Sep 222015


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 stree