SUWON, South Korea—This bustling city of 1 million is best known as the home of Samsung, the global titan of flat-screen TVs and smartphones. But two years ago, Suwon also became briefly famous among the world’s transportation planners for its temporary experiment with ditching cars.
For a month in 2013, the 4,300 residents of a historic neighborhood called Haenggung-dong left their cars parked in vacant lots elsewhere. Instead of driving to get around, they took buses, walked or rode bicycles. They also gave new models of e-bikes, Segways, and pedicabs a ride.
It was all part of an event called the EcoMobility World Festival. As 500 urban experts from around the world gathered in Suwon to share strategies for giving city streets back to people, the residents of Haenggung-dong lived out a version of this utopia. Kids played in streets once clogged with traffic. The area’s many elderly and disabled residents had no trouble crossing intersections. People walked. And they talked to each other, rather than blaring their car horns.
As a journalist there to cover the event, I strolled these streets too. It was impressive to see how the residents embraced the change and adapted their routines and commutes to car-free circumstances. (I also came away from the event inspired to learn how to bike—I never made it past riding with training wheels as a child.)
Now, a second Ecomobility Festival is taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The central business district of Sandton, which normally sees 80,000 autos pass through a day, has closed some roads and restricted traffic on others for the month of October. With less fanfare, cities from Oslo to Madrid to Mexico City also have been remaking individual streets and sometimes entire districts to prioritize walking, bicycling and public transit over automobiles.
The kickoff of the Johannesburg event made me wonder how things turned out in Suwon. Had one month without cars produced any lasting changes? A few weeks ago, I went back to Suwon to talk with residents and the city’s dynamic mayor, and to see for myself.
A month without cars
Suwon is situated less than an hour from Seoul. In contrast to Seoul’s glass skyscrapers and busy highways, the Haenggung-dong neighborhood is filled with a mix of low-rise commercial and residential buildings of two or three stories. The area is surrounded by the ancient walls of the Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and feels very much like a historic Korean village. About half of the population is elderly.
Mayor Yeom Tae-young was a key proponent of the plan to close the neighborhood to cars. An environmentalist-turned politician elected mayor in 2010, Yeom had proclaimed Suwon's intention to be South Korea’s “eco-capital.” He set a goal to cut the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent by 2030—about double the national target. (Read Citiscope’s interview with Mayor Yeom here.)
Yeom teamed up with ICLEI, a worldwide association of local governments concerned with sustainability, and the idea turned into a global event. ICLEI coined the term “ecomobility,” which it defines as “travel through integrated, socially inclusive, and environmentally friendly options, namely walking, cycling, wheeling, and public transport.”
Suwon city government invested $10.5 million USD in the endeavor. In addition to hosting the festival itself, the money was spent on infrastructure improvements such as widening sidewalks, introducing traffic-calming curves into roadways, and burying utility cables underground. Vacant lots were turned into pocket gardens. The city even provided biking lessons to residents of Haenggung-dong.
Some of the money was spent on renovating façades of worn-out buildings—all those people strolling in the streets would need something nice to look at. The building facelifts required some ground-floor businesses to close for four months. Many owners complained about this, but Yeom says it was it was essential. “We wanted the community to know this is not a one-time project that ends after the festival,” he says. “This is a long-term project meant to revitalize the neighborhood.”
Many residents weren’t crazy about the idea of giving up their cars. The city government held a series of consultation meetings and surveys for all 4,300 residents of Haenggung-dong to address community concerns in the planning stage, says Ki No Heon, a transportation policy manager for the city. The city also opened a 24/7 call center to handle citizen inquiries during the project's planning stage.
Some concerns were answered by loosening the restriction on cars to allow for deliveries to businesses and for the use of those who have physical impairments that prevent them from walking or cycling. Still, a retrospective book on the festival by Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, ICLEI's secretary general at the time of the festival, notes that some residents criticized the planning as top-down and “not sufficiently transparent.”
Returning to Suwon
Two years later, the festival atmosphere in the streets of Haenggung-dong is gone but the sidewalks are still busy with pedestrians. Cars have made a noticeable return, although residents say there are fewer of them and drivers go slower. Walking the streets myself, I noticed that traffic here was much less busy than on some of the clogged streets just outside the car-free zone of 2013.
Shutting the streets entirely to cars seems unlikely anytime soon—Mayor Yeom says that goal will have to wait three or four years. But residents have begun requesting incremental changes that nudge Haenggung-dong in that direction.
For example, community members fought for and won a city ordinance that limits car speeds to 30 kph in the neighborhood’s streets. (National law does not allow for speed limits lower than that.) The community also has begun holding car-free Saturdays once a month on Gongbang Street, one of the busiest streets in the neighborhood, lined with restaurants and art shops. Hwang Yeong, a 51-year old community leader who initiated the car-free Saturdays, says it’s a “small step” toward reviving the experience of the month-long festival two years ago.
“I have spent 50 years of my life here and I remember, growing up as a kid, how the streets were part of my childhood until cars sped through the streets,” Hwang says. “Today, during the car-free Saturdays you see kids on scooters and not afraid of going around.” Next year, Hwang’s group—in partnership with the city government—will hold the car-free Saturdays twice a month. He hopes to make it weekly by 2018.
Real estate in the area has appreciated in value. Immediately after the festival, 17 new home-based shops opened and made the area a thriving food hub, says Park Yeonhee, ICLEI director in Suwon.
One businessperson who has noticed the difference is Cho Ehwa, owner of a traditional Korean restaurant along Hwaseomun Street. Cho says it was financially painful to close shop for the façade renovations, but business took off during the festival and hasn’t slowed since. Before, she served about 200 customers in a typical day; now that is up to 250 and can reach 300 customers on a good day.
“I thought when we removed cars, there would be fewer customers,” recalls Cho. “Actually, more people came into the shops as more people walked in the streets.”
As I spoke with her, Cho pointed to a car in front of her restaurant. “A parked car along the street takes up too much space that could have been used by pedestrians,” she says. “The car blocks the street view of my restaurant patrons, which is part of the experience for al fresco diners.” A number of restaurants have taken advantage of wider sidewalks to add tables and chairs for outdoor eating.
Cho and others pointed to a social benefit of the festival and the car-free Saturdays that followed. As ICLEI’s Park says, when more citizens walk, they engage in simple chit-chat that quietly builds community. “Walking connects people in the cities and helps build the social capital essential to resilient communities,” says Park.
Local artists Lee Kyung Ah and Roh Yongnah lived just a few houses away from each other but never met until the festival. Since then, they have became good friends and collaborators on continuing projects that showcase local talent and connect old and young residents through exhibits of post-war photos taken in Suwon. “Today, we now have a local network of artists who can collaborate together more efficiently for projects, unlike before when we knew nothing concerning our neighbors,” says Lee.
Suwon has continued a major push around biking since the festival. City government is purchasing 6,000 new bicycles for public rental. The bikes will come with high-tech chipsets that will automatically compute the rental fee based on distance and enable customers to pay by tapping a contactless payment card on the bike.
On any typical day, a public square known as Hwaseong Plaza is filled with families teaching kids how to bike. One afternoon, the sight of young kids biking inspired me to give it a try. I rented a bike from a shop that charges less than a dollar for an hour. The owner also offers tips to inexperienced riders like me. After 30 minutes of trial and error, I was able to stay balanced and do a few loops in the plaza.
A national model
Today, Suwon is looking to expand sidewalks and traffic calming to more parts of the city. The National Assembly is now looking to Suwon for lessons on how to replicate its model to other parts of South Korea as part of a plan to decarbonize the economy. Leaders from other countries also regularly visit Suwon to see the project site and and learn about the lessons they can apply in their local context back home.
Yeom tells them Suwon’s experience is a continuing process of trying new ideas and assessing the community’s readiness to adapt to change. Despite a successful month without cars, Yeom says Suwon isn’t ready to impose a permanent car-free status anywhere in the city. That would be tantamount to banning car ownership for some people. Instead of using force, Suwon is keen on tempting drivers out of their cars by providing residents better and greener transportation alternatives.
While a car is traditionally a symbol of wealth, Yeom says that today’s era of climate change and dwindling fossil-fuel resources requires new thinking that seeks to balance growth and sustainability, especially in cities.
“Mobility is a basic human right,” Yeom says. “As urban populations continue to grow, we cannot rely on the business-as-usual scenario of car-based cities.”
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.