Cities across the world took a small step for pedestrian-kind during car free day this weekend. Now it's time to take a giant leap.
As part of the EU's “in town without my car” initiative, hundreds of small towns and major cities across Europe – including London, Brussels and Amsterdam – and beyond, closed off their town centres for the annual car-free day this weekend. The broader European Mobility Week, which took place from 16 to 22 September, had “streets for people” as its main theme.
In London, more than 30,000 cyclists enjoyed a 14-km stretch of the city closed off to traffic on Sunday. China's first attempt to join the car-free day movement was a failure, with Chinese motorists in Beijing and other cities largely ignoring the ban.
On Sunday, Brussels saw reportedly the biggest car-free day in Europe. The entire inner city area of the Belgian capital was closed to motor vehicles, bringing with it an unusual kind of tranquillity to the city's normally busy streets. For those accustomed to the hustle and bustle of a major city, the silence, coupled with legions of cyclists, skateboarders and pedestrians was somewhat eerie.
According to the city's mobility minister Pascal Smet, this year was the most successful yet, drawing hundreds of thousands of participants. He also unveiled plans to hold two car-free days next year.
Although this annual event helps raise awareness of environmental issues and allows pedestrians and cyclists to claim the city streets as their own, it does little to challenge the pre-eminence of the automobile, since it is held at the weekend when people are less likely to need or use their cars anyway.
Ironically, it may also add to emissions rather than cut them. For instance, the Brussels car-free day attracted people from across the country, thousands of whom drove in on what would normally be a quiet Sunday and parked their vehicles in satellite car parks just outside the city limits.
Since the first car-free day was launched in 1994, the global movement has become an enormous success, with more than a thousand cities in some 40 countries now taking part annually. However, it is now time to take the experiment to the next level.
I believe that all 27 European Union member states should agree to hold a car-free day on a regular weekday. Governments recognise the future need for society to wean itself off its unhealthy dependence on the automobile, both for environmental reasons and to face up to the challenge of a possible energy crunch in the coming decades.
Why should each national government not demonstrate the workability of a “car light” existence by introducing a complete ban on private vehicles for one day either nationwide or in their capital cities? During that day, the authorities would mobilise all their spare public transport capacity to deal with the surge in commuters and make free bicycles available for the day. Employers could encourage more of their workers to telework.
Of course, the creaking public transport network in many European cities would probably struggle under the additional pressure, but I believe that, with careful planning, public authorities could pull it off.
If successful, such an enlarged experiment would up the stakes and show people that the right mix of decent investment in public transport, car sharing schemes and other initiatives could remove their need to own a car and slash the number of car trips they make.
For me, every day is already a car-free day. I do not own a car nor even have a licence. Ghent, the progressive Belgian university town where I live, is an incredibly bike-friendly city. In the mornings, I cycle on designated bike paths along a scenic canal to the station or take the tram to the station, where an express train takes me to Brussels in under half an hour. During the ride, I sit back and relax with a book, while motorists stress on the tailbacks on the motorway.
I believe a “car light” existence is already entirely possible for tens of millions of Europeans. How dependent are you on your car? Are you ready to trade in your motor for some healthy pedal power?
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 24 September 2007.