In Europe, they're a country mile ahead of their American cousins in returning the city to people, in creating pedestrian zones by banishing motor vehicles from their major downtown streets and plazas.

Munich's five-year-old pedestrian system is a prime example. The traffic-free zone along the city's central spine between two medieval gates is lined with stores, churches, restaurants, cafes and civic buildings. It has done more than free the center-city from a glut of car traffic that was destroying the charm and tradition. It has also created a lively area for shopping, street "happenings," eating and drinking - day and night. There are fountains, flowers, freshly laid cobblestones and hundreds of stackable chairs that people can move around as they please and group for special events.

The "Fussgaengerzonen" idea has spread to 350 German cities and towns. Vehicles have also been barred from large swatches of downtown in cities from Stockholm to Bologna, from Amsterdam to Vienna.

The United States has been catching up - less than 80 cities have pedestrian zones. They are mostly in medium-sized cities, rather than the large metropolitan areas most seriously choked with noisy, polluting traffic. There are some exceptions, including the totally traffic-free zones in Honolulu and Louisville and compromise designs, still permitting bus traffic, in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Philadephia. But in almost every other large U.S. city, city fathers have lacked the foresight or political muscle to reclaim big chunks of their downtowns for pedestrians.

The reason is partly our fabled love affair with the auto, but even more critically the opposition of downtown merchants who fear their business will suffer. Yet with rare exceptions, retail business has increased dramatically in traffic-free zones, both in Europe and Americaw.

Dr. Bernhard Winkler, winner of the design competition for Munich's zone, believes merchants benefit so much that they ought to pay the entire cost of a downtown pedestrian mall. European malls have proved such a magnet for retail sales that outlying shopping areas suffered - scarcely the U.S. problem, where suburban shopping centers have enjoyed a huge competitive edge.

In one sense, pedestrian malls are deceptively easy to start and involve rapid, clear benefits. A city can start by experimenting with parttime street closings; if that succeeds, it can proceed step-by-step to a fully designed mall.

As soon as a street is barred to traffic, the roar of engines and honking of horns stop. Decibel levels are cut at least in half. The chance of pedestrians being stuck by vehicles is eliminated. Air pollution drops. Trees and vegetation have a better chance to survive. Historic buildings decay less rapidly. Crime tends to drop with the "safety of numbers." Children can play while parents shop - many malls have mini-playgrounds. For many older people, a pedestrian mall evokes, the world of their youth, when the auto was still in its infancy and city streets and squares - as they had been through most of human history - were still a place for people.

But pedestrian malls can fail - and often do if they're seen as a single-shot solution to a city's problems, improperly designed, attempted without merchant and citizen cooperation or created without thought to a city's traffic flow. "Some malls have simply been built too late," Robert Brambilla notes in a "Handbook for Pedestrian Action" distributed by the National Endowment for the Arts. "If stores and people have already deserted the downtown, adding cars to the list is unlikely to turn the tide."

Among the U.S. malls now rated failures, to greater or lesser degree, are Lake Charles, La., Trenton, N.J., and four in California - Riverside, Pomona, Burbank and Sacramento.

But a common fear about malls - that they would cause monumental parking jams in nearby streets - has simply not been proved true. Adequate public transit and parking opportunities, sometimes with shuttle service to the mall, have proven satisfactory alternatives.

Cities shouldn't launch malls without careful economic revitalization studies, experts say. And it's essential, Winkler notes, to have frequent meetings of all interested parties, including the store owners and street vendors, to assure that no group benefits at the expense of others.

Before the pedestrian zones in Munich and other European cities were implemented, Winkler says, many people believed the traffic experts - given over to traffic or it would had to be given over to traffic or it would die economically. The immense psychological impact of the zones, he says, has been to show citizens their city core need not be devoured by vehicles.

Now the time has come, he says, "to take our positive experience and restrict traffic where it's socially even more important - in residential streets and other areas of the city where people live their daily lives." Some streets can be made dead end, others outfitted with partial barriers that slow vehicles down to the speed of pedestrians. Along secondary shopping streets, vehicles can be banned part of the day.

The goal, Winkler says, should not be to ban the auto in the city, but rather to tame it to human scale.

The evidence from pedestrian zones on two continents is accumulating rapidly. Merchants' opposition, though still strong, is weakening. The energy crisis and intolerable air pollution weaken the hand of the auto, freeway and taxicab lobbies. The light is now flickering at the other end of the long, dark traffic tunnel.