Bicycle City: The town without cars

A bike taxi in South Carolina, home of Bicycle City’s first planned development.–Photo: Smudge 9000

A proposed car-free development for cyclists in South Carolina could change the green housing movement in a big way–if it gets off the ground.

HEADED BY JOE MELLETT, an internet marketer and bike enthusiast from Cincinnati, the Bicycle City project aims to build an eco-friendly community in the Columbia suburbs that would allow residents to get around by using bikes instead of cars.

The concept is modeled in large part after the Swiss municipality of Zermatt, a tourist town at the foot of the Matterhorn that banned combustion-engine vehicles in the 1960s to preserve its air quality. Unlike Zermatt, where electric cars are the norm, all transportation in Bicycle City will be by bike or foot, a first in the US.

In an interview with the Architizer blog, Mellett said the idea for a bikes-only community came to him in 1986, when he and several friends made a 4,200-mile cross-country bike trip to raise money for charity. Mellett began to approach developers shortly thereafter, and by the early 1990s, conceptual work had begun on Bicycle City.

“The National Sporting Goods Association statistics say that cycling is more popular than skiing, tennis, and golf combined,” Mellett told Architizer. “So I figured, if there’s room for hundreds of golf communities [in the US], why not one biking community?”

Image courtesy of Bicycle City.

It may sound Utopian, but after more than 20 years of planning, Bicycle City could be on its way to becoming reality. After raising seed funding, Mellett and his team bought 140 acres of land near Columbia, SC, choosing the location for its network of greenways, proximity to public transportation, and general support for sustainable development.

The developers began building trails and an access road earlier this year, and said that they could begin construction in the next few months.

Going green

Besides being car-free, Bicycle City is planned to be an all-around eco-friendly community. According to the development’s website, Bicycle City will include a modest organic farm for residents. Houses, which will start in the $100,000s, will be built with solar panels and water heaters to optimize energy use.

How many people will pay that amount to live in a carless neighborhood remains to be seen; even the developers admit it isn’t for everyone. Ozzie Nagler, a Harvard-educated architect and community designer with the project, told Charleston City Paper that some homeowners likely couldn’t adapt to the bikes-only concept.

“Some people simply won’t embrace not having their car next to their home,” he said. Over 1,500 people have signed up to receive further information on Bicycle City, and the developers have recently begun taking reservations from potential buyers.

If the first Bicycle City succeeds, Mellett plans to license the concept to developers around the globe, on the condition that they adhere to criteria of sustainability and housing standards. Eventually, the project hopes to build Bicycle City-style developments around the world, connecting them via a system of greenways and trails for completely car-free travel. While it may be a while before Bicycle City goes international, the team already has a list of potential locations in countries on six different continents.

Community Connection

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  • Monica Prelle


  • Julie

    Woot for my home state! Incredible to believe, really, as it’s a car-dependent state if ever there was one. Hope to see this become a reality.

  • Nate

    This is awesome but it seems too strict or obsessive even.

    I think that it would be cool if people were just given tax credits for biking to work everyday or using their car less and less. Government officials could come by and check the mileage indicators on cars just like workers check the meters on power boxes outside of homes.

  • Al

    Wow! I have to say that my naive euro-centric mind is impressed this has been taken up in the US, where I always thought the automobile was king. It does sound Utopian though, and maybe its the cynic in me but I think this would only appeal to a very small proprtion of the population.

    Perhaps it would be better to fund schemes aimed at increasing cycling uptake amongst children or non-cyclists. Look to widen participation amongst the general population in order to reap the social benefits attached to cycling, and thereby broaden the pro-cycling lobby, improve infrastructure etc…

  • g

    Hey, right here in my hometown. Weird. VERY weird.

    Columbia, SC is so not the right place for this. It’s an extremely wingnutty place. Not at all progressive. Not to mention as hot and humid as some tropical version of hell. I mean, the city slogan is “Famously hot!” fer Christ sake.

    I don’t like this idea. Progressives should move to North Carolina. For NC to go blue is very nearly a real possibility. SC will never go blue, and will frustrate the hell out of any progressive person who moves here. Trust me on this, if you care about progressive issues, stay the hell away. For the sake of your mental health, you don’t want to live in Columbia, SC.

    • KC

      Wow…and you, sir, seem to fit the bill perfectly. “I don’t like this idea.” That sounds about as progressive as my grandmother. Please learn to embrace the wonderful nature of SC…a veritable two-headed beast. Love the liberal, artsy downtown areas and respect the beautiful, culturally rich country side. Admittedly, Columbia does have its share of closed-minded morons, but, really, what city in America doesn’t? The only thing more detrimental to Columbia’s progressive revolution than a counrty bumkin or one of our famous bible thumping politicians is another jaded snob telling the whole world to “stay the hell away”. Hiding under the guise of liberalism, you are but another in a long line of fearmongers. Please do us the favor of taking your own advice and moving. I tire of pompous bores like you forcing me into a strict modes of thinking and then labeling everything in that narrow field of vision as ‘liberating’ or ‘progressive’. And I fail to understand the cause of this undo stereotyping of Columbia by you and the prejudiced nation at large. Did you get picked on in high school here for being gay or something? Guess what? That will happen anywhere! Grow up, get over it and try and contribute some actual progressive ideas to our blossoming city. That’s what Bike City is about and I LOVE this idea!

  • Samantha32

    Anyone interested in a city without cars should check out Mackinac Island, Michigan. Although it is not set up in the same way (ie: commitment to green living), there are no vehicles on the island, the only modes of transportation are bicycle, foot & horse.

  • Dhaval Mehta

    I wish I could bike everywhere here in Bombay (Mumbai). The trouble is that people use bicycling here all the time and it’s just not an enjoyable green activity.

    Instead it’s just your face is full of pollutants and chances of getting run over are very high.

    There are places in India where you can go to enjoy a nice bicycle ride, but Mumbai is definitely not one of them.

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  • Paulo

    San Francisco, we could have been the bicycle city but our business leaders and thier politcal lackeys have made it clear: You’ll take my steering wheel when you pry it from my cold dead fingers!”

  • Annie Johnson

    I don’t think it is too restrictive; in fact, I’ve been following this development since 2007 and I’d love to see it take on more steam to get going so I can move there. What is wrong with appealing to a small niche of people if there are enough people that agree to live a certain way (green & sustainable) to keep it sustainable and running? I’m tired of fighting to bike on big roads where cars never see you until they whiz past you at 50 mph. I’m ready for small roads that accommodate bikes & pedestrians in their own “lanes”.