The denizens of Beijing are seriously giving it a thought and putting it to practice as China gears up for the 2008 Olympics. With the International Olympic Committee expressing concerns about high pollution levels, China’s games organizing committee is taking it seriously. And the ministry of construction implemented, with some success, a “Chinese urban public transportation week and car-free day event” in 108 cities in September.
For many of us, a day without a car is simply unthinkable. It would mean using the overcrowded public transportation system, walking, or pedalling to office on a bicycle. Sounds tough, but that’s the alternative Beijing is encouraging its citizens to go for on car-free days. The response has been mixed but for many, fewer cars on the road is meaningful in the context of protecting the environment. Reports suggest that during a three-day car ban in Beijing last November, the number of cars on the roads declined from 2.8 million to two million. More than the easing of traffic congestion, it was the up to 40% drop in the city’s nitrogen oxide levels that was really remarkable.
The world saw its first car-free day in France on 22 September 1998, and most thought it to be an outlandish idea of the former French minister for environment, Dominique Voynet. But nine years later, the world has caught on to the concept and now hundreds of cities across the world, particularly in Europe and North America, encourage their residents to go in for a car-free day.
While nations search for lasting solutions, individuals and communities are coming up with innovative solutions. Car-free days are a step in that direction.
Environmental concerns apart, urban traffic congestion is a more immediate problem. The average commuting time by road during peak hours in Indian metros has doubled in the last five years. There are multiple reasons for this: the increasing number of automobiles, bad traffic management, cheaper vehicles, rising income levels, the absence of a reliable public transport system and bad roads. Going by the present trend, the future for city commuting looks bleak and will be stressful unless innovative solutions such as car-free days are implemented. The cynical-minded may still argue that a single car-free day wouldn’t do much and pass the onus onto the authorities for improving roads and managing traffic better for 365 days a year. But this idea is worth trying out.
London, in its drive to keep more cars off the road, has started raising congestion charges and drivers get a discount of 15% if they pay for a month in advance. The move, says Transport for London, the body responsible for the city’s transportation system, has reduced the number of vehicles on roads by 15%, lowered the number of accidents and curbed pollution. Drivers who don’t pay and are caught by one of the 700- odd cameras enforcing the congestion zone are fined £50—and double that if they don’t pay within 14 days. The money collected by levying congestion charges is meant to be used for improving the public transport system that carries approximately two million passengers a day. Stockholm is also following the London model of decongestion and I expect other big cities will follow suit, as well.
Some cities have come up with other solutions, such as auctioning of licence plates, in a plan to limit the number of vehicles on the streets. But this has not provided a lasting solution as people are ready to pay for the rising cost of the licence plates, and has done little to control the private vehicle population.
We, too, need to accept and implement ideas such as a car-free day in order to ensure less traffic congestion, stem pollution and contribute our small bit in solving the environmental problems that confront us today.
- L. Madhu Nag
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