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A tale of two car-free islands
31st August 2023
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I’m getting into the soundscapes of different types of destinations. Ghent was all about “busy calmness” and a hubbub, but in the last week I’ve been to the two Greek islands of Hydra and Spetses. Whilst just over a dozen km apart and both car-free, they couldn’t be more different. Hydra was all calm chatter, an occasional distant drone of a ferry or boat and the braying of its donkeys; if this sounds rather idyllic, it was.

Hydra port delivery day

Whilst Spetses is car-free for visitors, this doesn’t extend to mopeds. Did I mention mopeds? Forget calm chatter … Spetses’ soundscape – at least of its town – is the swarming of mechanised mosquitos in the forms of the varieties of 4-stroke over-revved 50cc engines.

They are everywhere – like crossing mosquitos (the sound, the annoyance of knowing one is coming) with ants – trains of farting lawnmowers making life – frankly – miserable for anyone unfortunate enough not to be protected by the invisibility cloak that surrounds each one.

This comparison is sounding unfair. Hydra – permanent population about 2000 – basically has no roads, so there is nowhere for cars – or mopeds – to go. As a visitor destination, it comprises a glorious “town” with a couple of smaller harbours a matter of 1 or 2 km away. The rest of the island is largely uninhabited – save a few isolated houses and small monasteries – so out of the town, the visitor’s options are the island’s paths. There are a small number of water taxis that will take visitors to the less accessible beaches and coves, but that’s about it. People walk pretty much everywhere on the marble-paved quays and alleyways; “freight” (and occasionally the odd person) goes by handcarts or donkeys. In this respect, cars aren’t excluded (unlike Ghent), but irrelevant as there is nowhere for them to go anyway and its scale makes it all walkable.

Spetses is more real. It has about double the population of Hydra, and roads. Well, a road – that circles the island giving access to its many rather gorgeous beaches and coves. Town is a network of narrow roads and alleyways that are wider than those on Hydra, mainly concreted and buzzing with mopeds (did I mention them?). There are a few cars (they aren’t banned as such for local people), a small number of taxis, and somehow a full-sized 52-seater coach circles the island a few times a day, mainly to get visitors to and from beaches.

Visitors aren’t allowed to bring cars to the island, but there are any number of places to rent anything with wheels that isn’t a car – bikes, ebikes, mopeds & quadbikes.

Three of Spetses many moto rental outlets

Observations suggest that the allure to visitors of hair-flying-in-the-breeze (I never saw a helmet) liberty means rental of mopeds & quadbikes far outstrips that of bikes and ebikes. Don’t get me wrong… this probably makes for a great experience – exploring the tracks to the coves without the hassles of linking to the bus timetable; but I’m looking at it from a couple of different perspectives – there’s a blog in the pipeline on what the visitor experience to car-free places feels like.

You may have spotted that I am suggesting that Spetses being car-free does not lead to nirvana. In the sustainable transport and transport decarbonisation world, “car free” is often seen as some sort of gold standard – that a place has found a way to unhook itself from car dependency, and, by implication, is on its way to decarbonisation (?). Maybe it’s semantics, but Spetses shows that the term “car free” probably needs treating with some caution.

I watched how people here use their mopeds and quadbikes.

For Spetses residents, they are clearly a real leveller; everyone uses them, young, old, more wealthy, less wealthy; I never saw a mobility scooter on the island.

Motos on Spetses front

Most use them to get around, but I saw bags of shopping, dogs, a crate of cats (?), unidentified boxes roughly strapped on, a semi-inflated dinghy being carried (I wonder if it was fully inflated before it being scraped against walls?). They clearly lead to very sociable lives – people sharing mopeds (my record sighting was 2 adults, one child (c. 6?), small dog and couple of bags on a single moped); older people – especially elderly women – sharing quadbikes, often stopped and just chatting; and all sorts of people just stopping and chatting to others – because it’s easy to do so (probably related to no-one wearing helmets).

I wondered what modes they replace compared to places of more “normal” transport mixes. They inevitably replace car journeys; indeed, next time I hear someone arguing why they need their SUV to carry their whole family, dog, boxes or inflatable dinghy, maybe I’ll suggest they buy a moped instead. I suspect they also replace a lot of walking; indeed, I stopped counting at three occasions when I saw someone start up their moped, go about 50-100 yards and stop somewhere else. I might be wrong though… Spetses residents look disarmingly healthy, and it can’t all be down to their rather enviable diet.

I suspect moped-dominated places & lifestyles fairly fundamentally change how people think about getting around – it’s a kind-of neighbourhood-scale hypermobility. I also wonder how this relates to users’ carbon emissions compared to some comparative car-possible lifestyle. On like-for-like local journeys, it is probably higher (and smellier), but I also suspect that people’s travel behaviour being so local means the higher carbon medium- & long-distance journeys just don’t figure like in the UK -but there are no data and I therefore haven’t done the maths.

As for space. Replacing all mopeds here with cars just isn’t conceivable as there is just not the space. Looked at the other way, the whole place not being designed around cars needs a bit of a different filter as we are pretty bad at noting what there isn’t to see. There are barely any drives, no large anonymous car parks; roads are tiny and junctions… informal. I haven’t seen a pavement, though sharing roads with mopeds takes a deep breath and keen desire to carry on living.

And what about visitors – as that is what this study is about. Let’s leave how they get here for another day.

Spetses town is dripping with Moped rental – 11 locations according to Google. These often combine various levels of moped/scooter plus quadbikes and occasionally bikes & ebikes; there are also a few bike rental places that all also rent ebikes.

One of Spestses’ bike rental shops

They are all advertised for freedom to explore and rentals are either for a day or for the length of visitors’ stays.

At a popular beach 13km away on the far side of the island, I counted 14 quadbikes, 16 mopeds and 4 pedal bikes. The beach is served by 5 well-used 52-seater coaches per day. There were also two rather dusty cars.

Agia Paraskevi. Clockwise: the beach, its appraoch track and moto parking, the beach bar and 5-times per day bus service

Whilst Spetses town might be hornet’s nest of mopeds, out-of-town the roads are fairly quiet. Returning to what doesn’t exist, the dozen or so really popular beaches just don’t have car parks; there is typically just a track from the main road littered with a few dozen moped & quadbikes and the odd car. It is then a bit of a surprise to see hundreds of people on the beach and in the sea – as the lack of cars would suggest there would be maximum of a few dozen. I find it difficult to think of a really popular beach anywhere in the UK – acknowledging rare exceptions such as the Isles of Scilly – that attracts hundreds of people that doesn’t have a huge car park and congested approach lanes. Which is the better visitor experience and how come the car-free beaches in Spetses pretty much all can sustain a few jobs in their beach cafés?

 

So this car-free thing is getting complicated when looked at in rural visitor areas – and I’ve not even got to the car-free alps destinations on this trip yet. I feel a typology coming on.

It’s clear that there are heaps of benefits, but Spetses has shown that it’s not just as simple as car-free = good. What is already evident is that car-free does not mean visitor-repellent, but probably quite the opposite.

I’m drafting another blog on what’s special and distinctive about the visitor experience of car-free (or is it traffic free?… though I am thinking “visitor-car-excluded” is possibly the best definition) destinations. I’ll leave it until I’ve been to Zermatt, Sass Fee, Murren & Wengen as I’m sure ideas will evolve further.

It’s 11pm. All I can hear is cicadas and voices…

 

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