Car owners test a day without wheels
All across europe this Friday, life in more than 700 cities and towns will proceed at a slower, quieter pace than usual. Instead of grabbing their car keys and driving, many residents will put on walking shoes, dust off bicycles, or take public transportation.
The occasion is an international Car-Free Day. Promoted by environmentalists and local authorities, the event will offer a reminder of what cities can be like without belching fumes, honking horns, and traffic jams. It also serves as a way to highlight other forms of transportation and increase environmental awareness. One scientist has suggested that unleaded gasoline might be partly responsible for the steep decline in songbirds in recent years.
Beyond Europe, even Bangkok, one of the most congested cities anywhere, is participating in Friday's car-free day. Last February, Bogota, Colombia, celebrated a no-car day. And last winter Italy began designating one Sunday a month as car-free in major cities.
Planning for the international car-free day on Sept. 22 long predated the protests against high fuel prices waged by farmers and truckers in France and Britain this month. But those blockades play neatly into the hands of organizers of Friday's event, showing the world's dependence on cars.
News photos of Europeans going nowhere because of empty pumps and barricaded roads combine with this week's no-car observance to make an American ask: How would I manage on a car-free day? For most of us, the answer would be: not very well. Just ask residents of Los Angeles who are struggling to get around this week in the midst of a transit strike.
A single car-free day can be a lark, an adventure, a conversation starter. ("How did you get to work?") But a second day, to say nothing of a week, a month, or a year - well, that's another, less appealing proposition.
Getting to work might be the easy part for anyone with access to public transportation. But then there are all those other activities - errands, appointments, children's sports - that require families to zigzag through suburbs and cities, traversing individual routes where no public transportation runs.
Not everyone approves of these car-free events. Some drivers object to being forced to leave cars at home. Other critics contend that some public-transit systems will be inadequate to carry extra riders.
Even without a car-free day, many Europeans rank ahead of Americans in being less dependent on cars. It's common in Europe to see residents of all ages, including older people, walking briskly or riding bicycles, not for recreation but for transportation.
Europeans also enjoy the advantage of more footpaths and bike paths. Friends of ours in Germany can bicycle the 10 miles between their suburban home and the city. They can also take the bus.
In our suburban neighborhood, two men, both young fathers, often commute by bike to their jobs in Boston and Cambridge - a 24-mile round trip. But they remain the hardy exceptions. The rest of us opt for the comfort of our cars or the efficiency of commuter trains.
Europe's car-free day serves as a reminder of the obstacles that make walking and biking so difficult in the US. Subdivisions are often built without a sidewalk in sight. Most communities offer no bike paths. And bicycle lanes on city streets? Hardly a chance.
What would happen if environmentalists in the US followed the lead of their counterparts abroad and planned a car-free day here? Last spring, officials in Boulder, Colo., staged a citywide "no-drive day." Its success encouraged them to organize a similar countywide event last week. Even if a nationwide day proved to be disappointing, the experiment could at least stimulate conversation and spark possible solutions.
Our dependence on cars will never end. But finding ways to lessen it - to restore a measure of calm to cities, and to preserve the environment for people as well as songbirds - must rank among the urgent priorities of the new century.
A reader of the Irish Times in Dublin summed up the feelings of many people when he wrote last week that "roads are not just for cars. It's time for pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim the streets and enjoy the city's open spaces and fine architecture unthreatened."
Walking shoes and bicycles, anyone?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society