It's pickup time at the Vauban kindergarten here at the edge of the Black Forest, but there's not a single minivan waiting for the kids. Instead, a convoy of helmet-donning moms – bicycle trailers in tow – pedal up to the entrance.
Welcome to Germany's best-known environmentally friendly neighborhood and a successful experiment in green urban living. The Vauban development – 2,000 new homes on a former military base 10 minutes by bike from the heart of Freiburg – has put into practice many ideas that were once dismissed as eco-fantasy but which are now moving to the center of public policy.
With gas prices well above $6 per gallon across much of the continent, Vauban is striking a chord in Western Europe as communities encourage people to be less car-dependent. Just this week, Paris unveiled a new electric tram in a bid to reduce urban pollution and traffic congestion.
"Vauban is clearly an offer for families with kids to live without cars," says Jan Scheurer, an Australian researcher who has studied the Vauban model extensively. "It was meant to counter urban sprawl – an offer for families not to move out to the suburbs and give them the same, if better quality of life. And it is very successful."
There are numerous incentives for Vauban's 4,700 residents to live car-free: Carpoolers get free yearly tramway passes, while parking spots – available only in a garage at the neighborhood's edge – go for €17,500 (US$23,000). Forty percent of residents have bought spaces, many just for the benefit of their visiting guests.
As a result, the car-ownership rate in Vauban is only 150 per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 430 per 1,000 inhabitants in Freiburg proper.
In contrast, the US average is 640 household vehicles per 1,000 residents. But some cities – such as Davis, Calif., where 17 percent of residents commute by bike – have pioneered a car-free lifestyle that is similar to Vauban's model.