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Car-Free Day Haters: Pros, Cons and Some Lessons of Experience

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  • ecopl@n.adsl
    Shortly we will be announcing a plan that is being hatched with our good friends from the Earth Day Network (www.eathday.net
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 3, 2000
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      Shortly we will be announcing a plan that is being hatched with our
      good friends from the Earth Day Network (www.eathday.net
      <http://www.eathday.net <http://www.eathday.net> > ) for Earth Car Free Day
      2001, which is slated to
      take place on Thursday (great day for it!), April 19th. But since we are not
      quite ready to take our first big step in this - which by the way is to
      consult you for your ideas and reasons once we have the basic support
      structure on line and ready for you - I would like instead to address some
      of the more patient of you with a short essay which may eventually find its
      way into our box of tools.

      Comments are invited, and as appropriate will be incorporate into whatever
      final version of this that may appear.

      eric britton


      = = = = =

      Car-Free Day Haters: Pros, Cons and Some Lessons of Experience


      After more than a decade of trying to convince people by word and example
      that a car-free day can be a good idea for a town, city or a neighborhood,
      one of the most striking things have been able to observe as we and others
      try to go from concept to concrete experience (as it were) is that the world
      out there divides pretty sharply into four main camps or attitudes: those
      who never heard of it (the vast majority), those who have and don't care
      (next largest group), those who have and like it, and those who have and
      think it's a rotten idea. It's this last group that I'd like to spill some
      ink about this morning.

      Car-Free Day haters themselves tend to be identifiable in several guises and
      for several reasons. Let me rundown this list quickly, before getting to
      the group to which I would like specifically to comment this morning. But
      before we get into the heat of the action, let me put my cards on the table.
      Your author is a 60 year old owner/driver who is lucky enough to live in
      place in which you don't need a car, family and people lover, bit of an
      intellectual but a hard worker who puts in 10-12 hour days, roughly what
      they call "nouveau pauvre", etc., and am someone who not only thinks that
      the car free day concept is a terrific one for a whole variety of reasons
      but who is also willing to work at it. On the other hand, I don't hate my
      car (in fact I rather like it) and I recognize that there are a lot of
      places in which as things stand today they are the best transportation
      option that many people have.

      All that said, I also am fully aware of two more things about cars. The
      first is that even at best (for them) they offer first class mobility
      services only to a growing minority of people in our societies (and we have
      the statistics to back that up). Second, there are places where they work
      less well than in others, and chief among them are in heavily built up areas
      such as cities.

      Now I have subjected you to this boring Curriculum Vitae because I feel it
      is important, if we are together to advance our great shared idea, that we
      know absolutely who we are, warts and all, and at the same time are willing
      to listen carefully to those who do not agree with us. After all, those who
      hate the idea of a car-free day are like us citizens, voters, parents and
      active participants in our pluralistic democracies, and it would be stupid
      of us not to try to understand what it is they object to. Worse than
      stupid, it would be counter-productive, since the odds are that they
      probably have some important things to say, and further that at the end of
      the day we are going to need if not all of them, most of them on our side.
      So now on to our list of those who may not agree with us:

      1. Politicians and Policy Makers:

      This is a tricky group and, as we all know, tend to be almost entirely
      change-averse -- unless they think there are some votes in it (which is
      rarely the case). There are of course exceptions to this rule, but the word
      (exceptions) says it all. Now these good people tend to have two strategies
      for dealing with any car free day proposal that might surge out of their mad
      electorate. The first and most frequent is to ignore it as long as
      possible. A second - and this, a recent phenomenon that we have been seeing
      here in Europe of late - consists of going along with it in a "reasonable
      manner". This usually means a very reduced effort lasting just a few hours
      and which is cloistered in small section of the city in a way that, above
      all, manages to avoid conflict.

      There is a third political/administrative group that publicly says
      approximately this: "These car-free days are poorly thought out ideas that
      can be greatly disruptive of our cities and their activities, so we want
      nothing to do with them." The mayor of Stockholm, to name but one, made
      precisely such a statement within weeks of awarding the Stockholm Prize for
      Environment to the joint car-free day effort of The Commons and the City of
      Bogotá.

      We have two quick points to make in this respect. The first is that the
      Mayor is absolutely correct: a car-free day, got right and as we understand
      it, is indeed a highly disruptive to a city. Making a city work for people
      is a serious business, and if one is going to make a radical pattern break,
      it is necessary to do this with the level of commitment, public support and
      resources that are appropriate to the challenge.

      The second important point is that the mayor of Stockholm is not alone in
      his point of view. His is the majority position among politicians around
      the world. And this is the stark reality is what we must be prepared to
      confront and deal with.

      2. Traffic and Transport Planners:

      By and large these professionals are not at all in favor of a car-free day.
      It makes a lot of work for them, and as often as not under circumstances in
      which they do not have the resources needed to do their end of the job
      properly. Often as not car-free day people tend to underestimate the
      importance of the technical aspects of planning such a day and getting it
      right. This is a major oversight on our part.

      On the other hand, if we can figure out ways to give these key technical
      partners the resources, time and broad public support they need to make it
      work, these people can make a great contribution, to even the most demanding
      of Days.

      3. Local Commerce:

      This is simple. They are almost always against. And if you think it over
      from their perspective - which as social activists who would like to be
      successful we really must - there is every reason for them to take this
      position. Car-free days, as we all know, are targeted above all at the
      crowded central cores of any given place. And that's where the stores are.

      But what about giving them a break. Let's put their fears and objections
      into perspective. Most of these business people in central areas are not
      doing all that well. At a time where out of town commerce, hyperstores, and
      huge malls are increasingly getting all of the business (and, by the way,
      the public support and traffic), these businesses in the center are under
      considerable financial pressure.

      And if in their mind they see as one of the major problems they face being
      that of insufficient access of people to their stores (and most people,
      remember, only get to most places with their cars) the very idea of a
      "car-free day" is pure anathema. "Car-free" to them immediately interprets
      to "customer-free". In their minds what they understand it that there is a
      need for the center is to be able to accommodate more cars and not fewer.
      What they need is more parking, easier and faster car access to the downtown
      area - and here are the car-free day people asking for the exact opposite.

      The lesson of experience is that car-free day organizers have to make every
      effort of which they are capable to consult, educate and bring in the local
      business people into their projects. This is not mean task, but fortunately
      if the car free people are willing and able to do their homework there are
      some great ways to do this. But it requires, patience, diplomacy, knowledge
      and hard work to get right. (Are you sure you are ready for that
      challenge?)

      4. Owner/Drivers:

      As Pogo put it so well half a century ago: "I have met the enemy and it's
      us".

      Anyone who uses their car every day for all those good reasons that we have
      for doing so, is likely to find the concept of organizing themselves and
      their families for a day without a car a real problem. Of course if the day
      is a Sunday, a holiday or in the middle of a snowstorm, then it is
      relatively less of a psychological and organizational shock and
      inconvenience. But then the object of a real car-free day is to create a
      situation in which people see their city and themselves in a very different
      life situation. As the mayor of Bogotá put it in their long and hard
      campaign in support of their Day: "Let us together on this day see and
      imagine another and very different city".

      The owner/driver (such as your author and guide here) is then faced with the
      unfamiliar task of organizing personal and family life under entirely
      different conditions for that one and, let's face it, pretty inconvenient
      day. Some will do so willingly and happily, others less so. If there is
      the option of a safe bike ride, run or good public transport, the transition
      is not so difficult. But in how many places is that the case?

      To close out this perhaps not brief enough essay, I would like to make three
      points about this important target group.

      * First, they need help in organizing the transition, if only for the
      day. This puts real pressure on the organizers - which in turn means that
      they must have the resources and be willing to take on this important
      responsibility.
      * Second, if the Day is to succeed for these people it is going to
      require a bit of time and thinking on this part. What we can see from those
      few car-free days that have really succeeded thus far, the key here appears
      to be a lively public dialog in the weeks leading up to the day. And here
      the active participation of the media is critical.

      The third point about this important group, however, is a bit more subtle
      and is one that has not been getting the attention that it deserves in most
      places. And this is to see if we can make the point about what it actually
      means for a person to be "car-free". Think about that: I make this change
      and then I become "car-free", freed of everything that is associated with
      having a car-full life.

      If anything, our major mistake until now over this last dozen years has
      perhaps been that we have dwelt too much on the concept, specifically, of a
      "car free DAY". Hmm. Is that really that we are trying to get to? Is it
      the DAY that is so important or is it something else.

      Is not the ultimate objective not just that one day, but the place, the
      human environment? Is not the main objective of a car-free day to pave the
      way to create car-free PLACES in those special situations where for reasons
      of geometry, environment, safety, health and conviviality, systems based on
      large numbers of private cars shipping about in close proximity to each
      other and to the people of that place, may not be the best way to get that
      particular job done? We think so, and we further think that any car-free
      day that does not advance this objective in some way is not really much of
      an accomplishment.

      Behind all of this is the concept of being car-free in the most personal of
      all ways. If I, for example, in my personal life am able to be car-free,
      what does that mean? Well, first of all it means that I am personally
      spared a considerable economic burden -- which works out to anywhere from
      five to then thousand dollars a year depending on what we count and where
      and how you live.

      Then there is the matter of time. If you have a car-free life style, that
      usually means that you somehow have managed to organize your and your
      family's lives within a far tighter radius than before. And this saving of
      distance usually converts to savings of time, almost always considerable.
      This means time for yourself, for your family and for your community. One
      of the more common calculations shows that people with car-based lives often
      spend something on the order of three hours a day in their vehicles, which
      quickly converts to a thousand hours each year or not all that far from a
      hundred waking days to spend perhaps in better ways?

      But what about the impact on yourself in your daily life? Have you ever
      observed yourself closely when you are behind the wheel? Are you the same
      considerate, truly responsible person you are when playing with your
      children or talking to a neighbor? What about your behavior when traffic
      conditions deteriorate? What about the anxiety that begins to gnaw at you
      when you realize that you are running late? What about the level of
      aggressive behavior that follows that? And bearing in mind that you are
      steering a ton or so of semi-controlled mayhem, imagine all the awful things
      that leads to as the harried driver hits the accelerator and not the brakes.

      This is the final and most important wrinkle that is behind the car-free day
      concept as I understand it. Do you really want to be that person who lives a
      car-full life under these circumstances? If so, that means that your car is
      more important than your own life. And the lives of others.

      * * *

      Earth Car Free Day 2001 will take place on April 19th. Further information
      for those interested in organizing or participating will shortly be
      available at http://ecoplan.org/carfreeday/EarthCFD/
      <http://ecoplan.org/carfreeday/EarthCFD/>



      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Simon Baddeley
      .... Is not the ultimate objective not just that one day, but the place, the human environment? Is not the main objective of a car-free day to pave the way to
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 3, 2000
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        .... Is not the ultimate objective not just that one day, but the place, the
        human environment? Is not the main objective of a car-free day to pave the
        way to create car-free PLACES in those special situations where for reasons
        of geometry, environment, safety, health and conviviality, systems based on
        large numbers of private cars shipping about in close proximity to each
        other and to the people of that place, may not be the best way to get that
        particular job done? ...

        Brilliant, uncomfortable, instructive. Thanks for this. I hope it gets
        widely circulated.

        Simon

        Simon Baddeley
        34 Beaudesert Road
        Handsworth
        Birmingham B15 2TT
        0121 554 9794
        07775 655842
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