Ready. Aim. Fire!

Over the last three years we have witnessed an uncomfortable number of what one might call "Ready-Fire-Aim" car free day syndrome. These enthusiastic, often insufficiently thought-through and prepared projects, tend to assume that getting value out of a car free day is an easy target, have not only all too often been disappointing in terms of their results, but also in some cases have set back the whole idea of this approach within the community. With an eye to avoiding this, we quote here from an interview with Car Busters magazine in the run-up to their 21 September 2000 trial run for a World Car Free Day.

Questions & Some Answers on Organizing a Car Free Day in Your City

  1. Car Busters: What is the first step we should take when it comes to organizing a car free day?

    Eric Britton: If you are contemplating the possibility of organizing a car free day in your city or neighborhood, the critical first step in this process is to run a very serious reality check. This consists of making quite sure that you have a firm understanding of a certain number of critical points that are ultimately, once the Day is over and the traffic is back on the street, going to determine if your Day is seen and understood by all concerned as a success.

  2. Busters: Sounds reasonable, but what exactly constitutes success in this case?

    Britton: A broadly shared public consensus that it was a sufficiently positive experience, that there is strong public (and electoral) support for doing it again.. albeit certainly better and with the benefit of the new knowledge and insights gained as a result of the first round of work and accomplishment.

  3. Busters: And how do you measure success?

    Britton: Independently! It has to be measured openly and by specifically stated criteria, and cannot simply be announced. And certainly not least by those responsible for its organization. Best is either a certified independent polling group, or a respected independent public interest group who publicly expose all details of their poll.

  4. Busters: What exactly do you mean by a "full scale" CarFree Day?

    Britton:The ultimate ambition of a Car Free Day, as set out for example in the original "Thursday" Car Free Day Call from Toledo in 1994, and as we saw it at work in this year's prize-winning Bogotá or Chengdu demonstrations, is (a) to eliminate at least 90% of all the private cars from the traffic stream, (b) for all or some major part of a normal (preferable mid-week) working day, with (c) full city-wide coverage. That is what we mean by a Car Free Day, in the fullest sense of the term.

  5. Busters: Can this be achieved?

    Britton:Yes, and Bogotá is a good example to study of how to go about it. (See the Bogotá case study elsewhere in this site and its extensions.) The main lesson of Bogota is not so much its success per se, but the manner in which this success was fought for and won. But we need to keep this in perspective too. Bogotá is a sort of mega-example with its sprawling metropolitan area, seven million people, and almost a million cars that were kept off the road. A Car Free Day can be carried out and succeed too on a more modest scale, but. . .

  6. Busters: Is it easy to do?

    Britton: No, a city-wide project is a pretty tough assignment actually, and this should be kept very much in mind. A full scale city effort requires a number of things if it is to succeed: considerable technical virtuosity and effort on the part of the planners and traffic people; careful interactions with and the strong support of the law enforcement agencies concerned; early targeting and creative interaction with those who are most likely to be opposed a priori (including shopkeepers, motorist associations and others; and the effective mobilization of and continuous interaction with the public and public opinion.

  7. Busters: Anything else on the list?

    Britton: Yes, two things. First, the whole process of planning, and then the implementation of the Day, must be seen as something which comes to be "owned and operated" by the people of the city. Not something that is imposed on them by well-intentioned central administrators, demonstrators or social engineers. To ensure that "ownership" is transferred to the people is a task that requires more than media and communications skills in the old sense (one way, from the center out). It means that we need to develop a 'process of interaction, involvement and tailoring' so that this notion of ownership is not just a superficial claim.

  8. Busters: You said, two things?

    Britton: And the second and last thing that is indispensable is leadership. Leadership tempered by a deep commitment to the concept of social justice (remember that almost half of the people of any city either cannot or for various reasons should not be owner/drivers in the first place), an ability to communicate and to mobilize the public, ability to accept, learn from and deal with criticism, and, as important as all of the rest, staying power. Courage, if you will.

  9. Busters: Is that all?

    Britton:That's at least enough to get you started, and at the very least you can be sure that if you don't have these capabilities in your city, then a full scale Car Free Day is certainly a bit premature.

  10. Busters: Does all that mean that we should give up on the idea for our city?

    Britton: Not at all. It just means that if you don't have these necessary preconditions, you have to think about taking another approach, one that is more realistic and better matched with the unique situation of your city. Or other approaches, actually, since there is in fact a range of possibilities.

  11. Busters: Can you tell us about some of them?

    Britton:Let me for now simply list two of the more modest, think of them as "starter systems", which may be good ways for your town or city to lay the base for, perhaps, a more ambitious effort that may follow later. These include:

    • Car Free Sundays: This is an approach that we have seen in a fast growing number of places across Europe. The first of these were organized in the Netherlands and in Switzerland, beginning as early as 1973, although in the intervening years they have only been occasional and nor very well known or followed up. Perhaps the best publicized of these of late has been the cycle of four Italian Car Free Sundays that were organized in the first months of 2000. In the coming months we are going to see a number of these, including at the national level in the Netherlands where a national Car Free Sunday is being organized for 24 September.
    • The European Commission's "In Town without my Car!" Day, which was initially of course pioneered in France and which this year is going to be held on 22 September. They call their days "In town without my car!" and set as their goal "to increase public awareness of the pollution caused by thoughtless use of cars in towns and to reaffirm the place of pedestrians, cyclists and public urban transport.". This is a wide open approach which also tries to make place for alternative fuel vehicles, and leaves each city to chose its own path.

  12. Busters: Is that all that there is to chose from?

    Britton: No, those are just some of your choices. The fact is that a Car Free Day is above all a local event, so we always encourage cities and groups to think about and prepare them in the way that seems best suited to their particular case. I can imagine, for example, a "car free day" in place, in which in fact there is no concerted attempt to reduce the number of cars on the street. City A might say, for instance, let's just take a day and 'talk about it', perhaps in a combination of conferences, public meetings, and media events. Maybe all the thing that they might do on that first day is just to talk about it in public, and gather views and opinions from all the various sides. That to my mind would be a great car free day all by itself. Another possibility, say in City B, might be simply to take a day and ask all the schools and universities to consider the question, in particular in the context of how the students, school children and even teachers and administrators get to and from home on that day. And show how they could do it either with zero cars or at least a lot fewer cars.

  13. Busters: Okay, so what should we do next?

    Britton:I suggest that the best place to start is, as the old phrase goes, by 'thinking global, acting local". To help you with the former you have the World Car Free Day Consortium site which offers a very large and authoritative body of information and views directly and via the links at your disposal. It will take you and your colleagues a certain number of hours to work your way through these materials, but do take the time to do it since there is a lot of value there and it can save you a lot of time, trouble and anguish later on.

    And then, if you think that there might possibly be a fit between the basic concept and your city and the people who live in it, why not consider the idea of inviting an open public discussion of the concept, both in general and in the context of your city at some future time. You might even find yourself a motto for this way to proceed. For example, "Ready, Aim, Fire!" -- and not, "Ready. Fire. Aim!"

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