Planning your Car Free Day:

(Extracts from 1994 Thursday thinkpiece and presentation)

Thursday - A Breakthrough Strategy for Reducing Car Dependence in Cities

Presented by Eric Britton, co-leader of the EcoPlan/Leber team at the international "Ciudades Accesibles" conference in Toledo Spain on 18 October 1994.
(Full original presentation available here in PDF form. 199 pp. 150 ko)

  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • Harnessing a Planned or Existing Car-Free Day
  • A Thursday Program for Your City or Neighborhood
  • What Will Happen After That First Thursday?
  • An All-Cities Thursday Program
  • Some Implementation Notes for Inter-City Cooperative Programs
  • What Can You Do if You Don't Happen to Be a City?
  • Clues and Leads
  • Summary

    The Car Free Day planning and implementation approach that you see sketched out here is two things. It is both (a) a sketch plan for a car-free day -- and (b) the rudiments of an exploratory tool which is intended to help people and policy makers in a place improve their understanding of and readiness for a strategy of prudent, effective traffic reductions. This approach is intended to help those who are concerned with these issues in moving that critical step from the abstract and perhaps desirable, to the concrete and practical. The keys to this approach -- which we call Thursday, for reasons that you will see below, are careful preparation, broad local participation, discussion and negotiation, interim implementation, performance monitoring, reflection, and negotiated follow-up and extension.

    A Thursday car free demonstration project has to be planned and undertaken with strong local support at the specific city or neighborhood level. It directly addresses the complex challenge of how to make our cites more accessible (which is vital for the local economy), while at the same time improving the quality of life for all who live, work and play there. While progress along these lines has been made in a few places as a result of strong programs and continuing attention over a period of years, this is still not the situation in most towns or cities. As time passes we are finding that it is easy enough to excite people to talk for a time about how nice it would be to have cities with less traffic, but a great deal harder to make any real progress in that direction. Even the occasional car free day or demonstrations, exciting though they may be for the moment, invariably accomplish little to advance these concepts into practical, daily reality. This suggests that new means must be found in order to break the policy bottleneck in the many places that need to introduce major changes in these areas, but which for one reason or another have failed until now to do so.

    A copy of the latest paper on Thursday is directly available here in the Electronic Library. By way of supporting background to this proposal, the paper opens with a short introduction which sets out six "bones of contention": observations coming out of EcoPlan's decade-long international Access program which clarify why new approaches are needed to deal with these challenges in most places. It is now clear that the major environmental and life quality improvements that most of us want and need will continue to be unobtainable in most cities, unless we are able to achieve major reductions in car use. However, contrary to what has traditionally been assumed by planners, car users do not make rational choices between transportation alternatives. If we carefully examine their (our) actual behavior, we can see that they (we!) are in fact completely addicted to car use. If this is true, and we think it is, this suggests that rather more radical measures are going to be needed to shift the modal balance and to obtain our environmental objectives.

    The paper further argues that change on the scale needed is being held back in most places because of a basic inability on the part of those concerned (including the general public) to envisage their city and transport situation in a way which is very much different from the unsatisfactory situation which prevails today. They/we are thus quite literally "prisoners of the present", with all of the limitations that brings with it. We can, thus, neither see nor imagine a very different future. A Thursday project, properly conceived and executed, is intended to help them see and understand better what their city might in fact look like with a huge reduction in traffic. This would be no small accomplishment.


    Thursday is a proposal for a city, neighborhood or group...

    • To spend one carefully prepared day without cars.
    • To study and observe closely what exactly goes on during that day. And then...
    • To reflect publicly and collectively on the lessons of this experience and on what might be prudently and creatively done next to build on these.

    The point of departure for this exercise is the determination that you cannot usefully engage in meaningful dialogue with addicts : that what you have to do is start treating them in some way. As often as not this means thrusting the poor souls (especially poor in this case, since we are in fact talking about ourselves) into a no-choice situation, at least for a time. In this particular instance our proposed "treatment" will be to find an answer to the following question in three main parts:

    • Is there a way to get drivers out of their cars in one or more cities...
    • In ways which will be tolerable in a pluralistic democracy...
    • For at least be long enough to allow those concerned to learn a great deal more about the whole complex of things that need to be adjusted and introduced to make a car-less (or, more accurately, less-car) urban transport paradigm actually work?

    One of the main tasks of planners and policy makers is (or at least should be) to ask creative questions. This one turns out to be a pretty interesting question indeed: one that presents us with quite a neat set of targets and opportunities.

    Harnessing a Planned or Existing Car-Free Day

    There is of course nothing new about a proposal for a car-free day. In addition to a growing number of small city center closure projects and pedestrian zones of varying sizes and sorts, over the last decades there have been literally hundreds of cases of cities that have banned car traffic for a single day, some special event, or during some particular (usually crisis) period. What these projects have in common is that in virtually all cases they are handled as once-off exercises. Typically they are done, endured and quickly forgotten; little effort is made to follow up or build on the experience in a systematic way. Nor are they planned for with any great precision. Talk of them to most of the people who have lived through the experience, and they will either laugh (aggressively) or smile (perhaps somewhat ruefully). The consensus is almost always however that these are obviously approaches which can't work in our city, at least not on any regular basis.

    In the face of the inherent conservatism which is the rule in most places, perhaps the least radical car-free experiment will be to make use of some planned event as an opportunity to probe in a structured way for eventual alterations in future policy packages. In this variant, the car-free day is redefined as a collective learning experience with a view to providing new visions of how their city or neighborhood could be organized. In such cases, careful prior study, extensive consultation and concertation, and meticulous monitoring and evaluation could provide some potentially valuable insights and support for future policy changes of perhaps a more permanent nature.

    This approach can be carried out at a relatively low level of cost and disruption. The great advantage is that it can help those involved to see their city and their daily lives through an entirely different set of lenses -- on the condition that the community's planners are ready to take advantage of this unique situation. Another is that, since it is based on events that are already planned and accepted, it requires no great effort at consensus building in order to get underway. Despite the modesty of its objectives, however, it must not be assumed that such a project is of only limited value. All by itself it could make a major contribution!

    But it is also possible that some places may be ready to consider a somewhat more radical though still basically conservative approach. This is the one that we refer to as... Thursday.

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    A Thursday Program for Your City or Neighborhood

    The "ice-breaking" approach that we present here is called Thursday. We suggest that the day Thursday as a target. because it is important that such a demonstration take place on a 'normal week day' -- not, as often happens, on a holiday or weekend. The reason for this is that what we are trying to create a situation in which people will see their own city under 'normal' circumstances, but with altogether different eyes. If you try to do a Thursday on, say, a Sunday or holiday, you will have learned almost nothing at all about your city. Also, it is important that the project be organized (a) not on a day immediately adjacent to the week-end and (b) rather in the second half of the week than at the beginning (so that people will have enough time to get priority tasks out of the way first). Hence the choice of Thursday.

    Here is how such a project might work? There will be as many variants as cities, but here is one possibility. On, say, the first working Thursday of May 1999 our city will undergo its first Car-less Thursday. From 7:00 in the morning to 19:00 at night, no private cars will be allowed on the city street. The run-up to this day will be extremely important and should involve meticulous preparatory work over at least several months or so involving the organizing team and a very large number of people, institutions, players, media, etc., so that all those concerned have plenty of time to get their fully act together for that first fatal day. Subsequent to that experience, there will be a (three month?) hiatus during which time the experience can be studied, better understood, broadly discussed and then fine tuned for eventual next stages or steps.

    It is perhaps reasonable to ask, how are all those people to get around in the city on that first Thursday? Will life in the city come to a complete standstill? Will the existing public transport operations crack under the strain? Will stores and businesses just close their doors?

    It is perhaps not uninteresting to reflect on how those who live in your own city or neighborhood will handle this situation, with a little planning and forethought. Certainly there will be employees who "call in sick" or just don't call in at all, and there will be employers that will do nothing to prepare for that day and then simply refuse to pay all no-shows. But will that be the majority? There will be a rich array of potential ways of dealing with this exceptional situation. Some will take a bus or bike, others will run or walk, then there is the possibility of group rides in taxis, Park+Ride, special shuttle services, cross-school programs, teleworking, simply taking home some 'home work', using the time to take care of a medical visit to a nearby facility, spend a day with the family, clean out the attic....

    The point is that, with enough preparation and collaboration, it need not be the worst day of the year for all involved. For many, it could be one of the best and most interesting.

    And for those who live or go into the center, and for all the rest, the importance of the monitoring and follow-up program will be critical. How did you like the way your city looked on Thursday? Were there any important differences? How inconvenient was it for you to deal with it? What might be done to make it better if we were all to agree to do it again?

    I shall not, at this point, get into the richness of the activities that could eventually be carried out in many quarters of the city in order to enrich and build on this new fabric of urban life. The point is, quite simply, that what we would have here is already the making of a major paradigm shift -- but, this time, getting time on our side, giving people a chance to adjust to both the constraints and the new advantages of the changed situation, and to make, in due course, what may be some very interesting and creative decisions which would quite possibly never have come up if we had not somehow got things off the dime and moving in a new directions.

    This will require a process of deep consultation and activist planning that will bring in (just to start the list) public transport operators (public and private), taxis, police, the people who handle the traffic signal timing, schools, store owners, employers of all sizes and ilks, doctors, social service organizations and groupings, etc. In the final analysis, whatever the limitations of the experience, it will be for many an opportunity to view both their town and their own lives from a new and quite different perspective. On those grounds alone, it would have to be counted as a useful experience.

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    What Will Happen After That First Thursday?

    A poorly prepared project will -- for sure! -- fall flat. But there is no reason that such a project cannot be done very well indeed. Nor do we recommend it for just any city. The choice of site will be very important. This is, quite obviously, not the sort of thing that can be imposed by planners or central authorities. It must be a project which has the enthusiastic endorsement both of the community's leaders and, in time, of the great majority of its citizens and institutions. If such an undertaking is perceived as being thrust on the city by some sort of distant central administration, it will never succeed. Thus, a Thursday project must, in each case, be the result of a strong social consensus in that place.

    Of course, if the results of the trial are considered to be unsatisfactory, there will be no reason to consider moving ahead on this basis. If the project is a flop, it is just not repeated. At worst, the cost of failure was not unbearably high (certainly many orders of magnitudes less than an urban rail project which is unable to attract the targeted ridership or a lot of nearly empty buses scuttling around the city streets or stuck in traffic). In point of fact, even if the experiment is judged as unsatisfactory, as long the initial preparation and the parallel effort of monitoring and feedback are handled well, a great deal of useful information and ideas can be gleaned in the process.

    From the outset the idea should be to look for ways to adapt and extend the Thursday program on a more continuing basis -- building on experiences which are considered by the community as successful. Thus for example, once the result of that first Thursday have been analyzed and discussed, a second Thursday project could be organized, say three months after the first. Then if that works the game could change and things could shift into a higher gear. In this stage, the city might move into a situation where the car is out the first Thursday of every month. That stage might last for, say, a year, and will entail monitoring, measuring, discussion, confrontation, education, and adaptation.

    The main objective of this stage would be to lay the groundwork for what happens next, one year later, when perhaps the city will decide to begin in September of the year 2000 with every Thursday.....

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    An All-Cities Thursday Program

    One possibility that is now getting considerable attention is that of organizing Thursday demonstrations in a number of places at the same time, either within the same country or even on a multi-country basis. The advantage of such cross-project collaboration will be immediately apparent. Not only will the media impact be potentially much greater, but also the possibility for inter-city collaboration should help to ensure better and stronger projects. And then there is the usefulness of emulation, as cities look at each other, learn from each other, and try to do perhaps just a bit better than some of the others.

    The point needs to be made, however, that just because someone might call for a "national car free day", this does not somehow miraculously guarantee success. Yes, it is great to have national support and visibility for such programs. But no! this does not obviate the need for the same careful and extensive local consultation, concertation, preparation, implementation and follow-up which constitutes the true core of the Thursday approach. To put this a bit more bluntly: a first class Car Free Day project is not just a media event. We all have to prepare and work to make it a success.

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    Some Implementation Notes for Inter-City Cooperative Programs

    Such a program will best be initiated and carried out individually by each town, city or rural community as a self-organized cooperative venture of a highly spontaneous sort. It is my considered view that any attempt by any external body at central direction or even "orchestration" of what must in the final analysis be highly individualistic and self-contained local initiatives, will only lessen their chances of success. Each "placescape" is going to be unique in many ways, therefore highly resistant to uniform approaches or standardization. Indeed, the very fact that many different variations and approaches are possible will be in the interest of all concerned. The strength of the Thursday program is in numbers, diversity and total reliance on local initiative, thus all centralizing or homogenizing influences must be fiercely resisted.

    That said, it will be most useful if some sort of means of communication, feedback and results sharing can be established among the various independent demonstrations. There will be many common elements and needs, and much to be gained through an enthusiastic and totally voluntary and self-regulated sharing among those cities and communities which decide to take part. Here are some of the areas in which cross-city collaboration could be mutually helpful:

    • Materials and expertise sharing in general
    • Development of activity checklists (e.g. preparatory tasks to complete, organizations to involve, etc.)
    • Tool sharing (both in terms of the analytic tools which are needed to put a strong project in place, and then subsequently to monitor its performance, shortcomings, requirements for fine-tuning, etc.)
    • Media kits and guidelines
    • Peer support
    • Networking and communications systems (cross-city, regional, national, etc., including integrated "War Rooms" for information and expertise sharing at different levels)
    • Perhaps eventually even cross- or collaborative-financing

    In due course there will also be an important "kit building" role, which could bring together all of the best of the practices, materials and routines in such a way that later Thursday projects will be able to benefit from the previous experience of the others. (Kit building, though, we must never forget, is a technique which assists and enhances but does not take the place of individual initiative, judgment or control.)

    There will be numerous ways of approaching the networking aspects of these collaborative undertakings. One possibly worth thinking about is to make use of The Commons or similar appropriate WWW sites, but which today serves as a fairly efficient channel of information and communications which is available for all who might be interested. Another will be to encourage existing networks of cities and public interest groups to take an active role in encouraging demonstration and action programs along these lines, possibly as Thursday programs but equally well as projects that they would tailor to the special circumstances of their members and mandates.

    This leaves us in closing with the question: What is the appropriate role of central or regional government and other such "external" institutions in such projects? If these initiatives are be entirely locally driven, accomplished, evaluated, etc., as indeed they should be, the answer is that regional, national and even inter-national institutions can help, but in a much more discrete way and with a much lighter touch than has characteristically been the case in the past, where centralized decision-making, purse strings and technocratic projects were the main mode of public sector operation. In projects such as these government (other than local government, whose full and enthusiastic participation holds the key to success) can learn to play a very useful enabling function, which can extend to support in all of the areas indicated in the above list and yet others. This will be a new and quite different mode of operation for many public institutions and agencies, but the Thursday projects could also serve them as good learning experiences, since this is exactly the sort of thing they are going to have to get a lot better at in many areas in the future-- and not just transport.

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    What Can You Do if You Don't Happen to Be a City?

    Agreeable as the idea may be, there will be many who will find themselves in situations where their city or neighborhood is simply not yet prepared to make the leap and try a Thursday project. How for example can even the most willing citizen hope to participate in such an experiment if you happen to live in the middle of Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo or any other of tens of thousands of cities where responsible intelligent people will tell you that "it is just not possible here"? (And that will, incidentally, be the first reaction in most places.)

    As luck would have it you have a choice. Anyone who wishes can go out and organize their own Thursday project on their own terms. You don't have to be a city or even a small town. Thus, for example, if you are president of a company, you can get together with those who work there and ask them if they are interested in giving it a try. Or a school or a gym or a hospital. Perhaps you will decide with the members of your bridge club, church or karate group that you are all going to try to see what happens if each of you decides to spend just one day without getting into a car by yourselves alone. Or maybe just the people in your family. Or possibly just yourself -- one person alone who has decided that she or he is willing to take a fling to see what it might be like.

    There will of course be no one best way to do it. Each person, group, and place is going to have to figure out the rules on their own. In some cases, car pooling and shared taxis may be considered acceptable, in others only non-motorized or public transport. Each grouping will decide its own rules and live its own experience. But the point that I wish to stress is that this can be an individual decision and does not have to be something that comes out of some government agency or very large collections of institutions and interests. This is, quite blatantly, not the sort of approach that will appeal to docile, fatalistic or passive citizens. These are concepts that are gong to be picked up only by more thoughtful, individualistic, self-confident individuals and groups. And it is my belief that there are in our societies many more of these kinds of people than most might think.

    One of the challenges behind each Thursday project will be to find imaginative ways for all those who decide to participate not only to have their own unique experiences on that day, but also to get together later so that what they have done and learned individually during that fated day can somehow be summed up and inspected from a community or group wide perspective. This suggests a combination of something like individual log books wherein each participant or group can record the detail of their particular experiences, and then some way of adding these experiences up in order to draw some larger lessons from the whole. I have no specific suggestions at this point how the detail of this will best be handled, but I am confident that once the problem has been clearly posed, there will be people and groups who know what to do next. Good organization and careful planning will help, and so too could sensible use of state of the art electronic communications.

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