September 21, 2015
This Sunday, September 20, was Car-Free day in Brussels (as it was in 32 other European cities). Every year during the EU’s Mobility Week, the Brussels authorities close the city to traffic and its citizens have the chance to take their streets back. Bicycles, roller-blades, skateboards and people out for a pleasant stroll with their babies or grandchildren had priority on the roads; café’s set up sound systems and BBQs, some authorities had street events and for one day, life in the city was peaceful and pleasant. So that begs the question, why can’t every Sunday be car-free?
As I have an ultra-marathon next week, I decided to take a long run around town, particularly in the Brussels communes classed as “defavorisé” (in other words, poor). In these parts of town, there are no accessible, safe parks and the parents (often single parents) don’t have time to take their children on public transport across to public spaces in the more well-off parts of town (where the rich often complain and try to stop the annual Car-Free Day). Here the streets were saturated with small kids often learning to ride their bikes, playing soccer (with car bumpers as goal posts), enjoying bouncing castles or pony rides. Older children were riding with friends or attending the many public events.
On an important note, the air quality improved considerably during just the one day. Sufferers of respiratory illnesses and the elderly had a chance to breathe easier as soot and particulate matter dropped. Obviously fitness levels improved (especially in a city where many local inhabitants would never otherwise dare to ride a bicycle on roads cars assume they own). If people could get some decent exercise in every week, then public health levels would obviously improve. Making every Sunday car-free is hence a no-brainer (so it comes as no surprise that this will never become a public policy).
The rich matter more
Poor people would benefit most from this simple decision to institute one day a week for the benefit of the public and not the cars. The underclass often don’t have cars or public spaces … and they also don’t have a means to raise their interests in the policy debate. This is quite evident with the “people dumping” presently going on between Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia. Poor people rarely get their interests represented as lobbyists raise attention for the highest bidders or funders, and most lobbying is on environmental legislation which usually favours the rich, aristocratic class that likes to be seen as being green.
This highly influential class also likes their cars and they would never fund any organisation attempting to limit their ability to enjoy their mobility. This is a basic reason why no significant environmental NGO (seriously, not one) campaigns to get the cars off the road (albeit, some like WWF, campaign for electric cars which the aristocratic greens love to show off at parties even though these tanks with two engines are far more environmentally destructive). No one will donate to an environmental organisation to limit the use of cars in urban areas, so even though getting the cars off the road is the single most important policy decision to reduce environmental health risks, nothing is being done about it. I call this hypocritical.
Another truth that is far too inconvenient
It has been reported that when Al Gore was asked why he did not mention the CO2 emissions from the meat production industry in his lobbying work, he replied that it was a truth that was too inconvenient. If people are legitimately campaigning to battle climate change with “Meatless Mondays”, then why don’t we do the same with Car-Free Sundays? Besides the obvious social and public health costs, reducing automotive CO2 emissions would do far more to fight climate change (with conservative estimates considering transportation as contributing between 27-33% of greenhouse gas emissions). Still, no significant environmental NGO, not Greenpeace, not Friends of the Earth, not WWF, would dare to take that on. They have no global anti-car campaigns. It is literally a far too inconvenient truth (and any way, only poor people would really benefit, and they don’t donate!).
Those with influence will only use it to change decisions for things they want. They campaign against pesticides even though their cup of coffee has far more carcinogens, but they want to be seen by those whose opinions matter to them, as organic. They campaign against large food manufacturers because their domestic helpers can take the time to prepare nutritional meals (and they can use the gym). They campaign for green energy like wind and solar because they can afford it (and the solar panels on their roof will ensure uninterrupted energy … subsidised by the poor who have to pay full costs for electricity). They will not campaign to limit their CO2 emissions from their (three to four) large cars, because, well, it is not in their interest.
When the hypocrites meet next November in Paris for the UNFCCC climate talks, listen carefully. They will be talking about their interests (more wind and solar, more controls on industry, more restrictions on carbon-based fuels), but they will not talk about a simple little idea that will make a big difference in reducing CO2: an international car-free Sunday every week. The hypocrites will be too busy saving the planet to bother.David Zaruk