The Rise of the Car Free Day

Car free days are starting pop up in cities large and small all around the globe.  These are days during which a city will shut a portion of or even all of its streets to cars and open them to pedestrians, and especially cyclists.  And it’s a good thing too.  Numerous independent studies have shown that, more than just clearing out a bit of the smog, car free days encourage more citizens to take up cycling in general.  These same studies show that the larger the percentage of an urban area’s populace is cycling rather than using cars, the better it is for that city’s economy.  The air becomes healthier, accident rates are cut, average commute time is decreased, and more citizens need less health care.  All of this can, in fact, drastically improve the local economy of a given city.

 

Occupying opposite ends of the planet, perhaps the two most charming and popular car free days on Earth are in Jakarta, Indonesia and Bogota, Colombia.  They’ve basically stolen the headlines on the subject and written the blueprint on what’s possible for a car free day.  Beyond the antipodean comparison, the cities themselves are quite different.  Jakarta, a megalopolis with an urban sprawl of roughly 24 million people, sits on the north coast of Java in a tidal flood plain and is transected by 13 rivers.  Bogota, a city of roughly nine million, lays at roughly 8,600 feet above sea level in the midst of Colombia’s central Andes Mountains.  Very different places indeed.  And yet they’ve gone beyond embracing the idea of opening their roads to cyclists for car free days and have seemingly perfected it.

 

Jakarta’s car free day takes place every Sunday.  The city government shuts down Jalan (street) Sudirman - the main drag of the city’s central business district.  What is normally a chaotic traffic jam of motorbikes, cars, busses, angkot (makeshift passenger vans), and bajai (three-wheeled motor taxis) becomes a sea of walkers, joggers, buskers, and of course cyclists.  It’s an event that brings everyone together.  In fact, it is one of the few events in Indonesia that brings together people off all walks of life, rich and poor, old and young.  From 6 in the morning until 11 in the afternoon, people get to strut their stuff, express themselves freely, and even converse with people they would otherwise seldom if ever have the chance to talk to.  There are some racing crews that steam through, but most people just enjoy the rare moments of fresh air and space in the city to exercise.  At one end of this event are the towering buildings of the financial district.  On the other end is the giant round-about known as Gendungan Hotel Indonesia, where what looks like a massive street party takes place.  Musicians, hawkers, parade floats, and the Ondel Ondel (a uniquely Jakartan, life-size take on the shadow puppet worn by someone as if a mascot) milling about everywhere.  It’s a beautiful site to behold.  This part of the city transforms itself once a week and throngs of people attend to show their approval of a healthier lifestyle.

 (Photo from Jakarta bike free day - courtesy of venario.deviantart.com) 

Bogota takes the car free day to the next level.  First off all, there is the Cyclovia.  Much like Jakarta, this is a weekly car free day that actually covers much of the sprawling, 9 million-strong city every Sunday.  Cars are prohibited from using these areas and they fill up with the same kinds of runners, pedestrians, and again cyclists.  The difference here is that in fútbol crazy Colombia, cycling is the second national sport/craze.  People have an enduring love for it and there is history on the world stage (think Giro and Vuelta champion, Nairo Quintana just for starters).  So when they fill the streets of Bogota, we mean they truly FILL them.  1.7 million people - roughly an entire quarter of the city - scattered over 76 miles of unencumbered road!  But Bogota’s city government is just getting started. 

 

In 2000, via public referendum, the then mayor enacted a total car free day - one day per year in Bogota that was dedicated entirely to pedestrians and cyclists.  In other words, the entire city was closed to motorized vehicles save for public transportation.  Heavy fines were levied on site against violators.  It’s come with myriad logistical problems since its inception, but the people of Bogota are so fond of the idea that it is now coming up on its 18th annual celebration!  The mayorship may have changed hands, but the city is not ready to stop here.  Logistics are still a problem, but there are continued talks of taking this beyond one day and enacting an entire car free WEEK for the capital!!!  What an amazing accomplishment it would be.

(Picture of Bogota Car Free Day - courtesy of worldstreets.wordpress.com) 

Both Jakarta and Bogota “enjoy” some of the world’s worst air pollution.  Cramped populations, corruption that hampers enforcement of environmental standards, and physical geography act as perfect storms in both cities when it comes to the air people breath.  These car free days both have their roots in mitigating these unfortunate circumstances.  And it does indeed help reduce the burden, if only marginally.  But studies have shown that it also encourages people to cycle more, developing a strong fondness in citizens both young and old.  And, perhaps most importantly, it brings people from across all spectrums together in a healthy activity that increases general happiness.  These two cities are strange candidates to lead the way in this unique and progressive form of engaging urban citizens, but they’ve both helped to kickstart a global movement.  Car free days are now popping up all over Europe and could very soon be hitting a town near you in the U.S. as well.  Because the truth of the matter is that if these two cities can do it, any city can.