When Paris held its first car-free Sunday, ‘Paris sans Voitur’, last year, the Champs Elysées was transformed from an eight-lane highway, to a boulevard of people walking, biking and skate boarding.
Airparif, which measures city pollution levels, said there was almost one-third less nitrogen dioxide pollution on the busy Champs Elyées than on a usual Sunday, levels were down by about 40% along the Seine in the city, and noise levels in the city centre dropped by half. In a city struggling with severe pollution, the results were dramatic. In Jerusalem, nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by 99% during a 24-hour car-free period over Yom Kippur in 2014.
This year’s World Car free Day falls on September 22, a day in which people all over the world are encouraged to take the heat of the planet, by getting out of their cars and cycling, walking and using public transport instead.
The first Car Free Days were organised in Reykjavík (Iceland), Bath (United Kingdom) and La Rochelle (France) and an informal World Car Free Days Consortium organised in 1995 to support Car Free Days worldwide.
But the concept of closing streets to cars and opening them up to bikes and pedestrians first gained popularity in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, when the government introduced an initiative that became known as “Ciclovia” (or bikeway). What started with the temporary closure of 3.8km of road space for a day in 1974, has grown to 121km of the city’s road network being closed to motorised vehicles between the hours of 7am and 2pm every Sunday and on holidays.
Bogotá has shown what is possible, and inspired other cities around the world. Last year, Paris, Madrid, Chengdu and Helsinki, to name a few, went car-free for a day in September. There are also an increasing number of initiatives based on the car-free theme.
The city-centre of Lubeck in Northern Germany has been car-free every Saturday and Sunday since June 1996 – although residents, delivery vehicles and hotel guests are still allowed to use their vehicles.
New York restricted car use in three Manhattan neighbourhoods in April this year, to encourage people to ditch the car. In August the city held a Shared Streets initiative, in which the city demarcated some 60 blocks of Manhattan, areas in which pedestrians were encouraged to treat the roads like pavements and cars were told to keep their speeds at 5mph or below.
Such events are proving popular and galvanising, with many towns and cities finding novel ways to promote alternatives to the car, at least for a day.
They could be considered a public health intervention, one that promotes environmental health, and by encouraging people to walk or bike, human health. They also helps people connect with their surroundings, their city and their community — providing a glimpse of what a more ideal and less car-dependent world would look like, smell like and sound like.