World Carfree Day: Interview with Eric Britton

September 22 is an important date to remember – it’s World Carfree Day (WCD). Celebrated in towns and cities all over the world, it’s a day when streets are closed to cars and open for pedestrians, pedalers, parties and pleasure. Eric Britton, a sustainability activist, international adviser and consultant on sustainable transportation, is recognised for his work promoting and propelling WCD to international attention. Much of his work involves co-ordinating the collaborative New Mobility Agenda and World Streets online journal, which encompass a number of possible transport solutions, including public transport, bike sharing and shared space projects. In an interview with Carbusters, Eric shared his thoughts about the problems, popularity and prospects for WCD, and points out the importance of bringing it into the policy agenda of governments in order to improve urban transport sustainability.

New and existing WCD events continue to spread and strengthen in cities and towns across the world. What do you think about the popularity of WCD?
There are many ways to look at the popularity of WCD. If you look at any city where WCDs are held, you will find that the public reaction can fall into three different groups: first, the largest group, are people who simply don’t know a WCD exists or takes place in that city; a second group knows that a WCD is going on, but either dislikes it or chooses not to support it (although their criticism can be very useful); and the third group are the organisers or participants of the WCD. And of course, they like it a lot.

The fact that we have thousands of cities celebrating WCD is something of value and a huge accomplishment. However, we must be realistic - thus far it has had very little impact and it is not considered high priority in the transportation policies of many cities. Currently WCD is just a device to insight public discussion. WCD needs to be worked into the mainstream transportation policies of many cities in order to bring further change and my work will focus on this over the next few years.

Convincing policy makers and authorities to support WCD is a common problem. Why do you think these problems persist and how can they be overcome?
One problem is that there is either none or very little difference between the ways in which WCDs are organised and carried out. Another problem is the current lack of a consistent or specific message with which to bring forward to public policy makers. However, WCD does carry a very important general message: there are too many cars in cities which we need to control and many parts of our cities would do better with fewer cars, but that message by itself is not enough.

WCD has the potential to be a useful tool in influencing a city’s overall policy, particularly regarding transportation. Through my work I try to keep track of WCDs around the world and find how we can make better use of this tool. Having worked and talked with mayors and public policymakers all over the world, it is clear they are very busy and transportation forms just one part of their responsibility. With the current lack of a consistent message and credible proposal, it will always be a struggle to push WCDs further to what we think they should be doing. Therefore, WCD needs to be shown in very concrete terms in order to be taken into the policy agenda.  This could be a small number of well defined recommendations given to public policymakers – ideally, this message should include three points of what people think should and can be done.

Where have you seen WCD work best?
It’s really best to ask the organisers. People involved in the organisation have the best knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. They often work closely with authorities to make one day where many streets are taken over, so it becomes safe for families, cyclists and pedestrians.

A famous example is Bogotá, Colombia, which holds the world’s largest carfree weekday event covering the entire city. The first WCD was held in 2000, and it has since become an institutionalised event, following the 2006 Towards Carfree Cities conference and former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s influence which helped a pattern of carfree activities spread in Bogotá, as well as to other cities in Latin America.

There are many small local events, which are sometimes hard to follow; they fall into three main categories: the first ones have good ideas; second ones are ok; and the third are the clear losers. However, there is another group, probably the most important, which act as instruments of change on public policy and people’s practices in the city. Currently WCD is too abstract, so we need to focus it. The important point is how well these events are done, not how many carfree days are held in a city. But despite not having a very strong concept, it has still spread widely, and by strengthening it, it has the potential to grow much more.

In a world still so gripped with cars, do you see carfree day evolving into a permanent reality?
The ideal outcome of WCDs is that at one point they will disappear, because they are no longer needed. We would have accomplished the objective of softening the impact that cars have on a city. WCD has grown, simply because it is an idea that many people like, not just because of the number of organisations, groups, individuals, or authorities supporting it. Now is the time to come up with more and better ideas that people like and that are powerful enough to become a permanent reality.

There are two carfree “gadgets” which I believe are really useful in helping us achieve this: “Carfree Sundays” and a “New Mobility Week”. These are regular events where networks of city streets are closed to traffic for one day a week, or for one week of the year. With these ideas, I intend to create something similar to the European Mobility Week and to link it to the annual WCD. But a New Mobility Week would have more of a consistent structure and contain “doable” actions for specific cities. I don’t think carfree events should have a uniform approach – each with a different concept and mission – the only part which would be the same in every place could be Carfree Sundays. Eventually these activities would take place every day of the week, making carfree cities a permanent reality.

What is your advice for groups or individuals starting a new carfree day?
My first recommendation is to take time to study what works and what hasn’t worked – to become aware of this sector and not just dive straight in with no background. Anybody in any city can do a WCD, but doing it well involves some research.

I would encourage anyone interested in organising an event to create an attractive website, where everyone can pitch in with their ideas – making it fun and interactive. Using media is a great way of reaching out to people. There is a lot of information on sustainable transportation out there which is too dense for most people to feel inspired. It is important to make it simple, selecting what is interesting and accessible to most people, as well as making it available in other languages.

It is important to talk to people who don’t support the WCD approach (e.g. local merchants and car user groups) and with police who are on the street all the time so know more about transportation than most in the city. Listening to what they have to say will help us understand what can be done to make it more of a success.  Make sure you test your ideas, not simply just to think it is a great idea and do it.

What projects are you currently working on and have lined up for the future?
What I would love to do, in a few years, is to put an end to all my mobility-type activities and pass it onto other capable people to carry on this work. I’d like to spend more time on projects outside of mobility: pursuing my interests on how society works and its problems, ranging from economic issues to ethnic tensions.

For now, I still have a lot of work to do in new mobility. Over the next few years, I shall continue to maintain and strengthen the New Mobility Agenda and all of its subsets, of which WCD is one, as well as the World Streets blog, and to work with colleagues around the world to create local editions in local languages in order to make it accessible to more people.

Another project I’ve already began working on is a series of what I call “New Mobility Master Classes”. This involves bringing together people in different countries with broad experience and who can eventually lead their own projects, in order to create a template model for sustainable mobility. The Master Class might be a week long or last a whole month and we try to involve students and academics working in this field.  The overall idea is to take new mobility apart in the context of a single city, over the course of one month, talking about many different topics related to mobility, with one of the days devoted to WCD. Once the model has begun to work well, then other people in the field will be able to run their own Master Classes. So I’ll be busy!

How do you think sustainable mobility and broader issues like climate change can be connected?
We’ve got a planet that is really suffering from our behaviour. People often talk about car sharing, bicycle sharing and street sharing, but it is important to share information online and to bring people together to discuss these topics. The first gathering of this kind is the World Sharing Transport Conference taking place in Taiwan in September 2010. It will look deeper into the topic of sharing which has not been talked about much before, as well as studying other aspects such as the behavioural psychology behind it. The important message to spread is that sharing is a great way to meet new people, it’s cool, and it helps save the planet.

Interview by Jane Harding.

For more information on World Carfree Day and sustainable mobility:

  • New Mobility Agenda
  • World Streets
  • World Sharing Transport Conference
  • World Carfree Day
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