By RANDY KAY, The Hamilton Spectator
Look around. Can you imagine a city street without cars? It's not easy given the design of North American cities built to serve automobiles, where people no longer walk but drive everywhere, where a suburban home's most prominent room is the garage.
With cars prying into our lives more and more it seems hard to picture a place where children move freely, where street life is quiet and open for interaction, where people go to meet, eat and play in a downtown, where cyclists are accepted as an integral part of the transportation mix, where mass transit is used by a majority of people.
As a society we have stopped thinking of streets as interesting places to be. We have learned, as a result of traffic design, that streets are for moving privately owned vehicles as efficiently as possible from a to b. As a result, we get ugly, unliveable downtowns, lots of smog, noise, and far too many deaths and injuries.
But there are glimpses of a better way.
Car Free Day, an annual celebration of the potential for a safer, cleaner and more liveable world is one such glimmer of the possible.
Cities in Europe have been celebrating Car Free Day since September 22, 1999 when 66 French towns, 92 Italian towns and the canton of Geneva came together to coordinate the first Car Free Day. Since then, participation in Car Free Days has grown to include over 1000 cities in 33 countries.
This year Car Free Day coasts in on Sunday September 22 in Hamilton.
Transportation for Liveable Cities (TLC) has been pushing car free day into traffic for the last two years in Hamilton.
An afternoon rush hour parade of roller-bladers, cyclists, wheelchair users, and pedestrians followed by a parking meter party on King Street (CFD 2000); a sidewalk clinic at King and MacNab for people seeking to go car-free or car-light and a locally produced video about Car Free Hamilton shown at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (CFD 2001).
This year people looking to escape the car-trap they are in will celebrate Car Free Day 2002 by temporarily reclaiming street space on King William Street, between James and John, beginning at 4:00 pm.
There will be drumming by Luna Tico drummers and Drum Call!, live music from Steve Sinnicks; DJ Skywok with DMS and Jesse Miller spinning techno and house, and the friendly bike mechanics from Recycle Cycles spinning your wheels in a Free Bike Clinic. Also on hand: children chalk drawing, a free speech video corner and lots of fun.
While there, let your imagination roll down streets where music flows, where concrete is transformed to green grass, where quiet outdoor chess games replace grease and oil stained parking spaces, where new statues and fountains rise, where people rest in former parking lots now treed parkettes, where cafe dwellers have front row seats for a parade of diverse and unexpected street life void of revving engines, squealing tires and clouds of exhaust.
In an invigorated, liveable downtown, King William would be a great car-free destination due to its scale and selection of unique shops and restaurants. A car-free atmosphere would only enhance the character of this street and perhaps inspire movement to restore the rotting facade of the Lister Block: decent affordable housing and independent shops in the Lister would help cement the core's future as a people place.
Author Katie Alvord (Divorce Your Car) provides some existing models: "Car-free and car-restricted zones can create inviting public spaces like Boston's verdant Southwest Corridor, Boulder's thriving outdoor Pearl Street Mall, or the networks of auto-free streets gracing European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Closing out cars can make terrific space for people and is often great for business. Several Tokyo shopping districts ban cars on Sundays; when people regain possession of these streets, says one report, an air of carnival prevails."
In Europe, local merchants' approval rate is 60% in support of Car Free Day. Why not Hamilton?
The return of two way streets on James and John is also a sign that good things can happen in the city to improve opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians to co-exist with calmed (slower) traffic. Off road multi-use paths like the Bayfront or the Rail-Trails also beckon as beautiful alternatives to ugly and congested main streets for recreational as well as commuter cyclists.
Streets become people places when we reassert our right to have a place to meet and play, where cars are scaled back, slowed down and in some instances outright banned.
David Engwicht has written about streets in terms of our right to street space. In Reclaiming our Cities and Towns he observes that "At the moment there is an unspoken assumption that the streets of the city belong equally to everyone and therefore there is a divine right for people to drive where they want to, when they want to."(114)
What this observation points to is hinted at in the oft used street protest chant: "Who's Streets? Our streets!" In terms of roads and traffic, "traffic reduction and street reclaiming have at their heart a redemocratization of our streets, a handing back of control....[leading] to much more efficient cities and neighborhoods...stamped with their own character and personality." (Engwicht, Street Reclaiming, p.183)
Theorists can argue over the finer points of how, when and where to create decent streets for vibrant exchanges, but on Car Free Day people are free to conduct their own experiments.
In a world where we don't blink at the 849 deaths that occurred on Ontario's highways in 2000, the safest year ever according to the Ministry of Transportation, where each day there are now more than 2.78 million vehicles on highways in the Hamilton and Toronto areas, of course it is difficult to summon up images of a world not infested with cars.
All the more reason to work harder to build alternative vision through action. If the people lead, the saying goes, the politicians will follow (which begs the question why have politicians in the first place').
In Toronto, Car Free Day is officially recognized and supported by the city. In Hamilton, Car Free Day seems to be resisted by the majority of the pro-road-building council.
A presentation by TLC to council a year ago included a requests for Hamilton to get on board with free HSR on the day, some official recognition of Car Free Day, and since the city is spending millions repairing roads to be ready for an international bike race in 2003, we asked them to fast-track in tandem the modest but much needed (and long-awaited) "Shifting Gears" cycling plan for cyclists who happen to live and ride in Hamilton.
A report returned acknowledging what we knew: that our ideas were totally in line with the sustainability plans in the city's own (and sadly neglected) Vision 2020 documents, but it would come down to budget day.
So here we are in 2002 doing it yet again without official help, with the notable exception of the Hamilton Street Railway who reproduced our Car Free Day flier and made them available on all 180 HSR buses.
Any proximity to a car free or car-lite future of course depends hugely on expanding and enhancing the HSR so that, both in terms of cost and efficiency, public transit becomes a viable option for people currently car-dependent.
Unlike private automobile ownership, Public Transit gives a wider range of people safe independent mobility, helping integrate young, old, low-income, differently-abled and other non-drivers more fully into community life.
A single bus can take up to 40 vehicles off the road, save as much as 70,000 litres of fuel and keep 9 tonnes of air pollutants out of the air per year; given our record breaking smog seasons, more good reasons to increase funding to the HSR and expand GO train service.
City politicians could help by preventing sprawl development which all but guarantees an auto-dependent future of people driving through your neighbourhoods to reach destinations formerly walkable.
Perhaps, as one person who contacted us suggested, if politicians rode the buses they would improve the service.
We are not proposing a multi-million dollar, all-in-one silver bullet to cure the downtown's ailments, so embarrassingly popular with the politicians; instead we offer a grassroots approach to incremental change, seeds for a new way of living in the city. Car Free.