Traffic edges into car-free zone; Experiment: An attempt to create a community without vehicles in Germany runs into practical problems, but residents do enjoy such benefits as reduced noise and a chance for children to play in front of their homes.


FREIBURG, Germany - When French troops abandoned a riverside base here in 1994, ecology activists envisioned a solar-powered utopia sprouting where the war machine had been, with kids tumbling in leafy courtyards without risk of getting run over, and bike stands supplanting driveways in blissful tribute to a life without cars.

But most of the starry-eyed initiators of the Vauban auto-free community have come to realize that life moves too fast to keep pace without occasional aid from the internal-combustion engine.

In a land where environmental concern often collides with a love of fast cars and an absence of speed limits, a truly auto-free lifestyle is just the latest piece of road kill.

In this Freiburg suburb, where Germany's most advanced experiment in green living has been gradually scaled back to an "auto-reduced" community, idealism is being defeated by the demands of work, after-school activities, social life and shopping.

Half the households in Vauban now have high-priced private parking spaces, and many other new homeowners in the enclave keep cars hidden in nearby lots or parked on adjacent public streets on the sly - much to the dismay of the project's outnumbered initiators.

Because Vauban was developed in collaboration with city authorities, using federal aid for environmentally friendly projects, home buyers who pledged allegiance to auto-free living received priority for the bargain-priced building lots. Some promised to dispense with driving just to get into the neighborhood, while others simply underestimated their four-wheeled dependence.

"It's heaven for the children but quite impractical for the adults," Sabine Steffan, a partner in a car-sharing group, says as she watches her 2-year-old son, Federico, gamboling along a street that is little wider than most sidewalks and supposedly off-limits for parking.

Off-limits, that is, except for the construction workers' trucks and delivery vans serving a neighborhood that got its first new inhabitants two years ago and will remain a massive building site until 2006.

Off-limits except for the ubiquitous movers and installers settling in newcomers to the first 290 homes of a community that will eventually house 5,000 in a social strata-crossing mix of townhouses, student dormitories and apartments.

Off-limits except for the requisite offloading of groceries, strollers and children before shuttling the car back to the solar garage at the commune's entrance, nearly a mile from some of the homes.

"What really stinks is when you have visitors - they have to pay to park in the garage on a 24-hour basis, and that can really run into money," says Peter Kaltenbach, a trade-school teacher who, like most Vauban residents, owns a car but cannot keep it at his doorstep.

Government investment in energy-efficient technologies and public transport brought the price of property in Vauban down to barely half that of other land close to the city center, says Freiburg Mayor Matthias Schmelas.

Those who want a parking place with their homes - the first compromise retrofitted into the project, ostensibly to accommodate car-sharing - have to pay $17,000 on top of the subsidized land costs and the price of the house or apartment being built to strict design limits.

Half the homes are in condominium-like clusters with carports at ground level, while the rest have no driveways or parking along their narrow access roads. Those such as Kaltenbach who bought homes in the no-parking sector paid the $17,000 to use two lots on the settlement's perimeter.

Vauban is a classic case of experimental living, with the first 1,500 residents - a third of them students - working through the kinks of an urban-development experimental project.

Leftist leadership under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has given a boost to such experiments in ecological living in a half-dozen communities across Germany, including projects now under construction in Muenster, Hamburg, Cologne and Munich that offer residents an array of options for getting around without personal cars. But, as with Vauban, the more recently launched housing developments are finding more demand for auto-reduced living than for a lifestyle that is truly auto-free.

"These settlements are all too new to draw conclusions about their viability, but what we can see is that the concept of an auto-reduced neighborhood is an attractive new option on the housing market," says Ulrike Reutter, deputy chief of transportation at the Institute for City and State Development in Dortmund. "As with child-friendly zones or housing with special access needs, there should be places for people who don't have cars and want to feel the advantages of that, like less noise and being able to let kids play in the street."

Vauban was acquired by the city of Freiburg after NATO forces withdrew six years ago. Barracks were razed, land was cleaned and graded, and a team of city and community leaders concocted plans for an energy-efficient, nonpolluting, family-friendly complex.

"In the beginning, the enthusiasts who founded this project wanted a place that had no cars at all. But a couple of other places in Europe have already tried that, and the idea always falls apart," says Fabian Sprenger, once among the self-styled "alternativen" who pushed for the old military base to become an auto-free zone. "Long-term, people just can't get by without some access to a car."

Sprenger concedes that the evolution of the project from "ecotopia" to what is now simply a few roads less traveled has left some bad feelings, especially among the idea's originators who have staked out their own space in the heart of Vauban.

A dozen railroad cars, buses, minivans and a hearse have been converted into homes and circled in an encampment known as SUSI, the German acronym for Self-Sufficient Independent Settlement Initiative. A protest against the majority's defection from the project's ideals, SUSI's few residents are squatters among what they see as fair-weather friends of nature.

For the majority of Vauban residents, the compromises detract little from the greater goal of minimized driving.

"I still like the idea of auto-free living," insists student Jeanne von Seld, 22, who has a 28-year-old Volkswagen she leaves on the community's outskirts. "There are good bus connections, and I love to ride my bike, but my parents live an hour from here, and I need the car to go see them."

Roland Veith, the project's city liaison since its inception six years ago, acknowledges that Vauban's prized location and bargain pricing are likely bigger reasons for the overabundance of would-be buyers than the concept of auto-free living.

Project developers received three times more applications for the fixed-price building lots than they could satisfy, and a home in Vauban has become more attractive as restrictions on vehicle use have been scaled back.

"It's been my experience that no project ever goes as expected," says Veith, an urban planner. "The fundamentals here are correct, but you have to see how it develops and make adjustments."

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