The reason for this unusually quiet morning? the 11th annual Car-Free Sunday in Brussels. Between the hours of 9:00 and 19:00, all engine traffic was brought to a halt (with the exception of public transportation, which was free for the day!) and every major roadway in Brussels was closed. Instead of grabbing their car keys, Brussels residents snapped on their helmets for a day on the town. People of all ages were out and about, partaking in the various festivities throughout the city and filling the streets with exhaust-free energy. Cyclists certainly capitalized on the opportunity to own the road, bringing Avenue Louise to maximum capacity with their two-wheeled vehicles. Indeed, Sunday, the 18th of September, proved to be a success!
In holding its Car-Free Day (CFD), Brussels joined a network of cities around the world, that also designate one day in a year to pollution-free travel. Starting in Bogota, Colombia, CFDs are meant to encourage the reduction of environmental emissions, foster the development of closer communities, where jobs and shops are within walking distance, and get citizens out on their feet (or bikes!). While planners realize that only one CFD day a year will not make much of a dent in the environment's bill of health, they do hope that it will create awareness about the benefits of living in a city with less car traffic.
For European cities, CFDs are part of the European Mobility Week campaign. This campaign aims to fight atmospheric and noise pollution, but it also hopes to contribute to the improvement of the quality of urban life. Car-Free Days are supposed to function as massive experiments that tempt city dwellers into considering what their locality would be like with fewer cars on the road. It also gives city planners a unique opportunity to test out their new transportation ideas and present them to citizens.
While Brussels residents seem to love CFDs, based on the high levels of participation, the effects of this day do not seem to last longer than 24 hours. Despite holding CFDs since 2000, the city still has seen limited progress in reducing carbon emissions and was given an F-grade in reducing 'soot emissions' this year. Additionally, TomTom, your friendly navigation device, has dubbed Brussels the most congested European city in 2011, due to its numerous blockages.
Clearly, there is a need for more commitment from the average Brussels resident to make this once-a-year event an everyday reality. We all need to show our support for a less congested city, by individually rethinking our transportation choices. While undoubtedly, there are times when we all say 'it is just so much more convenient to drive', this mentality quickly vanishes when we are locked in traffic and a cyclist goes whizzing by, sure to make it home in time for dinner. Also, this cyclist is getting exercise and spending zero Euros on daily commute (besides on the odd power bar), what about us? So, is it really so convenient to drive? From personal experience, having decided not to use a car for the past year, I must say it has been a lot less stressful to rely on public transportation than my own driving abilities.
This article was originally published in the October 2011 edition of the Sunbeams Newsletter.