Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Let’s revisit the meaning of Car-Free Day

Let’s revisit the meaning of Car-Free Day
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 06: People walk, cycle and exercise in De Beer Street on May 06, 2020 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Beeld/Deaan Vivier)

A car-free future is a compelling dream in light of what most of our cities look like. But it will take a lot of work to make that dream a reality.

For years, that was the vision to which I devoted great amounts of energy and time. And although I still believe that a city with less fumes, congestion and road rage is worth working towards, I have also learnt that the car is only the symptom of a much deeper set of challenges. 

It is easy to call for a car-free city, but far harder to invoke a vision that gives people a choice that might make driving less appealing.

Realities across the world can be so vastly different, that working to eliminate motorised individual vehicles might not be just impractical, but perhaps unjust. 

Take, for instance, many cities in the global South where most people live a car-free existence, albeit not necessarily by choice. In this context, it is incongruous to pontificate on the benefits of car-free days. Indeed, having a vehicle – even just for one day a year – might be a reason to celebrate. Given the alternative of unsafe and unreliable public transport, or inadequate walking and cycling infrastructure, life and movement could be made not just easier, but likely more pleasant.

On Tuesday – 22 September –  World Car-Free Day, cities across the world will have a very different experience. In some cities, people will not be aware this day is happening, but in those where the day is observed, people will be encouraged to refrain from using their cars, and instead use public and non-motorised transport. 

With Covid-19, this will be challenging given the fear many people have (mostly unsubstantiated) about using public transport. For those who are able to work from home, very little will change.

Having been invited to take part in the virtual World Car-Free Day Summit 2020 to discuss how Open Streets, as a global movement, contributes to this agenda got me thinking about my own personal journey. 

I have reflected before on the cultural pressures and socialisation that led me to, not unlike most people of my generation and social background, relate to the motor vehicle as a sign of aspiration and success.

Many years later, those same early experiences propelled me to bring the concept of Open Streets, or the temporary creation of car-free streets, to Cape Town. 

By providing a different experience for people to move about the city – the idea sent – we could help create a new relationship with streets and mobility. Thus in the early days of campaigning for a city-wide programme, it was natural to join the voices calling for a car-free future.

During that early period, I was fortunate to live in a place where cycling everywhere was possible. I worked in the city centre less than 5km away from home. Last year, I moved to Bogotá where I was able to continue living without a car because cycling was possible and public transport, though not always safe or reliable, is commonplace. 

But that is not always the case and, having returned to Cape Town under very different circumstances, I am having to think hard about how convenient it really is to live car-free. 

Yes, it is more environmentally responsible and less costly – not to mention the impact on mental health – but in this city, where public transport isn’t safe or reliable, if one desires freedom of movement and one has money, then a car is the obvious choice.

So how does one reconcile a philosophical stance with the practicalities of everyday life? And, most importantly, how does one engage in constructive conversations about what is realistic and fair, given the complexity of people’s different realities?

As Jaime Ortiz, an international bicycle activist and co-founder of Bogota’s Ciclovia, likes to say, individual mobility should be the goal – to be able to move on your own, whether it is on a bike, by bus, train, motorbike, or yes, even by car.

In other words, it is paramount that in the long term, policies support better public services including transport and infrastructure that caters to the majority – and in cities of the global South, that is primarily walking and cycling. At the same time, the litmus test will be whether or not they also enable the individual to make choices that are convenient and beneficial in the short term. 

How do we promote car-free day in a way that engages this complexity? Perhaps it is best to leave the symbolism untouched. Encouraging a small change in behaviour for a day is not going to change the world, but it does make us reflect. Encouraging people to walk and cycle on 22 September is a good thing, and I still dream of seeing this happen in greater numbers in other cities.

But when we think about the long term, the only way to build a car-free or “car-light” future entails creating a city where long journeys are not the norm to get to work, affordable housing is a reality, density is an intentional feature of the built environment, and it is safe to inhabit our streets and public spaces. That is the type of agenda that isn’t easy to capture in a three-word catchy phrase.

With the advent of Covid-19, it might seem that we need to rethink those objectives in order to ensure physical distancing. But if this pandemic has made anything evident, it is that in order to build genuine resilience, we must tackle the root of our social inequalities first. 

Transport justice will be crucial in the process of “building back better”, and if priorities of users are realigned, then our cities will provide the choices that will make driving the least appealing option for all. DM/MC

Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Marcela has lived and worked in Southern Africa for over a decade. She is a co-founder and former managing director of Open Streets Cape Town and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Council on Mobility. Marcela moved to Johannesburg in 2006 and worked in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Kenya before moving permanently to Cape Town in 2011. Marcela holds a Masters in Public Administration and International Affairs from Syracuse University and has worked in policy and advocacy for over a decade.

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