The Surprising Benefits of Taking Cars off Our City Streets
By Marcela Guerrero Casas
A future in which everyone travels in driverless flying cars may still dominate the popular imagination, particularly when it comes to media and marketing hype. But if we are to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on sustainable cities and communities, a more revolutionary (albeit more low-tech) picture will unfold, in which people are moving freely and swiftly — but not by car.
Reducing our dependence on petrol cars is not only better for the planet and our individual wellbeing, it will pave the way to a better future for our cities. From improving mobility and ensuring civic participation in how cities are designed, run and experienced, to public health and strengthening the social fabric that will make our communities more resilient, a shift towards fewer cars can help our cities not only survive, but thrive.
The process may not be simple, but there is a practical and easy strategy that can help people see streets differently: temporarily taking cars off the street.
Cars contribute to a public health crisis — air pollution
How to get people out of their cars continues to be a global challenge. Even in cities where public space and public transport are safe and reliable, this can be difficult; it is especially so in places where these amenities are unsafe, unaffordable and unreliable. This is where temporary interventions such as car-free days can unlock a whole new approach to movement and mobility.
In the mid-1970s, Colombia's capital city, Bogotá, saw the birth of what would become a global movement to make streets safer, more inclusive and more appealing to city dwellers. It is called Ciclovia, often known as "open streets" in English-speaking countries, and entails the creation of car-free routes throughout the city every Sunday and public holiday.
The swarms of cyclists that take over city streets on these occasions is a real spectacle. Even though the impact on mobility patterns has not yet been fully understood, it is clear that in places like Bogotá, Ciclovía was the genesis of bicycle infrastructure in the city and perhaps the country. Culture and environment has helped the movement to grow bicycling in Colombia: people have relied on the bicycle to travel for more than 100 years and professional cycling is a source of national pride. This might not be the case everywhere, but the worldwide frenzy around urban cycling makes this an opportune moment to try car-free street programs and put them to the test.
On most days, our city streets are clogged with motorized traffic and, in some cases, crime and pollution. Temporary car-free space thus becomes a platform to exercise our right to the city and to co-create a new urban vision.
In most Latin American capitals, governments run a weekly Open Streets program. As acknowledged at a recent congress of Ciclovia initiatives in the region, many local officials have bought into the concept and one of the key objectives of this program is to bring happiness to their citizens. This, as far as non-material infrastructure goes, is what city-making is really about: the sense of belonging, involvement and self-determination, which is best expressed in physical joy.
Great efforts have been made to measure the impact of Ciclovia in Latin American cities' public health. In Colombia, for instance, researchers from Los Andes University have demonstrated that for every dollar spent on the program, three dollars are saved on public health. The Ministry of Sport has also helped create a national network to promote the program in more cities and towns of the country and continues to carry out rigorous studies to ascertain what type of physical activity curriculum is most effective. In getting a regular dosage of physical activity as recommended by medical practitioners, there is no better place than kilometers of car-free space in which thousands – and in the case of Bogotá, millions – are also exercising and moving. As the Latin American network likes to explain, "It is a healthy epidemic." And it is one that keeps growing, not only in Latin America but across the globe, with African cities most recently joining through the creation of Open Streets programs in places like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Abuja, Nairobi, Kigali and more.
In cities where people have been historically segregated and economic disparity continues to dig deep trenches between communities, creating a space of inclusion can be powerful. In Bogotá, the impact is such that areas which are normally out of bounds, both because they exclude the poor or because they are deemed to be too dangerous, become welcoming spaces for everyone to experience and enjoy.
Similarly, in Cape Town, where the program has been tested in different parts of a city where spaces of racial and social integration are rare, Open Streets is a symbol of a new future, because young people are able to experience a city where streets are democratized and inclusive of all ages, races and backgrounds.
To ensure sustainable cities all around, we must take steps to shift away from the current over-dependency on the automobile. We can begin this process by thinking how we re-organize and utilize public space for the benefit of not only new design and infrastructure, but also for new generations to think of that space differently and therefore create new narratives around it. Temporary interventions work with existing assets and focus on shifting people's perception which will ultimately shape how we view and exercise sustainable urban planning in the long term.
Marcela Guerrero Casas is the founder and an associate of Open Streets Cape Town.
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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