Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Car Free Day

Global warming, primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the rising cost and diminishing availability of those fuels, and the growing need to preserve and protect our vanishing green spaces has caused a renaissance in urban thinking. Forward thinking planners are beginning to reassess cities that have been primarily built around the use of the family car. But because we've all become so dependent on our cars, surviving without out them, even for one day, seems impossible.

Enter Car Free Day. Celebrated globally on September 22nd, the event initially got its start in Europe in the late 1990s. This year, Car Free Day will take place in over 1,500 towns and cities in over 30 countries around the world and is an official program of both the United Nations and the European Union.

So exactly how does one celebrate Car Free Day? Ask Dan McDermott, Director Sierra Club of Canada, Ontario Chapter, and very busy party planner. Dan's currently putting together a major celebration for Canada's largest and most congested city, Toronto.

"The message isn't 'the car is bad'," said McDermott. "The message is that the health of the planet and the proper functioning of a modern city requires moving people about my means other than the private automobile." For this year's celebration, Toronto residents are invited to gather in Toronto's Dundas Square, preferably on foot, bike or by public transit, and learn about alternative modes of transportation, health issues related to pollution, and the city's new bicycle locker program. While the day will provide some fun for just about everyone, it will also serve to illustrate how Car Free zones can actually revitalize the urban centre.

As cities in Europe have successfully demonstrated, car free zones are good for business and good for cities. They revitalize the urban core and help recreate the old concept of the city as centre. As McDermott explains, car free zones aren't necessarily for commercial zones.

"One of the challenges in creating a car free zone is to do it in an area where people work, play and shop," he said. While we can't make the transition to a car free culture overnight, we can start making changes that will ultimately create a paradigm shift away from our dependence on our cars.

The first step is to try and think outside the box (or in this case, the car). While everybody can't be expected to move into an urban centre overnight, we can be more careful about when and how we use our automobiles. Walk or drive when you can, and commit to taking public transit at least once a week. You may soon find that you enjoy leaving the hassle of driving to someone else.

Incorporating exercise into your daily errands can eliminate another drive - the one that many of us take to the gym. I am frequently amazed at the number of vehicles (most of them SUVs and pick-ups) that crowd the parking lot at our local fitness club. At the very least, walking or biking to the gym would cut workout times in half (who needs to walk on the treadmill to warm up when you've already put in the distance getting there?) At the very best, routinely using pedal or foot power to get around could eventually eliminate the need for costly fitness club memberships altogether.

When Dan's car died several years ago, he and his wife Helen decided to see how long they could cope without an automobile. Years later, they're still car free and enjoying the freedom (and the substantial savings) of not owning a car.

Secondly, with province-wide municipal elections only weeks away, find out how your local candidates stand on such issues as urban transportation and sprawl. Hazel McCallion, arguably Canada's most successful mayor, was once dubbed the Queen of Sprawl. She is now a strong advocate of urban transportation.

"Why?" said McDermott, "Because it makes for healthier, more affordable and more sustainable cities." Now I'll bike to that!


For more information, visit www.carfreeday

To find out what you can do to stop urban sprawl, check out the Ontario Smart Growth Network

Before you slap on that bike helmet, take The Canada Safety Council's bike safety quiz at


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