Having lived in the city now for over 12 years, one of the things that constantly tries my patience is the traffic. The endless throngs of cars, trucks and gas-guzzling, environment-killing SUVs that plunge through the streets can turn an otherwise beautiful day into one where you are gasping for fresh air and relative silence. There is no respite for the lowly pedestrian as in other provinces where you merely have to approach the yellow striped walkway or intersections and cars stop to give you the right of way. In Montreal you take your life in hand when trying to cross at any intersection. I pity the children and little people most of all as they are at the exhaust pipe level when walking. Besides seeing only a forest of knees and legs, the exhaust is pumped almost directly into their lungs.
Having said all that, Montreal participated in International Car Free Day. The event prohibits all vehicles from the downtown core for the day. Although I rarely go downtown, I took my child simply so we could walk in the middle of the street unharrassed. It was wonderful to stroll along, looking down the people-filled street. There were bicycles of all sorts, scooters and electric cars every which way you turned, making the navigation still a bit difficult, but it was still much more pleasant than dodging gas-run vehicles.
Over 100 million people around the world celebrate International Car Free Day. It provides the opportunity for individual communities and its citizens to learn about the environmental, health and social issues that arise from our dependency on fossil fuels. Although the recent momentum behind the Car Free Day (CFD) movement in the last three or four years has raised awareness for the initiative, its roots go back almost 40 years. Its most recent growth has been fueled by the diligent work of French and Italian Ministries of the Environment and the European Union’s Environment Directorate.
The recent movement began back in September, 1999, when 66 French towns, 92 Italian towns and the canton of Geneva came together to coordinate the first Car Free Day. Based on the success of this day, the Italian Ministry of the Environment staged a series of four Car Free Days, taking place the first Sunday of the month starting in February 2000. Each day included a theme; music, culture, Earth Day activities and sports. At the same time, the city of Bogota, Colombia, staged its first Car Free Day. The city of seven million people was closed to traffic and declared an unqualified success by local administrators. Bogota has declared the first Thursday of February as Car Free Day and recently completed its fourth Car Free Day last February.
Following the success of the European CFD in 1999, the European Union set up a two-year program – with a budget of $2 million – to help European countries promote and stage Car Free Days. The results were overwhelming and impressive. A total of 760 cities and towns, including over 70 million people in 26 European and non-EU countries, participated in Car Free Day in 2000. In 2001, over 1,000 cities in 33 countries participated in Car Free Day activities, with those numbers increasing to over 1,400 cities in 38 countries in 2002.
While initially viewed with some concern by local merchants, acceptance levels of Car Free Day has risen to almost 60% in most European countries. These numbers are said to reflect the growing concern and empathy that merchants feel with their fellow citizens regarding issues of air pollution, smog and inner city traffic and congestion.
With Toronto hosting and staging its first Car Free Day in 2001, it became the first Canadian and North American city to host Car Free Day. CFD activities in Toronto, Hamilton and Victoria in 2002 have provided a template for other Canadian cities to follow.
In Montreal this year, there was concern expressed by local merchants, who said that over half of their patrons come by car, that Monday is one of their busiest days and hence they would be losing thousands of dollars in revenue. As I wandered the streets, I couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t turned it into a money-making venture with a special one-day sale, the angles are almost endless. As it was, there was only a sort of parade, with the plethora of alternative modes of transportation making their way down the street.
While it was a good time to enjoy the silence and smog-free streets, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. It is true that cars, trucks and SUVs do pollute and depend on fossil fuels, which make us dig deeper into the belly of mother earth to run them. But the alternative modes of transportation are not affordable and not practical. The electric cars are tiny little vehicles with barely enough room for two adults let alone a family of three or more, plus there is no cargo space to transport anything. The little electric scooters are cute and cool looking but they are no good in the rain.
One would think that if they can put a man in space and do all sorts of other things with the amazing technology available today, why can’t car manufacturers make an affordable environmentally friendly alternative. Heck why can’t they simply modify all the cars out there already to make them environmentally friendly? It all comes down to money, and unfortunately those who hold the power are of the mind that it would cost more to them to be kind to the environment. I am of the mind that you get what give, which doesn’t bode well for those who drive vehicles like a Hummer.