Today, June 3, 2018, is the inaugural World Bicycle Day, declared so by the United Nations to promote the many benefits of cities making their streets more pedestrian and cyclist friendly.
Acknowledging the uniqueness, longevity and versatility of the bicycle, which has been in use for two centuries, and that it is a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and environmentally fit sustainable means of transportation, fostering environmental stewardship and health, the General Assembly decided to declare 3 June World Bicycle Day.
This is definitely a day that should make one stop and think “Why have cities become so automobile focused?” Every “improvement” we see in infrastructure is geared towards getting as many cars as possible to fit into one area, with no regard for the environment or the people living in that area. Trees and green spaces are cut down and minimized to make room for traffic, and roads are widened without including proper sidewalks for pedestrians. The automobile is king in most cities and that seems like a contradiction.
Car free days, days where streets are closed to automobile traffic, became popular in Belgium and the Netherlands in the 1950s. Since then, Car Free days have become quite common place in many countries around the world. Most notably our neighbour to the south, Colombia. Bogotá started closing streets to cars on Sundays in 1974 and called the closed streets Ciclovía. Many countries followed suit (Australia, the US, Canada, Mexico have all had or still have car free days around the country) and started closing streets on Sundays and holidays. The way in which each country carries out their car free days differs everywhere. Some close streets in the morning like in Jakarta, which closes the cities main streets from 6AM to 11AM. While most others seem to close until early afternoon, 1PM or 2PM. Some close weekly throughout the year, while some only close weekly during the summer when the weather is nice and we should be out soaking up the sun. Some are small, spanning only a few city blocks, while some are large, spanning hundreds of kilometres of streets. There are also places that hold weekly markets in downtown areas and close streets to cars regularly for vendors and pedestrians. These may not necessarily be declared car free days but are informally participating in the practice.
In 2000, the many nations that participate in car free days, agreed that September 22 would be recognised as World Car Free Day. This day coincides with the European Mobility Week. The week is a campaign that seeks to improve the quality of life of European citizens by promoting clean mobility and sustainable urban transport and includes a car free day. Car free days are a great opportunity to provide a place where local vendors can come out and showcase their goods and hopefully gain new customers. Whether they be butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers it is a chance for people to stop and try a sample and learn more about a small business or entrepreneur. An opportunity to buy and sell Jamaican made products, if you will.
Not only is it an opportunity for vendors to meet customers and vice versa but it is also a chance for many to see what life could be like without a personal vehicle. Could you see yourself pedaling to work on a bicycle on a cool morning? Or maybe taking a bus to and from the supermarket? Not because you have no choice but because it is better for your community, your wallet, and your health. This is something that is going to come up time and time again. There’s no avoiding or denying the fact that more cars on the road leads to more air pollution and more congestion. There have been studies that show that some cities experience a 40% reduction in NO2 levels on car free days. And most people are likely to notice better overall health when they spend more time being active outdoors.
So, could this be a real possibility in our two largest cities, MoBay and Kingston? Absolutely! This is the sort of thing that could be coordinated with people in the area and city officials. Residents should always have a say in what goes on in their community. And who better to say where a weekly event should take place than the residents who spend their time in the area. But to go one step further, this is something that the entire country could participate in on September 22. This year, World Car Free Day falls on a Saturday. This is, again, an opportunity to evaluate and assess our daily lives. Can we move towards more sustainable transportation systems? Is that something that people are interested in or know is a possibility? Can we be that country in the Caribbean that leads by example and provides a model for others in the region to follow? Knowledge is power. Have a conversation with someone about your city or town going car free for a day.
Some interesting reads and manuals on how to organise a car free day in your area