Two years ago, an average neighborhood in the South Korean city of Suwon embarked on a radical experiment: For one month, the neighborhood suddenly got rid of every car.
Called the Ecomobility Festival, it was created as a way to help the city move much more quickly to a low-carbon future by helping citizens get a visceral sense of how that future could look.
“Usually in planning you do a computer simulation—an artificial picture of the future, and maybe a PowerPoint presentation,” says Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, creative director at The Urban Idea, who helped mastermind the festival. “We’re doing it in a different way: in a real city, with real people, in real time. It’s like a piece of theater where the neighborhood is a stage.”
When planning began, the neighborhood was filled with cars, and people typically drove everywhere, even pulling up on sidewalks to park in front of shops while they ran errands. “Most of the people could not envision how their neighborhood would be car-free,” Otto-Zimmerman says. “They simply said it couldn’t work.”
The planning process took nearly two years and countless meetings to get support from skeptics. Finally, in September of 2013, 1,500 cars were moved out of the neighborhood to parking lots elsewhere in the city. The city handed out 400 temporary bikes and electric scooters to neighbors, and set up a bike school to teach the many residents who didn’t know how to ride. Mail was delivered by electric vehicles. Shuttle buses ran every 15 minutes to take people to their cars.
The neighborhood transformed. Cafes and restaurants added new sidewalk seating, and the streets filled with people. It often looked a lot like car-free streets look during “Sunday Streets” events in other places, but the length of the experiment helped show how people could actually live without cars in everyday life.
“They live it for a month so their daily routines have to adapt,” says Otto-Zimmerman. “If you only have a car-free weekend, many cities do that, this is not exciting anymore. If it’s only a week, people can still reschedule their way to the dentist or whatever they have that week to work around it. It has to be a month in order to hit people’s daily agenda, so they really experience ecomobility in their daily life.”
Though the planners originally considered the idea of switching everything back to normal after the month-long experiment—and then letting citizens push for lasting changes—the city’s mayor decided to add some permanent improvements before the festival, like widening sidewalks on major streets and adding new pocket parks.
“The mayor felt that, if after all this effort, and people changing their lives for a month, there would be nothing remaining, people would think the city doesn’t take it seriously,” Otto-Zimmerman says. “He felt that in order to be credible, he wanted people to see it was the start of a real improvement.”
After the festival ended, the city also gathered residents for a huge meeting to ask for ideas for more permanent changes. The biggest result: The speed limit was cut nearly in half, to about 18 miles per hour. That meant that commuters no longer wanted to use the neighborhood as a shortcut, and traffic started to disappear. Neighbors also decided to eliminate side parking on some major streets—and parking on sidewalks—which helped encourage people to start walking and biking to run errands. Every month, the community also hosts a car-free day.
This fall, Otto-Zimmerman will repeat the experiment in Johannesburg, South Africa, and another city will follow. “It takes an open-minded mayor who likes innovation and provocation, and has a greener vision of a city,” he says. “And someone who has enough influence and supporters to go through the exercise, because it’s in principle controversial.”
It’s also expensive: The project in Suwon cost over $10 million dollars to produce, though much of that budget went to renovating streets that were already in need of repair. Still, it’s not necessarily a simple experiment to produce.
The South Korean experiment was documented in a new book called Neighborhood in Motion: One Month, One Neighborhood, No Cars.