World Car Free Day on 22 September was suggested at an Accessible Cities conference in 1994, then was published globally by the World Car Free Network in 2000 and has been kept going by organisations and municipalities ever since. It can’t be a United Nations Day such as UN World No Tobacco Day as, unlike tobacco, cars can be beneficial despite the fact that individual use has led to a collective problem.
A taste of the car-free good life
Wherever it’s done, some hours without moving cars temporarily allows the air to clear and cuts a proportion of carbon emissions, injuries and deaths. But the real benefit the organisers is a taste of the good life for residents and subsequently a vote for more of it. Ideally, they vote for laws and customs which have goods delivered with small electric vehicles from consolidation centres on the edge of town; which make it pleasant and quick to walk from home to the nearest high street to catch the bus; make it safe for anyone to cycle; make it easy and cheap to hire a car on the rare occasions it is needed.
Fewer cars parked make it possible to free up a quarter to half of your street’s width, so the lane can be used for swift bus services and cycling – or for play, benches, communal bins, cycle storage and trees. An inspiring Car Free Day experience might just motivate us to make those changes. So, the places we come from and go to are nice and not taken over by the very means of our coming and going.
Car free Pontevedra leads the way in Europe
Not that you’ll find it everywhere – and not much in East Sussex. But look out for Kidical Mass in Eastbourne and Bespoke and other cycle groups’ events. Certainly, Hastings Urban Bikes’ home town has no plans to close streets…but there may be a bike ride. For the full experience of a magical spell of life on acres of tarmac where you can safely cycle and skate, stroll and run, hangout and play till cars come to push you off again, you need to be in a city, town or neighbourhood where motor traffic is completely stopped.
London is giving grants to residents to turn their streets into play-streets for the weekend. Paris ignores World Car Free Day but closes its central four arrondissements to motorised vehicles on the first Sunday of every month because, even though there are 430 miles of new cycle lanes and the riverside motorways have been turned back into parks, they still have cars breaking the calm.
Pontevedra in Spain has been utterly car free since 1999. Its mayor found himself presiding over a car filled, crime blighted, struggling town and, together with his residents, decreed they go car free. It is, of course, now beautiful and thriving. The challenge remains to spread those benefits to the town’s industrial and suburban outskirts. As it remains also for Paris to green the peripherique ring road and connect the people of the banlieue suburbs, without the need for cars.
Car free days in Lagos, Bogota and Jakarta
But the more pressing need for decent public transport over the private car can be seen in the cities and towns of Africa and South East Asia, which suffer far higher ratios of road deaths as they struggle or utterly fail to keep up with building roundabouts, safety barriers and traffic law enforcement. The cars there are more likely to be the western world’s ageing and polluting third-hand cast offs rather than the super safe and clean burning models to be found in Europe.
Lagos is said to be the worst in the world for edge to edge, bumper to bumper, hours wasted, toxic fumed, road dysfunction. They had their first World Car Free Day last year and many valiant citizens’ walking and cycling groups are campaigning for more.
Bogotá and Jakarta have a car free day every week. Every Sunday morning walkers and cyclists throng along Jakarta’s main avenues and in Bogotá one and a half million walkers, cyclists and roller skaters come out to be as free as birds over 75 miles of carless city roads.
Excellent public transport is the key
Towns and cities which allow people, of all ages and wealth, to mingle, travel, hang out and hear the same bird song are the sort of places you go to for a holiday – Venice or Vienna, Central Paris or London’s South Bank, Pontevedra or St. Ives. How good would it be to live in such a place always. Public transport is the key and takes determined organising. If it’s to be affordable, up-to-standard mass transport mostly has to travel on existing roads free of space-hogging passenger cars – as, these days, in Bogotá.
Will people find it a fair exchange – to walk a bit from work or home, to wait a bit for a good clean bus and then share the ride with others through green, safe, bustling towns instead of travelling door to door in a car of any sort? Shops within walking distance would get more custom and get better. Children could walk or cycle to school. Retired people could step out, sit on a bench and watch the world go by…
Happy World Car Free Day!
The United Nations have plenty of named days aiming at the same problem:
- 15 May – UN Global Road Safety Week (biennial) [WHO]
- 3 June – World Bicycle Day (A/RES/72/272) adopted 2022
- 19 November – World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims (A/RES/60/5)
- 26 November – World Sustainable Transport Day (A/RES/77/286) 2023
And days whose causes would be helped by going car free:
- 7 September – International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies (A/RES/74/212)
- 2 October – World Habitat Day (A/RES/40/202 A)
- 31 October – World Cities Day (A/RES/68/239)
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