Car-Free Days Bring Quiet to Communities, Advocates Say

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 29, 2006
Beep beep. Vroom vroom. Thump thump.

The constant cacophony of honking horns, roaring engines, and booming car stereos has helped fuel a sixfold increase in noise pollution over the past 15 years that is driving people from cities, according to advocates for peace and quiet.

Wouldn't it be nice, they ask, if cars were on the fringe of our daily lives?

To help find an answer, "car-free day" events held in a handful of cities across the U.S. are giving urban dwellers a taste for life with fewer—and in some cases no—cars.

"One thing it does is give an example to people of what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, and all those different things that happen when you don't have cars there," said Sara Stout, who helps organize the annual event in Portland, Oregon.

Stout is also the North America spokesperson for the World Carfree Network, which helps organize car-free days around the world.

The days, which started in the mid 1990s in Europe, serve as a catalyst to get people thinking about what their cities would be like with fewer cars, according to organizers.

San Francisco, California-based author and entrepreneur Peter Barnes said the movement is a huge success in Europe.

"Rome car-free for day—it's a completely different city," he said in today's broadcast of the radio program Pulse of the Planet.

"People love it. They go walking around talking to one another. There's no noise, there's no traffic—it transforms the city."

(This series and Pulse of the Planet are sponsored in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.)

"Not driving makes a tremendous contribution to reducing the noise level," said Ted Rueter, executive director of Noise Free America, an advocacy group based in Greencastle, Indiana.

Growing Movement

According to Stout of the World Carfree Network, the U.S. car-free day movement is in the early stages.

Recent years have seen events crop up in cities with environment-friendly reputations such as Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, California; and Madison, Wisconsin.

The events vary from city to city.

At a recent car-free day in Portland, for example, organizers closed a city street for eight blocks and had a party with games and prizes.

In Oakland, California, a 2004 event included a parade to celebrate the permanent closure of a street to cars.

And at last year's event in the Carborro-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina, organizers asked people to pledge a one-day change in their travel behavior. For example, they could pledge to take the bus or bike to work instead of driving.

According to Patrick McDonough, who organizes the North Carolina car-free day, the event introduces residents to the area's bus system and bike-friendly streets.

"Despite the fact that we have a lot of alternative, environmentally friendly mobility infrastructure, people still don't take as great advantage of it as they could," he said.

Peace and Quiet

In Europe car-free days like the one in Rome close entire sections of the city to cars. That is harder to accomplish in the U.S., according to McDonough.

European cities already have car-free streets and town squares, whereas most U.S. cities are built around the automobile, he explained (photo gallery: U.S. car culture).

Closing a street in the U.S. "adds another layer of complexity," he said.

Stout agreed. For the Portland event, she and her team gathered enough signatures to close one of the busiest streets in the city, but traffic engineers vetoed the concept and moved the celebration to a less traveled road.

"It's hard to get governments to react and talk about being without cars," Stout said.

"We can share the road, reduce car use, but I think a road without cars is a little bit politically tricky."

For Barnes, the quiet streets are a huge draw for car-free days, which he hopes will catch on in the U.S.

"We might be surprised about how we feel about cars, as well as other noisy things. I think the right to quietude is like the right to privacy," he said.

"It's almost like the Fourth Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution], the right to be secure in your homes from unwanted invasions."

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