Car free day should be taken seriously

The Department for Transport has always been rather half hearted about car-free day, now renamed ‘In town, without my car!’ which is to be on September 22nd this year. However, interest has grown and the event was supported worldwide by 1400 cities last year and the British government has belatedly taken a bit of interest, publishing a ‘best practice’ guide to publicise successes last year (obtainable from www.itwmc.gov.uk).

The exclamation mark says it all really. The idea that one can live without one’s car, even for a day, is so extraordinary that it requires what we hacks call a screamer to emphasise the revolutionary nature of the concept. The qualifying threshold to be considered as a ‘participating’ town is pretty low: just the closure of any urban street for the day. Places which hold events that do not require street closures are, according to the brochure, to be considered as merely ‘supporting’ the event. (If you ever wonder what our civil servants are up to, you know now….).

In a way, all this seems mere tokenism. What, as the brochure asks, is it for? Well actually this sort of event is far more important than might seem at first place. Just closing a street for a day makes people think about what their urban space is for. It gets people asking questions about the car dominance that is accepted as the norm because that is the way it has always been.

Most importantly, it suggests that things can be different. In her important new book, Car sick (Green Books, £10 95) Lynn Sloman makes the case for changing our attitude towards the car through a host of small measures that, collectively, can make an enormous difference. She even argues that it is possible to be far less car dependent in rural areas, proving the point by living in the wilds of mid-Wales without one.

Crucially, however, she shows that planners and politicians can make an enormous difference to what seems like an intractable situation. The best example she uses is Holland. We take it for granted that the Dutch have always been into cycling just because the country is flat and the people are just naturally more environmentally conscious than us Brits.

Not so. Just like here, cycling was going out of fashion very quickly in the 1960s as people discovered the joys of motoring and the proportion of journeys by bicycle halved in that decade. Bicycles, like here, were seen as old-fashioned and used only by those who could not afford a car. The decline was arrested not so much because of the environmental awareness, which admittedly was more attuned in Northern Europe than in the UK, but because the Dutch government began to realise that cycling had a lot of advantages. Crucially, Sloman quotes a Dutch expert, the decline in cycling use began to be arrested when ‘following the oil crises of 1973, many Dutch people rediscovered their bicycles during car-free Sundays’. The bike is, therefore, not necessarily as Dutch as tulips or Edam.

This example shows that car-free events are not tokenism but an important generator of change. It doesn’t seem that ministers are necessarily yet convinced of this message. Central government has traditionally failed to provide any kind of lead on car-free initiatives in this country. I am not suggesting closing the motorways for a day (although that would be interesting…) but actually putting some serious effort behind these initiatives, giving real incentives to local authorities to take action, rather than merely sending out a glossy brochure.

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