Publisher’s Column: Tour of Europe Showcases the Benefit of Eliminating the Automobile in Town Areas

Public park on the shore of the Gilão River estuary in Tavira, Portugal. Imagine something like this at the head of Little Tub Harbour in Tobermory...

Wanda and I are doing a six-week romp through Europe. One of our motivations was to see how tourism looks in other places, especially those places where overcrowding happens.
We just spent three days in Barcelona, where over-tourism at the iconic La Rambla is a high-profile issue. Soon we will go to Venice, the poster child for over-tourism. More on that next issue.
Another motivation was to see places that were built before the invention of the automobile — to get some sense of what life was like in past centuries and to see how those towns and cities work today. Tourism guru Roger Brooks says North America can learn a lot from the towns and cities of Europe.

Typical commercial “street” in the old quarter of Seville, Spain. Somehow the lack of vehicular traffic has failed to bankrupt the thousands of businesses in old Seville.

We spent two weeks on Portugal’s Algarve coast, walking around villages that have been occupied for millennia.
But we have seen many other stimulating things. Travel guru Rick Steves tells travellers that when he visits Catholic or Islamic places, he has to “leave his Protestant sword at the door”. We are finding that this principle cuts much more broadly. You have to try to see everything — cities, countryside, infrastructure — from the perspective of those who built them and those who live in them now.
We spent our first ten days in a beachfront hotel in Vilamoura, Portugal. Vilamoura reminded us of Collingwood in some ways and also of Myrtle Beach and many places in Florida. It is a recently developed recreational community, planned in the age of the automobile. There are restaurants, retail and a bunch of hotels in the prime spots around the marina and along the shore. Further back you find new, affluent apartments, condos and various kinds of short-term rentals, built with wide avenues and lots of parking.
Adjacent to Vilamoura is the ancient town/city of Quarteira. It has the same population as Owen Sound but the similarities end there. Quarteira dates back to Roman (or possibly Phoenician) times, with a sheltered fishing harbour and miles of beach. The city is very compact, with two-to-seven storey buildings of irregular shape in a warren of narrow, winding streets and lanes. There is very little parking and no open space except the squares and turning circles.
There are a few public “squares” (shape varies wildly) with trees, grass, benches and statues. Often these are in the middle of turning circles. (Those “new inventions” that have sprung up recently in Ontario are everywhere in Portugal and Spain. Not sure whether they predate the automobile.)
We discovered the same layout in the older sections of villages and cities: narrow, winding lanes between walls. In villages the walls will be one- or two-storey buildings or a two to three metre wall around a yard; in old cities the lanes are flanked by four- to seven-storey buildings, but it is always walls, never fences.
“Driveways” are not particularly common and are mostly double doors or overhead doors. They aren’t very wide — most cars in Portugal and Spain are Fiat 500/Toyota Echo size — a Camry looks like a limo.
But most of the traffic in the villages and cities of Portugal and Spain is not vehicles.

The Roman Bridge, a pedestrian bridge spanning 100M over the Gilão River estuary, has joined the two halves of Tavira for nearly 2,000 years. There are many alcoves/balconies on the bridge which are often used by buskers, beggars, mimes and living statues.

In Portugal, pedestrian and bicycle traffic exceeds motorized traffic and scooters outnumber cars. Towns and villages are well-served by trains and buses. The ratio of pedestrians to parked cars is very high.
After Vilamoura we took a train 60km up the coast to Tavira, where we stayed at a renovated medieval convent, inside the walls of the ancient Moorish hilltop fort. The town changed very little to accommodate the automobile — cars go where they can; if you don’t want cars, you put a post in the middle of the lane. Motorscooters often dodge around the posts.
The river/harbour/estuary at Tavira is about as wide and as long as Big Tub Harbour but has been a commercial harbour for 2,500 years. The town straddles the harbour. “The Roman Bridge” is the main connection between the two sides. It has been rebuilt several times, but it has connected the two halves of Tavira for nearly 2,000 years, through the Roman Empire, the Moorish Caliphate, the medieval Catholic Kingdom, the great age of the explorers (Google Henry the Navigator) and the turmoil of the 19th and 20th centuries.
What’s my point?
Tavira was a gorgeous place to live for 2,500 years before the automobile was invented. It hasn’t changed much. It’s still gorgeous but you get around on foot/bicycle/scooter/bus. None of the best places are reserved for parking.
And that doesn’t stop people from getting to Tavira — for a day, a week, a month or their whole lives — and having a wonderful time. It just means they can’t park at the best places.
People have been admiring the view from the Roman Bridge for nearly 2,000 years. Parking has never been an issue because everything was in place before there were cars. People have always found a way to get there.
It’s probably the same on the Bruce Peninsula. If people can’t park right beside something they will still find a way to get there (the Grotto for instance). If we took away the parking on Moore St or at the head of Little Tub, there would be incessant whining for a couple of years — the memory of lost entitlement takes a while to fade — but the improvement to the experience would be immediate.
It’s a treat to watch the cars go through downtown Tavira — they get to see how gorgeous it is but they have to keep moving because there is no parking available. So they drive on, find a place to park and come back. It already works that way at Lion’s Head beach. I’m pretty sure it would work at Little Tub.
I am delighted to hear that a group has formed to lobby for better pedestrian experience in Tobermory. I look forward to hearing what they can accomplish.

Typical residential “street” in the older part of Tavira, Portugal.