July 26, 2013

Car-free in a small town: Wengen, Switzerland

It's relatively easy for large cities like Rome to become very livable by declaring a car-free zone: population densities are so high that it pays, on many levels, to have a dense public transportation network that operates frequently and inexpensively. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also easy for very small villages to go car-free: nothing is far away, and everything in the village is easily accessible on foot.

Very few small villages have the gumption to declare themselves completely car free: The entire planet is dotted with tiny hamlets literally embracing some throughway (the "Main Street") where cars and trucks tear through on their way from elsewhere to somewhere else, leaving only exhaust in their wake. Even Transition Town Totnes at the edge of Dartmoor, one of the most progressively green small towns, has so far only declared a single car-free day, in September 2012.

In contrast, many small towns in mountainous Switzerland have the advantage that they have always been hard to reach by car, and a few have an additional economic motivation to remain car-free altogether, peace and quiet being part of their brand. The valley of Lauterbrunnen is dotted with small villages that are completely car-free year round, like Mürren, the ski resort where Sir Arnold Lunn laid out the first competitive slalom course.

On the other side of the valley, the town of Wengen has a permanent population of 1300. It is perched on a ledge on the valley wall, 400m above Lauterbrunnen in the valley floor, and nearly 1000m below Männlichen on the nearest ridge above. You can get there by cog train, by cable car, by hiking or by skiing.

Of course there are roads to Wengen that you can negotiate by private car. But once you get there your car isn't allowed into the village, you have to reserve a parking place for it in one of the municipal lots. Which are not large.

The train from Lauterbrunnen comes to Wengen every half hour. Seats are slightly spartan, but there is plenty of space for skis, snowboards and other gear. And, as in all regular Swiss trains, the windows can be opened, so you can let in the pure mountain air, and take your photos of the beautiful scenery without an intervening wall of glass.

A single track serves both the up and down rail traffic; trains pass each other at the exact halfway point between Lauterbrunnen and Wengen. In fact, I suspect the legendary timeliness of Swiss trains probably evolved from the need for precise coordination of trains at designated passing points. Besides, doing it this way cuts the carbon footprint - and the cost - of the rail infrastructure signficantly.

Everything else comes in over that rail line as well: from restaurant supplies to gravel for maintaining the rail roads and hiking trails. Inside the town, goods are moved on electric pallets, moving swiftly and quietly along the streets. If visitors have so much luggage that they can't manage to walk to their hotel, they can take the town taxi - also electric, of course.

"TAXI - Emission free, environmentally friendly. For the sake of Wengen, for the sake of the environment"

The net effect is that Wengen is a profoundly peaceful place, where you can wake up to the sound of the church bell (always exactly on time), and perhaps the cow bells if it's summer, or the sound of people crunching the snow underfoot in the high season.

Even in Lauterbrunnen (at least away from its main street), most of the time the loudest thing you hear is the Lauterbach, the stream that carries the meltwater from the valley's many waterfalls. In town, all motorised traffic stops for pedestrians even contemplating crossing the road. It all contributes to preserve the atmosphere of peacefulness and deep relaxation for which the region remains so popular. If you look at it that way, keeping motorised traffic to a minimum is a job-generating strategy, and the savvy thing to do.


Shared at Small Footprint Friday.



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  1. Mmm ... you've just described heaven! :-) It's interesting about doing without cars ... when people don't have them, they seem to get along just fine. I spent some time in South America. While cars were allowed in the city I visited, many people (including my hostess) chose not to have one. There were plenty of shops close by and vendors, usually farmer's, were on the streets selling their goods. In the morning, we'd consider meal options and whether or not we needed groceries. If we did, we'd walk and buy only what we could comfortably carry ... usually enough for that one day's meals. It was so pleasant and relaxing. Not thinking about transportation was liberating. Thank you for a wonderful post!

    1. Funny you should mention the car-free routine: our current routine is just like that! Except we bike, and buy only what fits in the bicycle basket. The result is that we eat fresh fruits and vegs every day! - and get away with a very small fridge.

  2. Oh, what a dream it would be to escape to a place like this. Just disappear in the mountains and not have to rely on the non-necessities that we are bound to daily. They just grip us and make us sick.


    As always you give me perspective.

    Thanks for this post!

    1. Hi Lisa, actually I believe that every small town can be made car-free, at least temporarily: say, a car-free Sunday once a month. Wengen is a great inspiration, but we should not _need_ to go there, we can, with enough will, create the Wengen lifestyle for ourselves!

  3. Thanks for highlighting this forward thinking Swiss town, it made for interesting reading! (I also liked your musings on timeliness!).
    Cars take up so much more space than we give them credit for - it's not just our own garages, it's also wider streets (more tarmac), public parking, turning spaces, and of course the suburbs across the world would not have been possible without the road network / infrastructure. Sigh.
    Many British towns have introduced "discouragements" to cars in city and town centres, and (when these are backed up by efficient public transport) they are making a difference. It may be too little too late, but at least it's a step. Wengen has been much more sensible. Thanks CelloMom!

    1. Yes, many European towns have re-claimed the streetscape from car traffic, and thereby become more livable. An increasing number of American communities are taking similar steps. These measures come either earlier or later, but every little bit counts, since when it comes to annual emissions, the last pound of CO2 has a much larger effect than the first.


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