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300 Ghazal Badiozamani / Natural Resources Forum 27 (2003) 300–303

© 2003 United Nations. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Natural Resources Forum 27 (2003) 300–303
1. Introduction
Transport is the lifeline of the city. It provides access to
clinics, schools, and jobs, connects communities, and is the
enabler for the trade of goods and services. Access to an
efficient and reliable transport system is a key component
of poverty alleviation and ensures participation in an
ever-integrating world. In spite of the great importance of
effective transport systems and the continuous rethinking
of urban and transport planning theory, overcoming chronic
problems of congestion, pollution, and lack of access for
all citizens remains a major challenge for cities in developed
and developing countries alike.
During the last decade, the increasing emphasis placed
on sustainable development, i.e., the balanced consideration
of economic goals, social equity and environmental protec-
tion, is catalyzing a new approach to the transport planning
process. Just as international fora are giving greater space
to multi-stakeholder participation in policy debates, so too
are governments at all levels finding the consultation with
citizens and their involvement to be relevant and important
for effective policy implementation (Burby, 2003). By de-
finition, a balanced approach to development necessitates
the consideration of multiple viewpoints. This opens up the
realm of public dialogue, which in turn opens the door for
transformation of the way governments approach planning
and policy-making, if they choose to take advantage of the
opportunity. Car-free days are one tool with which citizens
and public officials are at least attempting to begin this
dialogue in cities around the world. By clearing the streets
for a day of discussion about the needs of the city and
developing a long-term vision of development, car-free days
can play an important role in shifting the way the citizens
and planners of a municipality think about and shape the
city, thus instigating a radical shift in the traditional plan-
ning paradigm.
2. Transport policy and sustainable development
The interaction between urban and transport design has
profound consequences for the way citizens live as well as
how a city develops. Provision of road access or placement
of a metro or bus line has an immediate economic impact
on a neighborhood often by increasing property values or
promoting the arrival of shops and offices. Previously deso-
late areas can be revitalized by the creation of quality public
transit services. Likewise, urban design elements such as
planning for density or sprawl will have consequences for
the length of trips and the viability of different transport
modes. Although citizens make lifestyle choices based on
preferences, these choices are constrained by the land use
planning of the metropolis and the transport options that
are thus made available. What may seem like a choice to
drive a car may in fact be a product of the way the city is
formed and the extent to which a multi-modal transport
system is even possible.
In the past, most land use planning has been greatly ad
hoc and reactive to rapid population growth or developed
and implemented by expert planners working with little
public consultation. Urban planning has often been based
on theories of design that aim to define the way people
should live rather than focus on the way they do live, thus
at times inadvertently diminishing the quality of life instead
of improving it. In the developing world, rapid population
growth rates combined with a view toward following the
western model of high auto-dependence have also resulted
in cities that cannot meet the needs of all citizens.
With an increasing emphasis placed on sustainable devel-
opment since the adoption of Agenda 21 at the 1992 UN
Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio
de Janeiro (otherwise known as the Earth Summit) and the
recommitment to implementing Agenda 21 at the recent
World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held
in Johannesburg (August–September 2002), traditional
ideas about how a city and its transport system should be
shaped as well as the planning process itself have come
under renewed scrutiny. Sustainable development policies
by definition promote economic growth while at the same
time implementing greater social equity and environmental
The author is an Associate Advisor in the Energy and Transport Branch,
Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and
Social Affairs, United Nations, New York. She was a member of the
Drafting Group for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
Car-free days: A shift in the planning paradigm?
Ghazal Badiozamani
Ghazal Badiozamani / Natural Resources Forum 27 (2003) 300–303 301
protection. This balanced approach to development has
gained a tremendous amount of credence over the last
decade, as federal and local governments commit to the
principles of sustainable development as a framework for
overall policy. When considering how this framework could
best be used to improve transport policy, countries parti-
cipating in the WSSD highlighted the need to provide safe,
affordable and efficient transportation, to reduce pollution,
congestion and adverse health effects and to limit urban
sprawl. They agreed on the importance of public transport
and called for greater investment in and partnerships for pub-
lic mass transportation systems and pointed the way to better
land use and reduction of harmful emissions (UN, 2002).
This policy dialogue is not limited to the inter-
governmental level. Sustainable development councils have
been set up at the national and local levels with over 3,000
cities formally taking Local Agenda 21 as a framework for
decision-making. The city of Bogotá, for example, has built
a bus rapid transit system with the explicit aim of reducing
traffic and congestion, and thus pollution, while providing
a high quality service that reaches into peripheral, lower-
income neighbourhoods. This was complemented by the
construction of 250 kilometres of bike paths and the initia-
tion of public education programmes aimed at increasing
the use of alternative transport modes. Similar undertak-
ings are spreading throughout Latin America and Asia, most
notably in Quito, Lima, Santiago, and Taipei. In northern
California, a local NGO started City CarShare to provide
residences and businesses in San Francisco, Oakland and
Berkeley access to shared neighbourhood vehicles.
The city
of Gothenburg (Sweden) reformed the distribution system
of goods delivered in dense urban areas to reduce traffic
and pollution.
In Bradford upon Avon (UK), the town
council set up a dialogue process entitled “Bradford on Avon
Open Forum: Transport, Traffic and You” that allows the
citizens of the town to pinpoint major concerns regarding
transport policy and recommend solutions through a col-
laborative, participatory process that consults all citizens,
including children and the elderly. The Forum has been
successful in changing plans for road development set
out by the Transport Authority and providing widespread
recognition of high levels of car-dependence as a serious
obstacle to sustainable development.
The list goes on and
on. Cities around the world are re-examining their develop-
ment goals and beginning to find new ways of meeting
citizens needs.
Although many transport projects are still undertaken on
a piecemeal basis, there is a growing trend toward recon-
sidering the relationship between urban and transport design
and at the same time creating a space for community
participation, at least in formulating the goals of that de-
sign. Of course, experience and success in transformation
of thinking is highly dependent on local circumstances.
While some cities may have forward-looking mayors and
strong leadership interested in systemic change, others may
use local grassroots movements to show city officials a
need and desire for change. Regardless of origin, this new
interest in balanced growth and recognition of the need for
a multi-stakeholder approach is slowly shifting the way
cities plan and organize their development.
3. The universal problem
As part of the ground-level preparation for the World
Summit on Sustainable Development, the UN Division for
Sustainable Development initiated the UN Car-Free Day
series as a way of promoting dialogue and exchange of
experience in sustainable transport planning. Regional work-
shops were organized in conjunction with the car-free days
in Bogotá and Fremantle (Australia) to provide mayors
and city officials from Latin America, Australia and New
Zealand with the opportunity to experience the events first
hand. The juxtaposition of conclusions from groups of vastly
different local circumstances provides a valuable insight
into the global nature of the sustainability problem. We
asked participants in both meetings to discuss obstacles
and constraints faced in their home cities in terms of de-
veloping more sustainable transport systems. The parti-
cipants of the Latin American practicum drafted a mayor’s
declaration that, among other concerns, pointed to dispro-
portionate public spending on the needs of private vehicles
and the tendency toward excessive utilization of private
vehicles; insufficient expenditure on public and alternative
transport; road safety; and environmentally detrimental
effects of the transport sector, especially air quality, as major
points of concern for a majority of cities.
issues raised by participants from Australia and New
Zealand at the Fremantle regional practicum were almost
exactly in line with those of Latin America. All agreed that
widespread car dependence, lack of public support for pub-
lic and alternative transport, environmentally detrimental
effects of the transport sector, and sprawling city growth
patterns were the major obstacles to developing more sus-
tainable transport systems.
4. Car-free days and the new process of city
A shift in the planning paradigm requires a transformation
of perspective that in most cities is catalyzed with the use
of a car-free day. The first documented car-free days were
For full case study, see <
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302 Ghazal Badiozamani / Natural Resources Forum 27 (2003) 300–303
held in Switzerland in January and February 1974 as a
reaction to the oil crisis. It was not until the early 1990s
that the events were used as a way of reassessing a city’s
patterns of behaviour. In June of 1996, the municipal gov-
ernment of Reykjavik organized a car-free day that would
serve as the starting point for a snowballing series of sim-
ilar events. In 1997, car-free events were held throughout
the UK, in Lyons and Amsterdam. On 22 September 1998,
the French Ministry of Environment organized a national
car-free day in which 34 cities participated. Italy joined
France in 1999, and by 22 September 2000, all of Europe
joined in the now annual EU car-free day.
Perhaps the
largest boost to the movement came on Thursday, 24 Feb-
ruary 2000 when the city of Bogotá made history with the
first complete ban on private vehicles on a working day
and seven million people went about their daily activities
using only public or alternative transport. Over the last
three years, cities around the world have embraced car-free
days and such events have been reported from Seoul to
Surabaya, and from Cape Town to Brasilia.
Perhaps the allure of car-free days is their ability to
dramatically illustrate that changes in every-day patterns of
behaviour are not only possible but can have a profound
impact on the quality of life of all citizens. In the case
of Bogotá, the density of the city makes for short travel
distances that can be easily traversed by foot or bicycle.
Because of the nature of the bus system, there is actually a
surplus of public transport available to citizens so there is
adequate space available for people moving out of cars and
into buses on the car-free day. The car-free day served
to promote the use of these alternatives as well as to show
the need for greater space for pedestrians and bicycles. As
people were forced to find new ways of taking their chil-
dren to school or commuting to work, they often found an
alternative mode that was more efficient and cost effective
than their car. Congestion was dramatically reduced on the
day of the event, with most people reporting faster public
transport commutes and the local environment regulat-
ory authority reporting significantly lower air and noise
pollution rates. Yet what resonated most with the citizens
of Bogotá was the emphasis on social equity. As in most
developing countries, only a small fraction of the popula-
tion (in this case 15%) can afford private vehicles, yet
these occupy the lion’s share of the road space and are the
main cause of congestion. The car-free day is a way of
opening public space for equal use by all citizens and bridg-
ing socio-economic divides, if only in the street.
Although the scale of car-free day events in other cities
is not as sweeping as that of Bogotá, they are still able to
showcase the possibility of a different kind of city. For
example, the city of Fremantle, Western Australia closes
one central street for their annual ‘Shed Your Car Day’ and
uses the space as a promenade for a multiplicity of activities.
Citizens are also encouraged to commute by bus or bicycle
through the city-wide Workplace Challenge and children
commute to school with walking school buses. Businesses
promote the event with special offers and discounts for
those commuting by bicycle. The city measures changes in
air and noise pollution and does surveys to gauge citizen
perception of the event. The event is widely recognized by
the city and citizens as highly successful in raising aware-
ness and improving quality of life, if only for a day.
In addition to promoting these tangible changes, car-free
days can serve as fora for discussion of transport and urban
planning policy and even provide for a shift in city plan-
ning. Well planned events with strong participation from
both government and community will necessarily involve
public education and discussion. Because of its scale, local
media offer extensive coverage before, during and after
the event in Bogotá. Yet, coverage is not limited to the
car-free day itself. The city takes the opportunity to discuss
its plans for the further development of the transport system,
and citizens express their views on the subject in editorials,
talk shows and on public bulletin boards. As the streets are
cleared of its cars for a day, citizens are allowed to take a
breath, and reflect on what they imagine their city to be in
20, 50, or 75 years and compare that vision with the cur-
rent reality. A dialogue is sparked that engages citizen
groups and stakeholders in the sustainability of the trans-
port system and how it can be improved to meet the needs
of all people.
Similarly, in Fremantle, the planning of the car-free
day involves a wide range of stakeholders, including city
officials, local environmental groups, bus operators, local
businesses and industry, local media, and a large number of
volunteers. This widespread participation provides a feel-
ing of ownership of the event to the people involved in
its planning and is useful in creating strong advocates for
future efforts to create a more sustainable transport system.
As in Bogotá, the event serves as a catalyst for dialogue
among citizens about the future growth of the city and how
the transport system could be improved to provide greater
access while diminishing deleterious environmental and
health impacts. The car-free day, in conjunction with other
sustainable transport programmes, such as the TravelSmart
programme, is effective in demonstrating that, for many
people, behaviour change is possible without any signific-
ant changes to existing infrastructure, and can at the same
time bring citizen’s concerns about the path of future
development to city officials (Pinkard, 2002).
The most effective events are those that actively engage
city planners in their preparation, implementation and
assessment. In both Bogotá and Fremantle, preparing altern-
ative and additional public transport routes and needs
assessment in anticipation of the event proved a valuable
exercise for transport planners in reshaping the city using
multiple modes. Analysis of activity and route choices
during the event offered planners a unique opportunity to
“World Car-free days Timeline: 1961–2002,” Ecoplan and the Com-
mons website, <>
Ghazal Badiozamani / Natural Resources Forum 27 (2003) 300–303 303
determine how the network can be finetuned to better meet
the needs of travelers the rest of the year. The exercise
expands the realm of possibility while placing a strong
emphasis on how the city actually moves.
Finally, the tone and manner in which the event is pre-
sented also has a tremendous impact on the willingness of
citizens to participate. By promoting a positive, incre-
mental approach to reduction in the use of private vehicles,
the city of Fremantle avoids naming the automobile as the
culprit while inviting people to experience how different a
cityscape can be without cars. The city encourages citizens
to think differently about the way they use their cars,
promoting a more diversified approach to mobility. Both
Fremantle and Bogotá maintain a focus on the positive
effects of change rather than demonizing or placing blame.
Instead of viewing cars as the cause of the city’s ailments
and searching for ways to alleviate specific problems of
pollution or congestion, both cities have adopted the view
that a systemic shift toward greater diversification of trans-
port modes is the most effective way of ensuring a fully
accessible, efficient, adaptable transport system.
The idea of a car-free day easily captures the imagina-
tion of those looking to break patterns of behaviour in favour
of finding more appropriate solutions to the problems faced
by the city. The willingness of some cities to experiment
with the idea inspires hundreds more to undertake the exer-
cise each year. The UN regional workshops inspired cities
across Latin America, Australia and New Zealand to take
on car-free days of their own. The EU initiative grows by
leaps every year, and an increasing number of governments
and community organizations in Asia and Africa are begin-
ning to see potential benefits.
The simple fact that an event so focused on public invo-
lvement and with the capability to spark dialogue is taking
place in so many diverse environments points toward the
changing face of the transport planning process. Never
before has such energy been expended to create a forum
for consultation and creation of a citizen-driven vision of
urban development, and the fact that these events are tak-
ing place at all is significant in itself. But much research
remains to be done on the actual impact of car-free days on
the perceptions, attitudes, and daily behaviour of citizens,
as well as the extent of the changes inspired in actual plan-
ning. Although some cities pay close attention to assess-
ment of impacts of the car-free day with measurement of
indicators and surveys, this is not the norm. A much stronger
emphasis needs to be placed on measurement of participa-
tion and tracking changes both in day-to-day activity and
in city planning. More research needs to be undertaken that
compares impact of the events across cities to determine
how the events can be improved and long-term follow-up
ensured. Car-free days have thus far been hugely effective
in bringing attention to the problems of current transport
systems, but a studied, thoughtful approach must be ensured
if their full potential as an instigator of systemic change is
to be harnessed.
5. Conclusion
By providing a break from the usual pattern of behaviour,
car-free days create an opportunity for re-evaluation of
entrenched ideas about urban planning and public space
and the start of a shift in perspective. They provide a
dramatic, tangible show of how different the city could be
if travel choices were altered. They spark a dialogue among
citizens and with the city regarding the role and potential
shape of the transport sector, bringing rarely considered
issues and possibilities to the forefront. They involve city
planners in an active exercise of creating a more multimodal
system and inspire visions of long-term development of the
city. They bring a more participatory, interactive approach
to urban design, and are one way of catalyzing a significant
shift in the process and outcome of transport planning. Much
more research remains to be done on the actual impact of
these events and, in many cases, a more results-oriented
approach would contribute to the enhancement of their long-
term effect. The adoption of a sustainable development
framework for decision-making at all levels of government
has the potential to transform the nature of policy-making.
At the urban planning level, a commitment to sustainable
development principles places a renewed emphasis on the
benefits of public and non-motorized transport. The new
recognition being given to the deficiencies of traditional
planning practices is a significant shift and the extent to
which public participation can improve the way a city is
shaped will be an intriguing development to track over the
next decade.
Burby, R. J., 2003. Making plans that matter: Citizen involvement and
government action. Journal of the American Planning Association,
69(1): 33.
Pinkard, J. (2002). Personal correspondence. TravelSmart Officer, City of
Fremantle, Australia. 2 April.
United Nations, 2002. Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Devel-
opment, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August–4 September 2002.
A/CONF.199/20*, A/CONF.199/20/CORR.1. Sales No. E.03.II.A.1.
United Nations, New York.