Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars

VAUBAN, Germany — Residents of this upscale community are suburban pioneers, going where few soccer moms or commuting executives have ever gone before: they have given up their cars.

Street parking, driveways and home garages are generally forbidden in this experimental new district on the outskirts of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders.

Vauban’s streets are completely “car-free” — except the main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg runs, and a few streets on one edge of the community.

Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park — large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000, along with a home.

As a result, 70 percent of Vauban’s families do not own cars, and 57 percent sold a car to move here.

“When I had a car I was always tense. I’m much happier this way,” said Heidrun Walter, a media trainer and mother of two, as she walked verdant streets where the swish of bicycles and the chatter of wandering children drown out the occasional distant motor.

Vauban, completed in 2006, is an example of a growing trend in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to separate suburban life from auto use, as a component of a movement called “smart planning.”

To make sure that residents can live in Vauban without a car, it is a "mixed use" community: stores, banks and restaurants are sprinkled along the main street of Vauban, and that street is within walking distance of all homes. In many traditional suburbs, houses are in areas that are purely residential, according to zoning laws. Stores and banks are often distant, requiring a car ride.

For energy efficiency, the houses in Vauban, which was completed in 2006, are all row houses. Freestanding homes, like those in traditional suburbs, consume huge amounts of energy because of their exterior walls. Many houses in Vauban were built to passive house standard, meaning they are so well designed to conserve heat -- through insulation and other innovations -- that they do not need heating systems at all.