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The American Dream of a suburban home with two cars in the garage is now being sold worldwide as the one true measure of success. Multinational corporations see the emerging middle classes of Asia and Eastern Europe as a goldmine. In China, more than two million automobiles have been purchased since 2002 with a growth rate of 80 percent in 2003. Those achieving the American Dream now face the associated afflictions of this "success": obesity, stress, air pollution, crash mortalities, and the social isolation that comes with driving. Welcome to the good life.
Of course even those who have achieved this benchmark are being forced to wonder how long it will last. The private automobile is already responsible for 40 percent of global warming and ground ozone (smog) air pollution, the obliteration of vast green spaces (a third of the real estate in the typical American city) and the staggering amount of suffering caused by traffic related death. Cars kill more than 3,000 people daily, a death toll equaling "a 9/11 tragedy every day," according to a 2003 U.N. report.
The dream of car ownership will expand as long as oil stays plentiful and cheap. But geologists and economists who study the oil business have recently published a slew of books with charming titles like "The End of Oil" that warn we will soon, or may already have, reached peak global oil production creating a situation in which supplies diminish while demand from Asia spikes. The combination will raise prices beyond anything we have seen so far.
The New Earth Day?
Most Americans now understand that we face an environmental crisis, and many suspect that our car-dependent lifestyle is at the core of this crisis. But we feel powerless to do anything about it. Most cities offer few mobility options besides the ever-present automobile centered transport infrastructure. Advertisers spend billions convincing us we cannot possibly live without the status symbol of a new car. Cars are the third most advertised product, after alcohol and tobacco.
Enter World Carfree Day. While Earth Day in the U.S. has become a largely underattended, uninspired, and even corporate-polluter-sponsored event, World Carfree Day is a relatively new celebration that tackles one of our biggest environmental problems head-on while giving us a glimpse of an easier, more joyous way of living.
World Carfree Day is a celebration of ecological mobility and livable cities that will be held internationally on Sept. 22, 2004. The idea is simple. Neighborhoods, communities, and cities encourage people to leave their cars at home for just one day a year.
The first European Car Free Day was held in France in 1998 and was a huge success. Restaurants set up shop on the sidewalks while children played safely in the streets. People were able to walk at liberty on safe streets, visit with neighbors and make new friends much like their urban ancestors did just 100 years ago. The event proved to be not only an ecological success, but also a way for the community to celebrate its connections in the public space without fear of being killed by speeding automobiles. The day was unique for urban dwellers – stress free.
In 2003, more than 723 cities and towns in Europe participated in Car Free Day. This year cities in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Taiwan will officially join the party. In Bogota, Columbia voters have incorporated into their constitution four car-free days each year. In 2004, Erika Jangen, directorate general for environment with the European Commission, expects the number of participating cities internationally to reach 1,000.
The goal is not just to get people out of their cars for one day. Organizers hope to show their cities and towns in another light thanks to reduced motorized traffic within restricted areas, and to inform city-dwellers of mobility options and the risks connected with auto-spewed air pollution. Participating cities launch at least one new permanent improvement in their transit, bicycle, or pedestrian system during the week.
In late July, a determined group of urban planners, architects, policy makers, academics and activists from 21 nations gathered in Berlin for the fourth annual, "Toward Carfree Cities" conference. Experts included Jangen, Joel Crawford, author of Car Free Cities, and Derek Turner – the "Elvis" of sustainable transportation who planned and successfully implemented London's successful congestion pricing scheme that reduced traffic in Central London by 60,000 cars a day. Congestion pricing has improved bus travel time, reduced pollution and noise in the district, and raised US$126 million annually that will be spent on improving transit in London.
"The problems created by cars and oil consumption are so glaringly obvious today that a global movement to address the issue is beginning to thrive," said Jason Kirkpatrick, conference organizer and former vice-mayor of Arcata, California. "We will not find our way out of this smog and traffic-filled malaise until we remake our cities for people and not for cars."
The ideas and organizing by this growing network of livable city advocates might just hold the keys to finding our way out of the problems presented by cars. Creating livable cities, where children can safely ride bikes and play in the streets, where the air is clean and the noise reduced to the chatting neighbors and laughter of kids, will go a long way toward protecting the ecosystem we all depend on for survival. Car Free Cities might just make our everyday lives more safe, healthy, and enjoyable – at least for a day.
Want to get involved in your community's Carfree Day on Sept. 22? Visit World Carfree Network.
Brian Smith is the International Press Secretary for Earthjustice.