac Island in Michigan) but there is only really one city that has (virtually) no cars, and that city is Venice.
Venice is both an easy and a hard city to love. The easy part to love is the beauty and the incredible sense of safety and comfort that comes from being someplace that is truly car-free.
Our kids acclimated almost immediately and after a week, it was an unpleasant shock to step off the water taxi to walk to Marco Polo airport and discover a crosswalk. They were not prepared for passing cars despite our warnings and tried to run across as they would have in Venice proper. Less appealing is that Venice has been loved almost to death. Venice hosts more tourists than it has permanent residents every day of the year, and it is packed with people, all of whom seem to be hauling wheeled suitcases (which are, incidentally, almost totally useless in a city that uses bridges with stairs to allow people cross canals every few meters). What’s more, the city is riddled with tourist traps and it can be a challenge to find services that normal people use, like grocery stores, laundromats, and pharmacies. Also, unlike in the rest of Italy, we ate some of the worst meals of our lives in Venice. We are as guilty of doing touristy things as the next family, of course: we took our first gondola ride while we were there, and it was awesome. I do not dismiss all things touristy out of hand.
I have become kind of obsessed with transportation over the last few years, so I was fascinated by how Venice worked. I took pictures of garbage boats and ambulance boats, and checked all the squares for the water cisterns, which historically were filled by filtered rainwater. You can still see the cache drains, although the cisterns have all been capped off and water is now piped. On the way out, though, sewage still drains right out into the canals, yeeargh. I digress. Goods and people in Venice move primarily by boat. For deliveries, one boat worker ties up the boat at the nearest dock to the destination, and the other grabs a hand truck to make deliveries. The hand trucks have two large wheels and two small wheels, so they can be dragged up steps on one side of each crossing bridge, and bounced back down on the other side, without tipping. I found the whole process fascinating to watch. Sometimes they cut out the middleman: we spotted more than one boat that served as a floating market.
The inability of Venice to handle any auto traffic whatsoever becomes surreal at times. We watched a barge pull up to a construction site carrying two cement trucks, which proceeded to mix and pour cement while tied up to the edge of the canal. It is patently ridiculous to use a truck to mix and pour cement in a car-free city, but this is pretty much the only way we have anymore to make large quantities of cement, so that’s what they did. It was moments like this that made me understand that what it really means to live in a completely car-dependent culture; I realized that certain things cannot be done any other way.
I spent a fair bit of time wondering whether the way that Venice worked could be exported to modern cities, given that is still the only car-free city in the world. And my conclusion was: sort of. One thing that makes Venice wonderful is the complete separation between different modes of transit, and this could and should be done everywhere. It is safe to walk anywhere (assuming you don’t walk right into a canal; this is Europe and governments don’t bother with safety rails) because the only motor traffic is in the water. In lieu of buses people ride the vaporetti, which honestly completely trump both buses and trains for unrelenting coolness. And unless they are on strike, they come every few minutes; it’s not like they’re going to get stuck in traffic. One thing that could never be exported is the relentless use of stairs, which makes the city totally inaccessible to the non-able bodied. The entire city is like Escher’s Relativity lithograph. There were occasional ramps, but only on the largest bridges, because most places there simply isn’t enough room for them. Riding bicycles is completely out of the question. We saw a few kids on scooters, but only those who had parents patient enough to carry them up and down the stairs every 100 steps or so. Strollers are basically nonexistent. Even so, I understand why people dream of living in Venice, despite the mostly-terrible food and the madding crowds and the near-impossibility of washing the clothes our kids threw up on during the plane ride. A car-free city is peaceful, and quiet, and beautiful. Even though the sewers dump right into the canals, the air is clean. We could let the kids run free. It was hard to leave and return to places where we always have to be alert, just to keep from being killed. After just a few hours in Venice it becomes clear that doesn’t have to be that way; we could redesign cities for people. And yet it is.