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Almost all of the world’s biggest cities have a problem in common: cars. Across the globe, cities are becoming increasingly unlivable due to the pollution, noise and potential dangers that they cause.
Cities are taking action in various ways, from traffic calming measures to incentivising cycling over driving. But is there an easier way?
In this article we’ll look at the various cities around the world that are putting people first and promoting a ‘car-free sunday’. We’ll also look at some other initiatives with a similar emphasis on car-reduction in cities.
What Is Car-Free Sunday?
Dating back as early as the 1950s, Car-Free Sunday is a movement that restricts cars in specific areas or whole cities, usually to encourage alternative modes of transportation, particularly bicycles.
As well as a restriction of movement of automobiles, there’s also often things happening simultaneously, such as music concerts, cultural events or food markets.
While it’s not always on a Sunday, nor is it always every Sunday of the year, the name has become synonymous with the initiative. The goal is to promote sustainable transportation, reduce traffic congestion, and create a more people-friendly urban environment, regardless of the day of the week.
Ultimately, the idea is to provide an opportunity for people to enjoy their city without the noise, fumes and congestion of cars. In other words, it can show people what life in the future cities could be like if it were people centred and not car centred.
What is the Point of Car-Free Sunday?
The point of Car-Free Sunday is to showcase the power of not relying on cars as the primary mode of transportation. It’s also to show that cities can be more livable if we focus on a human-centred vision of them.
By encouraging people to cycle, walk, or use public transportation, Car-Free Sunday demonstrates how cities can become safer, quieter, and more enjoyable places to live.
It allows people to experience the benefits of reduced car usage, such as cleaner air, reduced noise pollution, and more space for recreational activities and public gatherings.
Car-Free Sundays are one way to get people to not only experience their local area without cars, but to think about how cities could be redesigned to put people first and to prioritise sustainable and clean forms of transportation. This could mean anything from replacing parking spaces with bike lanes to subsidising the cost of public transport.
Car-Free Sunday City Examples
Here are 8 examples of cities that have implemented Car-Free Sunday initiatives:
1. Brussels, Belgium
In the Belgian capital, the Car-Free Sunday initiative has been highly successful in transforming the city into a more sustainable and livable place. In fact, it’s probably one of the most successful in Europe.
When cars are reduced to a minimum in city centres, such as emergency services and a few public transport vehicles (which are usually free on CFS) the environmental impact is astonishing. According to some reports, the carbon dioxide emissions decreased by up to 75% on car-free days!
But it isn’t just the environment that benefits in Brussels on Car-Free Sundays. Removing the cars from the streets attracts a large number of participants, including not only residents, but it can also attract visitors and local organisations. There are also often street performances, sports events and guided tours of the city which can all occur without the fear of cars!
2. Paris, France
Paris is another city that has embraced the concept of Car-Free Sunday. Named ‘Paris Respire’, or Paris Breathes, the Car-Free Sunday is part of a city-wide scheme to address the dire air-quality across the cities and to show the people what Paris could be.
Every first Sunday of the month, the first four arrondissements are closed to all but absolutely essential motorised traffic. It’s a scheme that’s proved to be popular, and it’s one that’s also spreading. Seemingly every Sunday, a new locality or major street is trialled, providing more space for cyclists, pedestrians, and even rollerbladers!
The car-free days have proved to be successful when it comes to improving air quality. According to AirParif, nitrogen dioxide levels drop around 20% on car-free days. It’s clear that Paris breathes better when there are less cars.
3. Portland, USA
Portland, an American city known for its progressive stance on sustainable transportation, has also joined the Car-Free Sunday movement. By temporarily shutting down certain streets, Portland showcases its commitment to reducing car dependence and promoting a more active, environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
Known as Sunday Parkways, the initiative aims to open the streets, i.e. the cities ‘largest public space‘, to active transportation. Whilst the goal was principally to encourage active transportation, in recent years this has changed.
Now, Sunday Parkways has expanded its scope. Partnerships have been made with the Native American Youth and Family Center to support local Native artists and businesses, as well as with local and International entertainers who have the space to perform on the streets.
Portland shows that reclaiming streets from cars isn’t just good for the environment, but it also provides space for community engagement and cultural activities.
4. Jakarta, Indonesia
In Jakarta, a city of over 10 million people, the Car-Free Sunday initiative is a response that started in 2007 and aims to combat the city’s significant traffic congestion issues.
By restricting cars on certain Sundays, Jakarta aimed to relieve traffic pressure and encourage the use of alternative transportation methods.
Whilst initially the primary goals were to reduce traffic congestion and pollution, it has since expanded into much more. Every sunday you can expect to see hundreds of street vendors selling a variety of food and goods across Indonesia’s capital.
The additional foot and bicycle traffic is undoubtedly having a positive impact on local economies, boosting trade and supporting small and individual businesses.
Whilst it is usually only a short window of 4-5 hours on a sunday where the capital goes almost car-free, people are treated to a glimpse of what a large city with less cars could look like.
5. Bogotá, Colombia
Bogotá, Colombia, is renowned for its car-free initiative known as ‘Ciclovía’. Every Sunday and public holiday, major streets in Bogota are closed to car traffic and transformed into vibrant spaces for cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians.
Every Ciclovía, around 120 km of roadways are turned into an area for people to walk, cycle, eat, dance and relax.
With up to 340,000 cyclists taking to the streets on the car-free days, it’s clearly been a successful scheme. There’s also been a dramatic reduction in pollution. In fact, some sources even claim that on car-free days CO2 levels drop by over 50%!
6.Mexico City, Mexico
Every Sunday in Mexico City, at least 50 km of roads are closed to car traffic until the early afternoon.
Whilst Paseo Dominical (Sunday Roads) covers the first three Sundays, the last Sunday is covered by Ciclotón Familiar (Family ‘Cycloton’)which results in even more road closures across the City
Starting in 2007 as part of a scheme to increase the modal share of bicycles, it’s since expanded into a wider movement which has had an even greater impact than initially imagined.
Citywide, people are exercising more and cycling for fitness. Not only that, but studies found that women in the Capital are cycling significantly more to work than they were before. The impact of Car-Free Sundays clearly goes beyond just the few hours a week where the scheme is in place.
Across Belgium, Car-Free Sunday events are organised to promote sustainable transportation and create a car-free environment in the city centre. However, in Ghent things are a little different.
Ghent is a city which has largely prohibited cars in the centre, and has completely banned them in the historic centre.
The Car-Free Sunday event, which usually at least coincides with World Car-Free Day and occasionally happens more often, results in almost the entire ‘low-emission zone’ being free from car traffic.
From 9:30 until 19:00, cars are not allowed to pass through the centre and public transport is even re-routed. Instead, there is a celebration of micro-mobility. Bicycles, e-scooters, rollerblades and skateboards can be seen taking over the city.
During these events, which typically take place on specific Sundays throughout the year, motor vehicles are restricted in certain areas, allowing cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, and strollers to enjoy the traffic-free city centre.
8. Singapore, Singapore
Car-Free Sunday SG is a community initiative led by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in Singapore.
It aims to promote a car-lite environment and vibrant streets by temporarily closing selected roads in the Civic District and Central Business District (CBD) on the last Sunday of every month.
Whilst Singapore isn’t quite as congested as other cities, largely thanks to the congestion charges introduced, it still has a serious amount of traffic running through it, especially in the central districts.
However, during the designated times, from 7am to 7pm, these areas become car-free zones to encourage alternative modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling, as well as other recreational activities.
Car-Free Sunday SG also offers a variety of activities and events for the public to enjoy. These include sports, arts, cultural events, and more, attracting participants to take advantage of the car-free streets and engage in healthy and sustainable modes of transportation.
More Car-Free Day Initiatives
But whilst Car-Free Sundays are becoming increasingly popular across the globe, they aren’t the only way to get people out of their cars.
From regulations such as the ‘odd-even’ initiatives that were introduced in Mexico City, to congestion charges or even the banning of cars entirely, cities have tried many things to get people out of their cars.
Here are some other examples of similar car-free initiatives which can show people the positive impact of putting people before cars.
World Car-Free Day
World Car-Free Day is a global event held annually on 22 September. It encourages people worldwide to leave their cars at home and choose alternative modes of transportation.
Celebrated in over 2,000 cities worldwide, it has the simple goal of getting people out of their cars just for one day to reduce the number of cars on the streets.
World Car-Free Day is, however, a work in progress. Whilst some cities have reported great long lasting successes, others have been less receptive.
Despite trying to implement ‘no car day’ (on the same date and to the same effect as World Car-Free Day), cities such as Beijing have reportedly noticed little impact on driving habits. Unfortunately, some Cyclists’ there report still feeling the same prejudices even on the 22nd of September. Clearly, things have to be taken more seriously.
Outside of World Car-Free Day, cities around the world from Taiwan to Washington have also celebrated car-free days on different dates but to the same ends.
In Town, Without My Car
In Town, Without My Car (also known as is an annual event also hosted on the 22nd of September. Whilst it isn’t entirely clear, it appears to be at least in part a rebranding of World Car-Free Day but more specific to the EU.
Dating back to Bath, England in the green transport week of 1995, the aim is not necessarily to promote car-free cities, but rather to encourage people to leave their cars at home for a day. This is done as part of a ‘streets-for-people’ philosophy.
The best, and perhaps most radical example of a car-free day is a car-free city. Whilst some cities across the world celebrate a car-free day, others have gone a step further, and have decided to drastically reduce the number of cars in cities all year round.
Whilst some cities and towns have had the fortune of developing without cars in the centre (for example Venice, Mackinac Island), others have taken a different approach.
Cities like Copenhagen have for years been reducing the number of cars in the city centre through deterrence, such as with car-free zones implemented as early as the 1990s.
However, they’ve also been actively promoting active and sustainable transportation all year round. In Copenhagen, for example, synchronised green traffic lights known as the ‘Greenwave‘ have been introduced to make cycling an easier, safer and more efficient way to travel through the city.
Other European cities, like Seville, have been expanding their cycle network in order to make it easier for people to get onto two wheels.
Whilst most people would agree that the influence of cars in cities has become overwhelming, there is no one antidote for the problem.
A Car-Free Sunday is one cheap and popular way to demonstrate the benefits of a city with less cars, and for many cities it is helping people to rethink what their city may or could look like in the future.
Sustainable cities of the future undoubtedly have to put people first, and a Car-Free Sunday might be the easiest way to demonstrate what that might look like.