Shortly we will be announcing a plan that is being hatched with our
good friends from the Earth Day Network (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.
= = = = =
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
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
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
As Pogo put it so well half a century ago: "I have met the enemy and it's
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
* 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
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/
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