I just got back from a trip to Morocco, where I spent a couple days in the city of Fes. Fes is a wild, colorful, ancient city, packed with sights and smells (like the ancient leather tannery, where the strong smell demands holding some mint under your nose). Fes’ medina – the dense city center surrounded by 1,000-year old walls – is also home to around 150,000 people, and is the world’s largest urban area with no cars.
Once you are there, it’s obvious why the Fes medina is car-free: You couldn’t drive on the streets even if you wanted to. They are narrow (most probably no more than 10 feet wide), windy, and paved with uneven cobblestones. Half the alleyways have winding stairs that are tricky even on foot.
I loved Fes, and I think that the absence of cars is part of what makes it a special place. Here are some of the reasons why:
The streets are for people, and people use them: Instead of cars, the windy streets of Fes are filled with food stalls, markets, and vendors, and restaurants and cafes sprawl out onto the street with tables and chairs. The streets are lively, and even the locals enjoy soaking it in, as evidenced by the cafes where old men sit with their chairs facing out toward public life, while they drink mint tea and smoke cigarettes. In general, carless streets seem to encourage everyone to spend less time inside, and to live more of their life in public.
Kids can play in the street: Seeing kids running and playing soccer in the streets of the Fes medina was unsurprising, since it fit in with the city so naturally – but it couldn’t have been further from my own childhood, when the street was a danger zone. Safe streets also mean freedom for parents, who can let kids out on their own without fear of a car speeding around the corner.
Walking around feels safe, in every way: Although I can only speak from a couple days’ experience as a tourist, the streets of Fes didn’t just feel safe from cars (although the occasional rogue motorcycle was another story). With lots of people out and about, there always seemed to be enough eyes on the street to make serious crime feel like a remote possibility, even though I don’t remember seeing a single police officer in the medina.
Everything is close: A city designed for people on foot is a city perfect for a tourist who wants to see everything. Sights, restaurants, markets, and shops were never more than a 15- or 20-minute walk away. That meant no haggling with taxis, and no need to rent a car or even wait for a bus.
There’s no honking: Fes is definitely not a quiet place. The medina is packed with people, and there’s a constant din of market haggling, kids yelling, shopkeepers shouting out to tourists. But I have never been in a place with so many people, so much street life, and not a peep from angry drivers honking their horns. It’s not a peaceful place, but compared to Boston (where horns are a primary mode of communication) the lack of cars provides definite aural relief – and likely health benefits, given the adverse impacts of noise pollution.
Whenever I travel, I love coming home to Boston, my favorite city on earth. But seeing a city without cars makes it clear that decades of policy designed to make driving easier have made Boston and other cities less safe, less livable, and less fun. Visiting a city like Fes feels like traveling back in time, and indeed long ago, before cars, our streets were considered useful public spaces that belonged to everyone. Some of the decisions we’ve made since then we can’t take back – like the late-1950s demolition of the West End, which was one of Boston’s own tight-knit, dense, walkable neighborhoods.
Yet there are still plenty of ways we can bring more life back to our streets. We can lower speed limits, widen sidewalks, and make public life more fun with outdoor seating for cafes. And we can experiment with bolder steps: Last summer, for three days, Boston closed Newbury Street to cars, resulting in thousands of happy people, and even games of ping pong.
We obviously can’t turn our cities into medieval medinas. But what if our streets had fewer cars and more cafes? What if kids could safely play in the street? What if there wasn’t so much damn honking? Imagine how our lives might be better. And we wouldn’t have to travel halfway around the world to experience it.