Today is international car-free day, a day in which people are asked to leave their car at home and go about their business without it for a day. The idea is not only to illustrate how life is like in any given city without most of its cars on the road but also to reflect on the challenges and limitations of being without car, particularly in North America where cities are not pedestrian-friendly. Toronto failed miserably a couple years ago when celebrating car-free day. The city had done much to promote it and then when the day came, most city councilors arrived at city hall in their cars. When asked by reporters why they drove if the city was making such a big deal about car-free day, most simply stated that it wasn’t convenient to take public transit. And that was that.
Alan was furious and wrote some letters to the mayor and his ward representative, but the city councilors are partly right. We have a long way to go to catch up with most European countries when it comes to public transit infrastructure and sharing roads with bicycles.
A Canadian woman who lives in Copenhagen was interviewed on CBC Radio this morning about car-free day and she confessed that it doesn’t occur to people there to mark car-free day since two-thirds of the residents already commute by bicycle or public transit. She spoke about the infra-structure built in so that cars and bicycles can share the roads easily without confrontation and how traffic lights are synchronized to the speed of bicycles (20km/h) so that cyclists can get a green light all the way through when commuting.
And Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, has banned cars altogether. The entire suburb was designed and built so that every resident is at walking distance from shops and schools. Public transit into the city is also easily available. Read more about it here.
As a historian, I understand why North America moved away from a focus on public transit and based its cities on private cars. How we got here is not the issue. The issue is that we now know that this car culture is not sustainable in the long run and our society needs to invest more heavily into making walking, cycling, and public transit the most convenient options for its citizens. Maybe that way, our councilors won’t have an excuse anymore. Better yet, maybe like the people of Copenhagen, it won’t even occur to us to celebrate car-free day.