Time to replace International Car Free Day with Free Public Transport Day

Commuters returning to the office need to see there are better ways to get to work than driving

People walk along the Champs Elysees Avenue, Paris, during the "day without cars", with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. It is the sixth year the city has held a car free day in an attempt to reduce traffic and ease air pollution. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

People walk along the Champs Elysees Avenue, Paris, during the "day without cars", with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. It is the sixth year the city has held a car free day in an attempt to reduce traffic and ease air pollution. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

 

Have you notice anything different on your commute to work today? Probably not. And that is probably because International Car Free Day - currently in its 21st iteration - is now largely ignored in Ireland.

Tweets from city councils, political parties and environmental agencies seem to have replaced active incentives to genuinely offer car drivers a chance to switch from their cars to other modes of transport on the day.

And as the 2021 International Car Free Day coincided with the week when many people returned to work in offices in Ireland, one imagines commuters would have been open to alternative ways to get to their workplaces after such a long time working from home.

The low numbers of cars on the road during the Covid-19 pandemic gave us a snapshot of how our cities and towns could be less congested and less polluted if there was a massive switch to public transport and active travel.

The Covid-19 pandemic also sparked renewed interest in the 15 minute city concept where clever urban planning can give people access to shops, offices, cultural and sports facilities all within a fifteen minute walk or cycle of their homes.

But as commuters faced long delays on entry points to Dublin and other cities this morning, they may well look in despair at tweets from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Green Party or Dublin City Council suggesting they leave their cars at home and walk, cycle and/or use public transport instead.

Yet, all is not lost as studies have found that the amount of cars travelling into Dublin city centre over the last decade has dropped by 11 per cent to 27 per cent of all vehicles. However the amount of space dedicated to car parking remains extremely high even with recent pedestrianization of some city streets and new bus only routes. And, remember the number of registered passenger cars in Ireland doubled from 1995 to just over 2 million in 2015.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to celebrate a day in the city without cars as citizens of Paris and 35 cities and municipalities in Belgium did last Sunday to mark International Car Free Day? Crowds of Parisians and tourists strolled down the Champs Elysees Avenue on Sunday when cars were banned for the day. Other thoroughfares in Paris were filled with walkers and cyclists although buses, taxis and residents using cars for essential journals could still use some streets. Speed limits on most Paris streets were reduced to 30 kilometre per hour and some busy roads along the Seine were also pedestrianized. In London, there were events celebrating play streets and healthy school streets as well as seminars and conferences offering serious suggestions about how cargo bicycles and electric bikes could radically change how people travel to work and bring their children to school.

Reducing car usage and indeed car ownership could be a valuable way to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector. Private cars makes up almost half of all the transport emissions in Ireland and some researchers are now saying that the aspiration to have one million electric cars on Irish roads by 2030 is impractical.

Academics attending a session of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport earlier this year poured cold water on the Government’s ambitious targets to have almost half of all private cars on the road running on batteries by 2030.

Researchers have found that 40 per cent of people don’t have driveways to install electric chargers in. Economists have also noted that electric cars are unaffordable to many people compared to the price of petrol or diesel cars. And, there are serious concerns about getting access to the scarce resources required to manufacture enough electric cars (there is currently a global shortage of lithium, the crucial mineral used in rechargeable batteries). And that’s before you even consider the potential environmental damage from all the scrapped older cars.

So, wouldn’t it be better to offer people close to public transport routes greater incentives to not have a car at all or to switch to having one family car for emergency and essential journeys rather than for daily commuting? Remember, most cars are parked for 90 per cent of the time so reducing car numbers would also give us more space in front of our homes and on our streets. Promoting shared cars in towns, villages and housing estates is another idea worth trialling, according to Dr Brian Caulfield, Centre for Transport Research, Department of Engineering at Trinity College Dublin.

So rather than seeing International Car Free Day emblazoned on the digital signboards on city peripheral routes as they drive to work, how about offering commuters subsidized car parks at say the M50 junctions with regular free shuttle buses to public transport? And, how about introducing free city bus services to urban dwellers within a five kilometre radius of city centres? Free city buses from various suburban axial points work very well in other cities around the world. Congestion charges to discourage people from driving into the city also work if public transport is frequent, affordable and reliable.

And, yes let’s give urban councils more powers to trial new cycling routes to encourage more people onto manual and electric bikes as Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan proposed this month. But, we need to do more. Would hosting the annual car free day at the weekend encourage people to use public transport rather than their cars in cities for shopping and leisure activities? But, we could go one step further and replace International Car Free Day with a Free Public Transport Day and close off most of the car parking spaces in our cities and towns on that day to show people what urban spaces look like without cars.

Sylvia Thompson writes for The Irish Times on health, the environment and science.

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