Cities Aren't Loud, Cars Are Loud
Zagreb, Croatia edition
Last year, my wife and I went to Croatia for vacation. I think about that trip a lot, and I wrote a lot about it—on trying and failing to operate a car in one of the old cities; on church bells; on a fascinating, lovely home-based restaurant; on a thought-provoking steakhouse dinner; on how great a well-designed expressway can be; on the roadside development pattern, which feels like a throwback to America’s early roadside; and on an abandoned communist-era gas station. I have a few more ideas.
But thanks to a relatively new Substack feature allowing the direct embedding of videos in articles, this is the first piece I’m doing with video clips of what a car-free or “car-lite” city looks and sounds like.
The first time I saw this slogan-like phrase on Twitter—“cities aren’t loud, cars are loud”—I thought it was a little silly. Come on, you can’t reduce everything you don’t like to cars. It sounds a little like a schtick, and it’s kind of a meme. That was my reaction.
But it’s one of those insights that grows on you. Kind of like this, which you’ll see every winter from urbanists and pedestrian advocates:
I mean, not completely. But there really is a sense of silence and peacefulness on snow days that is largely due to the absence of motor traffic. Again, the fact that these insights are presented on Twitter and packaged in a sort of snarky and hectoring way originally made me think there was nothing to them.
But this is one of those things I think of as urbanist consciousness or urbanist perception—I would never, ever notice this purely on my own, without that consciousness, because cars and the noise they produce are ubiquitous but almost invisible, a fixed part of the backdrop of everyday life. Yet once I see it, I can’t un-see it (or un-hear it).
Which brings me to Zagreb. Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, the country’s largest city by population, and also the only city where I took video clips. It has a lot of old-city streets that are either car-free or see very minimal motor traffic; places where you’re allowed to bring a car, but where there’s really no reason to. That makes possible things like this: a little Catholic chapel built into a bend in a street, with bollards at each end to make a car-free zone. Again, in the middle of a city street!
Zagreb also has a pretty extensive streetcar system, or trams as they’re more commonly called in Europe. Man are they cool vehicles. They’re quieter than buses and ride more smoothly, but they don’t impose too heavily on the street. They don’t always have their own right of way, but there are portions of the routes that are dedicated.
But the quietness. Buses beep and screech and squeal; the streetcars just quietly rumble along until they come to a pretty smooth stop. It’s like seeing and hearing the heartbeat of a city. A hum, not a din.
Zagreb overall is pretty quiet for a capital city of over 700,000 people (though many of those people live in less traditionally urban areas, in communist-era apartment buildings out at the edges of the old city). But it isn’t empty or dead-feeling; far from it.
I think back to when I was a kid, and we’d day-trip into Manhattan and Philadelphia fairly often. I can still remember the feeling of my hair standing on end when buses or taxicabs screeched to a halt. That noise set me on edge, and still does. I always sort of disliked big cities, but I realize now that quite a bit of my discomfort really had to do with the honking horns and the noise of the motor traffic. Not having the language or perception to see that in isolation, I instead defaulted to thinking it was crowds or big cities I didn’t like.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I really do wonder how many Americans only think they dislike cities or density, because they’ve never seen a city full of people but with very few cars. If this is true, then the opposite might also be true: many people who think they like suburbia because it lacks people actually like it because it’s quieter (at least its residential neighborhoods). And it’s quieter because it doesn’t have the same volume of traffic.
In other words, we have so much trouble imagining reduced reliance on cars that we end up thinking it’s people we don’t like. Think about those Zillow listings that mention a “cul-de-sac location with very little traffic.” They almost get it.
But the videos. I shot a bunch of brief videos of various streets in Zagreb, mostly with a lot of people around, a few with streetcars rolling by, to show you what a crowded, car-free streetscape can be (and in the couple that do have car traffic, it only highlights the contrasts). Check out a few of them below.
And a single car:
This is, in effect, something I would not have thought was possible if I had not “become an urbanist,” by which I mean become interested in thinking much more deeply about why our everyday built environment seems so dismal and dysfunctional. And you realize that the car exerts a sort of anti-social force on everything. But you also see that it doesn’t have to be like this.
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