DIA SIN CARRO
by Mark Sutton In Bogotá, Colombia, the city’s population, heading for seven million people, has united on one day a year for the past sixteen years, when an almost unrecognizable calm descends upon its otherwise heaving metropolis. Introduced via referendum at the turn of the millennium by former mayor Enrique Peñalosa to mark Earth Day, their Día sin carro (car-free day) ensures that the Colombian capital is transformed for just over fourteen hours. Around 600,000 private cars are forbidden from the roads from 5 a.m. through to 7.30 p.m. Add to this the city’s closure of its streets to cars for the traditional Sunday ‘Ciclovía’ (in place since the mid 1970s) and the South American state quickly rises on any cyclist’s bucket list. In the past eight years, with a 76% increase in private vehicle registration to contend with, the city has simply ground to a halt. In a tale that is all too familiar for cities battling to cope with rises in pollution, respiratory illnesses see around 600,000 city-dwelling children admitted to hospitals annually for breathing-related issues. Furthermore, for the remaining days of the year, when private vehicle use isn’t prohibited, Bogotá’s citizens are said to lose an average of twenty-two days a year to sitting in gridlocked traffic. Fast forward to 2014 and advocacy efforts from Mejor en Bici (Better by Bike) saw the debut of a car-free week; seven days of largely voluntary compliance from citizens who have over time seen the benefits of removing private vehicles from the urban sprawl.
Bogotá is by modern standards a friend of the active and home to a great many urban-mobility-obsessed leaders, Peñalosa included. Some 402 kilometres of bike route are extended by a further 63 kilometres for the Earth Day celebration. Residents mark the annual tradition by turning out on bicycles of all shapes and sizes. Bereft even of motorcycles, the roads are a haven for low-cadence chitchat under one’s own steam. Pause for a moment and ponder what your city implementing such a level of traffic reduction might look, sound or even smell like. For the capital’s residents, Earth Day and every Sunday are to be celebrated with both open arms and windows. The world needn’t imagine, of course; Car-Free Day is celebrated widely on 22 September in cities around the world. In Europe, for example, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels regularly leave the car at home for the odd day. Reykjavík in Iceland has had an annual day off driving since 1996, and across much of Asia car-free days have been observed for several years, with China and Taiwan having had them regularly since the turn of the 21st century. Better still, every Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia, is a car-free day. In America, Portland and Washington D.C. have had car-free days, and many small cities and towns close the roads and keep transport human-powered. But in the UK, only a few towns have had days off driving and although Camden has championed the cause, London is yet to have a ‘full’ car-free day experience. But wherever in the world you are, the uptake and the enthusiasm is mixed: some commit with gusto, others just quietly close select streets. The aim is to give city-dwellers an idea of what their landscape could be like if the car had never come to fruition on Karl Benz’s drawing board 130 years ago. Once a neighbourhood has experienced the liberating peace, the transformation of attitudes is almost universally enthusiastic; venture into a city centre on a car-free day and you’ll see pedestrians, cyclists and children roaming as they please. It’s only when the cars are not there that you realize the astonishing influence traffic has on our freedom. Let’s not forget, however, that the car set out with genuine intentions to help family mobility and improve our lot. With Ford’s launch of the Model T in 1908 – widely considered to be the first accessible car for the masses – the bicycle faced competition for previously tranquil road space (although considerably less of it) from the combustion engine. Famously, today’s car industry was born in the minds of cyclists fascinated by taking engineering a step further. In creating the 80-horsepower ‘999’, Henry Ford teamed up with racing cyclist Tom Cooper to build a vehicle driven to success, and ultimately into the hearts of American society following the formation of the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Ford, like Benz before him, was a regular in the saddle. Despite his role as father of the US motoring business, Ford maintained that the bicycle as a mode of transport was a wise choice as Detroit’s industrial restructuringto see the dominationbegan. Withinof freewaysfifty yearsnow so the commonlyregion would associatedbegin with immense numbers of private motor vehicles. Detroit, the American city that is now struggling without its car manufacturing industry, and has become increasingly car-free, but not out of choice and almost in spite of itself. Might Ford have imagined that the ‘car-free day’ would ever be required? Or that capital cities around the globe would be going to great lengths to build and legislate the engine out of the modern landscape? In truth, and given his fondness for bicycle transportation, he may well have envisioned the bicycle remaining a prominent fixture of the roads. He would surely have been enthralled by the TV programme Top Gear during an episode when the team pitted pedal power against motoring, rail and a speedboat in a race through London that presenter Jeremy Clarkson said ‘ruined Top Gear’. In what was a nightmare scenario for the programme’s petrolhead hosts, the boat came second to Richard Hammond’s victorious bicycle in the dash across the UK capital; public transport came third, and the private car lagged some fifteen minutes behind in last place. An average of seven million people tuned in for episodes within that series, cementing the bicycle’s seemingly unlikely efficiency in the minds of reluctant motoring fans everywhere. The car may well be king, but the bicycle still proves a compelling heir to the throne.