By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko
Web Exclusive - December 18, 2006
We haven't watched the weather report this closely all summer. For the umpteenth time today, my daughter has been checking at the window "to see what it's doing out there." Is the rain going to hold off or are we going to celebrate a soggy Car Free Day?
Each year on September 22nd, International Car Free Day is celebrated by over 100 million people in about 1,500 cities around the world. From babies to the elderly, people get together to reclaim streets: to close them off and have parties, play road hockey games, to revel in entertainment and community-building activism. We've been involved with Car Free Days for five years now, almost as long as it's inception in France and Italy back in 1999—and we're certainly not going to let a few drops of rain stop us this year.
My husband Randy Kay started Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC), an alternative transportation advocacy group in our city. This group has done the lion's share of the work in planning Car Free Day here. On today's agenda: a downtown "critical mass" bike ride, which returns to a closed-off street where we will lay down rolls of sod on the paved road, converting it into a green oasis. People can plop down in their lawn chairs, picnic on blankets, or simply sprawl out on it. Little folk will be free to crawl across it. A safe space for scampering kids, plus music and food—and we've got a party!
As we wait for the weather to make up its mind, I reflect on the past week and the recent car free events we've participated in leading up to today. TLC organized a guided hike to a beautiful local waterfall, a bike tour around a historical harbour on a multi-use waterfront trail (suitable for cycling, rollerblading and walking), guided by a local historian. There's been a free outdoor movie night at a park bandshell, and a women-only bike repair clinic where my oldest daughter (then nine) and I learned a few useful tips that we took home and applied to maintaining our own bikes.
I think of Car Free Days that Randy's group has helped put together in past years. We've enjoyed a poetry, music and film night at a local cafe, with an open mic that generated lots of hearty laughter. We learned more about public transportation on a guided bus tour of our small city. There's even been a Car Free Art Show featuring sculpture made from bike parts, paintings, and cartoons by local artists both young and old. "Months of planning, but it's always worth it," Randy muses.
The time arrives for us to leave for the event, and indeed, the rain comes after all. Undaunted, a group of about 50 people wearing brightly coloured slickers and helmets set out for the ride. Honking and tooting on bike horns, bells, and whistles, they make a veritable cacophony of sound laughing merrily, defying the rain. There are a few bike trailers carrying little kids and some older ones riding on their own bikes.
Eventually, we pedal into the party zone, and helped by children of all ages, we start setting up. A big bright banner proclaiming "Car Free Day," painted earlier at home by my kids, is hung over a store window (with their prior permission). Someone has donated an old car for celebrants to decorate, so paints and brushes are assembled. The sod is carefully laid out.
As we pause from our preparations to look up at the sky, we notice that it's stopped raining. The Goddess of Car Free Day is on our side! Now the sun is coming out and so are the clowns. They begin dazzling children and elderly alike with their antics—as well as making and handing out funny characters of twisted, skinny balloons.
The little car is joyfully being sloshed with paint as gleeful children circle round and round leaving their mark—creating a fine artwork out of it. I watch my daughters take chunky sidewalk chalk and extend the creative flow onto the road proper: they are free to draw as much as they want on area that is usually used by vehicles alone. What power! Inspired, I join in. Now the musicians are getting ready to play; friends of ours they have volunteered to help out by giving freely of their talents. Kids start dancing with parents, while others sit on the sod or on lawn chairs, soaking up the fun. The restaurant and deli are opened and people stroll over to grab a bit to eat.
One family starts a game of ball, while younger kids ride around on bikes They squeal with the excitement the safely cordoned off open road offers them. No one needs to tell them to 'watch out!' Extra bikes have been supplied by Recycle Cycles—a local group of bike mechanics who rescue and fix bikes to sell cheaply to the community. Once a week people are also welcome to visit their center (in a church basement), bring their bikes, and get help fixing them. Today, Recycle Cycles has set up a table to give a free bike repair demonstration.
Passersby stop to ask as what we are doing. They look at the kids who are sitting at tables and drawing for a colouring competition. "This is really cool!" a group of youth exclaim in amazement. "Never knew anything about it," they add. They end up staying and joining in. Others ask in a worried tone, "Is this only for people who don't own a vehicle?" My youngest daughter quickly dispels that myth: "Car Free Day is for everybody," she smiles encouragingly. Car Free Day is a glimpse of what our communities could be like—places that are people-friendly and safe for people of all ages to ride their bikes in. "Wouldn't it be great if Car Free Day was every day?" my middle child comments.
I reflect on what she's saying. She is referring to the feeling of independence of movement she is experiencing on what is normally a busy street. Wouldn't it be great if kids could experience that kind of independence every day? Kids are so used to being driven around by their parents and learn car dependency at a very early age. There is too, the concern that children are becoming obese due to lack of exercise. I remember growing up without a car, and how we would walk everywhere. I remember also the utter thrill of riding my bike to go pick apples or run an errand. I want that for my children too.
It's what Dr. Catherine O'Brien refers to as the culture of childhood: "experiencing the world in a lingering way." That's all but disappeared. O'Brien, who is a researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Transportation in Winnipeg, has been studying the impact of transportation on children for the last eight years.
She initiated and maintains an 'impact' list which, distressingly, just keeps growing as the research is compiled. For example, air quality. O'Brien says that if you ask children in a regular elementary school how many of them are on asthma inhalers or how many kids they know who are on them, 90% of the class will raise their hand. "Children living in very polluted areas have reduced lung function growth and that can set them up for respiratory illnesses later on in life" she notes.
O'Brien cites another good reason to encourage less car dependency: the idea of 'happiness' in relation to transportation and urban planning. While we are gaining a better understanding of how urban planning and public health are related, precious few have ventured into the study of how our transportation choices relate to our happiness. "Children's views of transportation remind us that transportation is not only about 'moving people and goods'. It is about wonder, discovery, joy and happiness." This fresh vantage point, O'Brien continues, offers "Opportunities for expanding our thinking around planning, happiness and sustainability." For more on her research, see http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye/ and http://cst.uwinnipeg.ca/.
International Car Free Day is a chance to consider the children who are in our care and how we can better serve them. It's an opportunity to reflect upon our car addiction habit, while considering the different, sustainable modes of transportation available to us. It offers a chance to take responsibility and action to reduce greenhouse gases in our communities and to begin to address and raise awareness of the link between fossil-fueled cars and poor air quality, smog, global warming and climate change.
A face painter arrives next and the children (and some adults) line up to get their faces painted. Bike signs, feet, and skates are some of the popular images. My husband chooses a car with a crossed out sign over it. I decide to opt out. The party continues into the evening under the watchful eye of the police, who warn us that next time we need to get a permit from the city if we are going to do it again on such a grand scale. In the end they leave, realizing that there is no harm being done. My middle daughter Madeleine comes tearing over on a gently used, bubblegum pink bike. "Look what I won in the colouring competition!" she thrills. It's a perfect ending to a perfect event.
After the party, the youth come up to us wanting to know how they can get involved for next year. People have asked how they can help raise awareness not just on Car Free Day but throughout the year. We offer these tips: Seek out a local sustainable transportation advocacy group, or start your own. Focus on creating small events in your own neighborhood that are pro-livable communities, pro-biking, pro-walking; such as having 'breakfasts in the street' events. It's a great way to spread the idea that life can be so much nicer with fewer cars around.
Nothing beats setting an example, so walk the walk, cycle the cycle, take transit, arrange car pools. In our city, median car trip distances are less than 5 km. The squeaky bike wheel gets the grease, so call your local politicians to let them know you need more bike lanes, paths, improved bus service. Arrange face-to-face meetings with them, and follow-up to monitor progress. We enjoyed a walk-about with our local councilor to survey opportunities for improvements in our downtown. Join a global movement like monthly critical mass bike rides (usually the last Friday of each month), or make a poster and gather some friends to start one in your town/city.
If a destination you go to doesn't have bike parking, bring your bicycle in to the place with you as a protest. For more ideas see www.cityrepair.org from Portland, Oregon.
On the bus ride home, my children are tired but happy. I ask them what they liked about Car Free Day. "We loved to dance on street," they answer, reminding me of activist Emma Goldman who said "If I can't dance at my own revolution than I don't want to be part of it!"
"It's so fun and it's helping to save the environment," Bronwyn, my youngest, says. She enjoyed "playing horsey" with her sister in the "grassy middle," a game where they took turns riding on each others backs.
Eva says "making friends," was important to her as well as enjoying the role reversal of the event; "cars could come through but it was like they were invited into our space."
Madeleine says she enjoyed "running around on the street. I love blowing bubbles—usually you can't do that because you can get hit by a car."
She is already making plans for next car free day; "Wouldn't it be fun if we planted a garden?" she asks me.
"I think I'd like to bring my recorder, make music dance on the street," contributes her sister Eva. And "paint a car again," she giggles.
"Maybe we could have a garage sale and badminton match," I offer my suggestions.
I think of the amazing, positive experience this continues to be for our family—the kids are exposed to all sorts of exciting ways of tackling serious problems, they are helping to build and maintain community, and they are learning to create a less car-centric culture. While having fun!
Beatrice lives and writes in Dundas, Ontario. She is a home educating mom of three. With her family, she produces a weekly radio show on home-based education called Radio Free School.