Today is World Car-Free Day which promotes the greater use and improvement of mass transit, cycling and walking, and the development of communities where jobs are closer to home, and where shopping is within walking distance. Of course this is easier said than done. I lived for over 20 years in a rural community in New York State where a car was absolutely essential – one for every adult – for shopping, leisure activities, and getting to work. I commuted 2 hours each way to my university (because my salary did not allow me to live closer), there was zero public transport, and the nearest supermarket was 11 miles from my house. Then I moved to Buenos Aires 5 years ago, and to Kunming in SW China a year ago. Both cities have amenities within easy walking distance of home, as well as extensive mass transit systems. In consequence I have not owned or driven a car in 5 years and don’t miss it.
But there’s the rub. The United States as a whole is not designed for walking, cycling, or mass transit. Certainly large cities fare well, but smaller towns and rural areas, which make up a gigantic percentage of the country, mandate the use of cars. Rush hours in cities are horrendous. My normal 2-hour commute into White Plains could take 3 or 4 hours if I went in rush hours. Fortunately I had the luxury of choosing my teaching times and so could usually avoid the worst of it. Even so, it is horrifying to look back on the time I spent in traffic – years of my life. Other countries do much better. Britain, for example, can be handily navigated by public transport with adequate planning. Japan was a joy to travel around on my one visit several years ago. It can be done if the will is there.
World car-free events, which vary by location, give motorists and commuters an idea of their locality with fewer cars. While projects along these lines had taken place from time to time on an ad hoc basis starting with the 1973 oil crisis, it was only in October 1994 that a structured call for such projects was issued in a keynote speech by Eric Britton at the International Ciudades Accessibles (Accessible Cities) Conference held in Toledo in Spain.
Within two years the first Days were organized in Reykjavík (Iceland), Bath (United Kingdom) and La Rochelle (France), and the informal World Car Free Days Consortium was organized in 1995 to support Car-Free Days world wide. The first national campaign was inaugurated in Britain by the Environmental Transport Association in 1997, the French followed suit in 1998 with “In town, without my car!” and was established as a Europe-wide initiative by the European Commission in 2000. In the same year the Commission enlarged the program to a full European Mobility Week which now is the major focus of the Commission, with the Car-Free Day part of a greater new mobility whole. Also in 2000, car free days went global with a World Car-Free Day program launched by Carbusters, now World Car-Free Network, and in the same year the Earth Car Free Day collaborative program of the Earth Day Network and the World Car Free Days collaborative.
While considerable momentum has been achieved in terms of media coverage, these events turn out to be difficult to organize to achieve real success (perhaps requiring significant reorganization of the host city’s transportation arrangements) and even a decade later there is considerable uncertainty about the usefulness of this approach. The sine qua non of success is the achievement of broad public support and commitment to change. By some counts by advocates (disputed), more than a thousand cities worldwide organized “Days” during 2005.
Currently Bogotá holds the world’s largest car-free weekday event covering the entire city. The first car-free day was held in February 2000 and became institutionalized through a public referendum. In September 2007 Jakarta held its first Car-Free Day that closed the main avenue of the city from cars and invited local pedestrians to exercise and hold their activities in the streets that were normally full of cars and traffic. Along the road from the Senayan traffic circle on Jalan Sudirman, South Jakarta, to the Selamat Datang Monument at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle on Jalan Thamrin, all the way north to National Monument Central Jakarta, cars are cleared out for pedestrians. Since May 2012 Car-Free Day in Jakarta is held every Sunday. It is held on the main avenues of the city, Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin, from Senayan area to Monas (Monumen Nasional), from 6 AM to 11 PM.
While not an officially organized Car-Free Day, every year motorized traffic in Israel stops (except for emergency vehicles) for more than 24 hours in observance of Yom Kippur. This encompasses all motorized vehicles, including cars and public transportation (buses, trains, taxis, airplanes etc). Cycling enthusiasts take advantage of this, and roads (except in religious neighborhoods) become de facto esplanades and cycle paths. Air pollution in Israel that day, measured by nitrogen oxides, drops by 99%.
The 1994 Car Free Day Call set out a challenge for any city, neighborhood or group wishing to participate:
To spend one carefully prepared day without cars.
To study and observe closely what exactly goes on during that day.
Then, to reflect publicly and collectively on the lessons of this experience and on what might be prudently and creatively done next to build on these lessons.
Some people liken car driving to an addiction that requires intervention. I think of it more as a badly ingrained habit increasingly exacerbated by cultural norms. A car-free day can be a useful start, but to really break the habit requires a gargantuan revolution in the way we think about town planning and transportation options.
Since Bogotá holds the world’s largest car-free event, shutting the entire city to cars for a day, I will celebrate with a Colombian recipe. Ajiaco, a corn and potato soup, is legendary in Bogotá. It’s made with chicken, three varieties of potatoes, and the Galinsoga parviflora herb, commonly referred to in Colombia as guascas and in English as “gallant soldier weed.” Without the latter you might as well not start. If you live in Britain you might find it wild if you know what you are looking for.
It was brought from Peru to Kew Gardens in 1796, and later escaped to the wild in Great Britain and Ireland where it is now considered a noxious, invasive weed. This soup is best if you can use 2 or 3 different varieties of potato.
8 cups chicken broth
4 medium skinless and boneless chicken breasts, cut in chunks
1 cup dry gallant soldier weed
4 lbs mixed potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 large ears corn cut in large rounds
½ cup green peas
Put the stock, chicken and half of the gallant soldier weed into a large pot, bring to a steady simmer, and cook for about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Add the potatoes, onion and garlic to the stock and continue to simmer for approximately 2 hours or until the potatoes have broken down completely.
Add back the chicken chunks plus the ears of corn, green peas and salt to taste (if needed). Simmer for another 30 to 40 minutes over low heat.
Add the other half of the guascas and cook for 5 more minutes.
Serve in deep bowls making sure the corn is evenly distributed.