Sunday, September 28, 2008

World Carfree Day

September 22 is World Carfree Day. By any estimation, it’s an idea whose time has finally come. Concerns about climate change, rising gas prices and dwindling supply have even the most stalwart auto buff rethinking his or her relationship with the automobile.

With all that in mind, it’s interesting to note that World Carfree Day isn’t a recent phenomenon. While the first official Carfree Day took place in 2000, it began with an event that happened 50 years ago in New York City when neighbors of the Washington Park Square demonstrated against the expansion of Fifth Avenue. Their actions ultimately blocked the proposal and saved the much-loved park from the otherwise unstopped wrath of ever-expanding pavement.

Among the group’s ringleaders was a very young Jane Jacobs. Three years later in 1961, Jacobs published her landmark work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that redefined our relationship with the built environment. Most notably, Jacobs opened up the debate on the restrained used of cars in the urban environment.

Flash forward a half a century. While Jacobs’ work has been revered by millions, it has also been largely ignored by the plotters and planners who design our cities. With very few exceptions, the modern North American city is neither pedestrian or bicycle friendly. Unlike European cities that have been built around access to mass transit, our transportation system is based on the access to the private automobile.

The modern automobile has become virtually all things to most people, at least some of the time. It can be a home entertainment centre, babysitter, time machine (“Can you drive a little faster, honey?”), mobile restaurant, status symbol, stress reliever (and creator) all rolled into one. It enables us to live, work and play where we want, when we want. It miraculously stretches time so that it is almost possible to be in at least two places at once, (say at your son’s soccer game and your daughter’s piano lesson, while picking up the groceries and doing the banking.) And if time does run out to do such menial tasks as preparing a meal, there are countless “drive-thrus” that can literally keep you going.

The price we pay for all of this status, security and convenience is simply staggering. The burning of the fossil fuels that we pump into our gas tanks is a major contributor to global warming. Every year we pave an additional one million hectares with new roads and highways, which is enough land to feed nine million people.

Our cities sprawl along a mass of highways and by-ways that eliminate our options when one becomes blocked by a single accident.

Consider the four-hour traffic jam that occurred recently in Toronto when a man was shot and dumped onto Highway 401 in the middle of the afternoon. This single act of violence brought Canada’s largest city to a standstill for more than four hours. Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were locked in a snarl of traffic that that extended for many kilometers in all directions.

As luck would have it, I was one of the unlucky motorists caught in that snarl. The experience provided me with a unique opportunity to ruminate about traffic jams and other car related nonsense for several hours.

No matter how you cut it, our chronic addiction to the infernal internal combustion engine is not sustainable. In order to build functional cities where you can live, work and play, without damaging the environment, public health or getting lost in gridlock, we must rethink our relationship with the private automobile. Carfree Day gives us a great place to start.


Join in the fun on Monday, September 22 and enter the carfree zone. Check out for events, ideas and information about "Autoholics Anonymous”, carfree pilot projects and other ideas that are transforming the world.

For more car-free inspiration, visit

Jane Jacobs’ wrote that to truly understand the urban environment, “You’ve got to get out and walk.” In her memory, every year Jane’s Walk helps put people in touch with the urban environment. For more information, go to


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi,thanks for your article on car free day . . . .i . .share your frustration about the car dependency . . for additional info on the subject.

October 28, 2008 4:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home