A Car-free City

When I went to Venice, Italy to install an exhibit of my art, I had no idea I would experience a car-free city. With summer tourists, the population of 50,000 swelled to over 200,000. When I arrived, I was stunned and exhilarated to see no cars at all. Boats lazed through the canals, but Venetians mostly walked. Back in America, I usually took long walks every day, so I felt at home.

I stayed in Venice for two weeks, putting up my show, working with a crew of five young women who were getting their Bachelor or Masters degrees in Art and Art History. Luckily, they all spoke English. 

As I walked around Venice, I felt my blood pressure go down. A level of stress I hadn’t known existed seemed to slide off my shoulders. In an American town I’d never realized how much I needed to keep track of nearby cars. From the youngest age, I’d been taught to watch out for men in cars who might try to lure me with candy. At age seven, this actually happened to me and I knew to run away fast. When I grew up, women were taught never to park next to a windowless van whose occupants might grab you and whisk you away. Even when walking on a sidewalk, I subliminally kept track of the cars. 

In Venice, now that I could feel the difference, I realized that being around cars felt like roaming among a large herd of predators. I would be okay if I knew their normal patterns and made sure they weren’t deviating. But I needed to be on alert at all times around both moving and parked vehicles. 

After our usual restaurant dinner in Venice, my two American roommates and I would walk home (a charming Air B n B apartment in a medieval building) through human-scale, well-lit “streets.” If I held out my arms, I could touch the buildings on each side of the “street.” At home, we would call this an “alley” and see it as dangerous. Walking at night, with all my senses on high alert, as usual, I didn’t perceive danger. But I thought I’d better check with the locals. I asked my young Italian female crew if it was safe for a woman to walk at night in Venice. 

“Oh, yes,” each replied with enthusiasm. “In the dark, women are fine in Venice.” 

I felt amazed. In the US, walking at night remained a luxury that I never indulged in. I’d go out on a street after dark with a man at my side, rarely with women and never alone. I inquired further and asked if they would walk alone in Venice at night.

“We would probably be okay, but we always walk with a friend at night, just to be on the safe side,” each one confirmed.

My intuition of feeling safe in Venice in the evening had been correct. Perhaps they knew my brain buzzed with more questions, because they added a cautionary note. “But, just so you know, be more careful if you go to the nearby cities on the mainland, the ones with cars. We do not walk at night, even with friends, in those cities. Those cities are more dangerous for women.”

Fascinated, I enquired, “Do you think it’s because of the cars?”

They hadn’t pondered that exact question, but, as we discussed it, we all concluded that cars probably increased the danger for women in a city. Abusers could make quick get-aways, imagining they wouldn’t be caught after a theft or assault. Luring women into cars for nefarious reasons has always been a common crime. 

Before visiting Venice, I’d never considered whether cars made cities more dangerous for women. In America, with cars rushing by, all the cautions I took around them, even when parked, were an immutable fact of life.

What a blessed relief to stay in a town free of cars. I felt great gratitude to have had such an insightful and gratifying experience.

Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.