Eric Britton is an international consultant, author, and founder of The Commons, a Paris-based nonprofit organization cosponsoring Earth Car Free Day.
Monday, 19 Mar 2001
On 19 Apr., Earth Car Free Day 2001 is going to take another whack at the catastrophic problems behind global warming. And this time, it is quite possible that something useful may come of it — for a change. The event is being organized in hundreds of cities and neighborhoods around the world, and there’s not a government, international conference, or treaty negotiation in sight. In fact, Earth Car Free Day has no official mandate or responsibility. It is nothing more than a simple idea that two groups — the Earth Day Network in Seattle and The Commons in Paris — have joined forces to support. Not only is it a worldwide event without an official sponsor, but also — and this may catch your interest — the whole thing is being organized through volunteer efforts. The event won’t use a drop of taxpayer money.
Everyone knows that one of the main causes of carbon dioxide buildup and global warming is the 700 million-plus vehicles that we now have rolling around on the planet’s roads and streets. Equally evident is that no matter how many prestigious international conferences are held, great books written, talk shows talked, and treaties signed (or not signed), every year the problems get worse. Much worse.
Which is where Earth Car Free Day comes in. Despite its somewhat drastic-sounding name, the goal of the day is not to take every car off of every street on our choking planet. The target is much more modest. It is, for those who wish to participate, a day of open reflection on the problem of cars and traffic in cities. It is also a day to encourage people and communities to learn about and even try alternative ways of getting around in their own cities. We hope the day will instigate demonstrations of ways in which cities can be turned into better and safer places for all races, ages, and income groups to live and work — with a lot fewer cars.
Led by two volunteer organizations that have been around and pounding at the problems of sustainability and social justice for several decades, Earth Car Free Day hopes to spark thousands of celebratory events and demonstrations around the world. Our “Trickle-Up” approach to planning and executing the event takes the old top-down bureaucratic model and stands it on its head. The organizers are working with and supporting local groups, cities, and concerned citizens around the world to use the one common day to make a strong statement about our use and abuse of cars.
You can see the main core of the program at the Earth Car Free Day website. The site shows how volunteers from towns and cities across the planet are already taking advantage of the Internet to swap ideas and experiences. As you see what is already going on, remember that the whole effort only formally starts today.
In the coming week, I will write about some of the events planned in different places. In many cases, these events are being planned by local alternative transportation and environmental groups working on their own. In other cases, mayors are stepping forward and indicating that they are ready to listen, look, and cooperate. Places as different as Singapore, Seattle, Kyoto, Halifax, and The Hague are developing unique approaches to Earth Car Free Day.
Keep your eyes and mind open when you visit the website. You may end up agreeing with Gandhi when he wrote these lines many years ago: “We must be the change we wish to see.”
Tuesday, 20 Mar 2001
Yesterday, as we cyber-labored ever so diligently to make sure that the Earth Car Free Day website and its huge self-managing, tailor-built database could accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of cities, groups, and projects between now and the 19 Apr. start-up, ended up being a day of memories as well as a day of hard work.
For the last few weeks, people of different ages, countries, and flavors have been getting together by Internet and various other communications links to make sure that when the first person showed up at www.carfreeday.com on Monday morning to announce his or her new project or action, we were ready to receive them. The lines were humming not only between Seattle and Paris, but also among Bogota, Pune, Stockholm, New York, and Halifax, and each team was there to do its part.
So, early on Monday morning, when the wires finally began to chatter and the first proposed project came in from Sao Paulo, Brazil, without a snag, we were able to settle back into our distant chairs and breathe a joint sigh of relief. And for us here in Paris, on a very gray day with spring just around the corner, it was a moment to remember.
As memory serves me, the first time I ever heard about anything as bizarre as a car-free day was way back in 1974, at the time of the now-fabled and almost forgotten “energy crisis.” It was an upsetting time for many, as oil prices soared and long-established supply lines were interrupted. It was clearly “The End of the World, Part I.”
The reactions at the time were all similar — a combination of panic, outrage, and befuddlement. Few governments around the planet gave the impression that they had the slightest idea of what to do next, while the media helped a great deal by trumpeting contradictory messages and selling hysteria by the bucket load.
And we sure knew who the Evil Empire was in those days. For once, it was not the Communists. The Bad Guys were OPEC, and that was all there was to it.
It certainly could not have been … us. Oh no! Certainly not us.
After a couple of months of a weird cocktail of global panic and inaction, if you turned to Page 4 (or was it 44?) of your local journal back then, you might have read that the Swiss, those bucolic, yodeling, hardheaded people, had come up with an oddball idea of their own. Here was their reasoning and what they did with it.
Since there was nothing to put into the fuel tanks of their cars anyway, they simply said to themselves, “Well, why not organize a day or two with NO cars? Save some gas, take a break, and have some fun.” Which, being Swiss and quite thoroughly of their own minds, they went ahead and did. In all, over the course of the spring of 1974, the entire nation gave the beast a rest and figured out that, “Yes Virginia, there could be life without a car.”
And this was the first series of purposeful car-free days anywhere on the planet. There were four in all, all held on Sundays, and all held in Switzerland. Just about everybody in the country loved them. Great idea. Lovely days. But what happened next?
The rest of the world paid little attention to this strange idea once the day’s paper was tossed and the usual indifference and inertia took over.
And then 20 years quickly skittered by, during which the concept of the car-free day languished. Over this period, there was, of course, a certain amount of attention given here and there to the ever more tort
uous relationship between cars, cities, and people. But back in the kitchen, the traffic planners continued to plan traffic (and very well indeed, thank you), and the politicos and their administrators continued to build the roads with my money, while a few good souls hollered in a corner that there had to be more to life in cities than that. But as far as car-free days, per se, were concerned: nada.
And even though I served up what may well have been the first major public piece and international challenge based on this idea in 1994 during the course of an “Accessible Cities” congress of the Spanish government in Toledo, Spain, I cannot for the life of me recall how we got from all that we were doing to try to create cities with fewer cars to the idea of trying a car-free day as a step in that direction. I guess it was just time for the good idea to get back on the screen.
So, on one October morning in an ancient Spanish town built on a hill too steep and with roads too narrow and twisting to ever accommodate the dominant 20th century urban nightmare, an idea was casually spun before a couple of hundred thoughtful people who were ready for it. It was something we would call “Thursday”: a day of the week like any other, but one on which, for a change, citizens would get together and see what it might be like to take all the cars off the street.
It was no brighter or more complicated than that. But, as luck would have it, there was someone in the audience from Reykjavik, Iceland, who in June 1996 simply got the people there together to do just that: their own Reykjavik Car-Free Day. And there was another person from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France who in September of the same year also gave it a good whirl. And there was a third person working at the European Commission who, a few years later, was responsible for creating the European car-free day program that has become so well-known.
The idea has since twisted and turned, seen some good days, and seen more days that made no difference at all. But taken together, all of this feeding of an undercurrent has brought us to this planetary adventure — a day on which the entire planet is invited to get cars off the streets for a few hours and think about it.
But all it was, was an idea. An itch, if you will.
Tomorrow we will look at what has been called “The Mother of All Car-Free Days”: the prize-winning Bogota, Colombia, project that kept 800,000 cars in the garage on 24 Feb. 2000 and led to the world’s first major successful car-free referendum.
Wednesday, 21 Mar 2001
The great team that is shaping this first-ever Earth Car Free Day is a striking contrast to at least one long-established historical pattern. But before I reveal to you why this is the case, let me give you a few words of historical background.
Over the years (and decades), I have been a party to, let me see, something like 400 or 500 meetings or small "decision conferences,” which all have had the the common objective of providing a perspective about policy or business decisions involving cities or their transportation systems. Let’s reflect briefly on the latter — those get-togethers that, in one way or another, took risks to influence the shape and operations of the transportation sector.
It’s a funny thing, but almost all of these meetings had one thing in common: There were almost never any women in the room. There were exceptions, of course, but those women were above all, just that — the rare exceptions. In addition, when women were involved at all, there was in many cases a heavy air of tokenism. House woman, if you will. Any women there were strictly in secondary slots, and certainly were not there to shake up things. (At one international meeting, a very senior woman was called on at one point to attend to, as the heavy chair put it, "some housekeeping matters," at which point I hollered, "You can’t say that!" The assembly just smiled, happy in the knowledge that in a few hours I would be out of their lives).
As the 1990s wore on, we began to see more women get involved in transportation decision-making, but guess what (and here is where I am sure to get into trouble) — they were by and large not there to bell the cat. They voted with the solid majority almost every time when it really counted.
The result of this story of unbalanced gender participation is what I am embarrassed to call "the American city transportation model." And what exactly is that? A transportation system that is almost entirely based on the notion that the best way for people to get around is to buy a car, hop into it, and go anywhere they damn well please. This is the “American Way of Life,” which, according to certain of our great minds, not only needs to be defended at whatever cost “here,” but also needs to be exported to every corner of this grateful planet.
Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Henry Higgins, can you hear me?
Truth be told, the car-based model has been showing its age in city after city (regardless of what’s happening on various resource and emissions issues created by those 700 million motor vehicles at its core). Over the last 10 years, the leading edge of transportation policy has backed away from the automobile approach, and gradually is creating a new mental architecture that values new ways of going about all this.
Increasingly, we are seeing two things that we never really had in the past. The first, and the lesser of the two, is the emergence of a new generation of female planners, activists, and policy-makers who are beginning to make their voices heard. Think of them, if you will, as the “Daughters of Jane” (referring to Jane Jacobs, the woman who in 1961 showed an all-male profession a new way to think about cities in her justifiably famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Knowing Mrs. Jacobs as well as I do, I am certain that this would please her, and there is not one female transportation activist I know who would not be battle-proud to bear that label).
The second development over this same period of time has been a gradual buildup of a new and highly effective movement of men, yes, males, with some of the same great values and ideas that women have brought to the table: neighborliness, a clear mind, an ability to listen, an understanding that cities and societies need to be nurtured and not just engineered, and knowledge that good things take time.
The 20th century paradigm of transportation decision-making has come to a screeching and not regrettable halt (excuse the pun!). Leaders with a new set of values have taken over, and they tend to be even more technically competent than those who preceded them. This new mentality has firmly set its sights on priorities beyond the mobility options of the healthy, working, (and at least symbolically male) population. The priorities are now the "rest" of society: those who are too old to drive, those who cannot afford to drive, those with physical or psychological limitations as drivers or even passengers, and those who simply prefer not to drive. And the list goes on.
There are at least three interesting things about this new constituency: The first is that they have indeed been unfairly served by our present car-based systems. The second is that, if you do the math, you will see that these are not marginal groups that can be fobbed off; in many places, they comprise a majority in many places. And the third and last thing is that we now have the means to do something for this constituency.
What brings all of this to mind on a late Paris evening in a splendid spring r
ain? Well, there’s the fact that our Earth Car Free Day crew has a strong (and I mean strong) female majority at the helm (I just work here). Moreover, as new people, groups, and projects show up in our world database every few hours (check it out at www.carfreeday.com), at least every other person that shows up with an idea, a project, or a good question just happens to be female.
We are finally using our whole brain. Thank you, Jane.
Thursday, 22 Mar 2001
It was late afternoon in Paris on 14 Jan. 2000 when the telephone rang dully.
I could hear a distant voice (bad connection?) at the other end trying to get out my name and asking where I might be found. The voice said with an accent that its name was Oscar Edmundo Diaz and that it was calling from Bogota (Bogota?). And that if I was indeed Eric Britton, the guy who had written that planning paper, “Thursday,” about getting cars off the streets of cities, then it had a question for me.
When I admitted that it might be me (you can’t be too careful these days!), the next thing the voice asked was if I would send by email all the latest materials that we had on the subject, because the people in Bogota, Colombia, had a plan. But they needed to be sure that they were going to have a real running start on it. So I did what was asked, without really reflecting on why the voice had said, “real running start.”
Less than 24 hours later, the phone rang again and it was this Oscar, who had something to propose. To which I said “shoot” (perhaps a badly chosen word under the circumstances). Oscar informed me that his mayor, Enrique Penalosa, had decided that if it could be done, a car-free day might be a great way to gain support for a massive long-term overhaul of Bogota’s transportation system. And when I said that was what a car-free day was supposed to be about, he asked if The Commons would be ready to work with them on it. And, if so, what would be the next step?
This was a terrific idea and I was more than pleased. After all, a very smart and energetic mayor of a city of some 6 or 7 million people (who really knows?) saying that he was ready to run with the Thursday program exactly as we had set it up five years ago. Not only that, it also was a place with many of the components we had been looking for in a demonstration site aimed at convincing Third World cities to start their rethink process. So I quickly said, “Yes, let’s have a go.”
Oscar then asked me for a quick plan, which I sketched out on the phone with him. Since he insisted that the city was ready to commit the necessary resources, this was clearly doable. It would be a big challenge (almost a million cars?), but with hard work, luck, and enough time, it was, in my view, quite possible. He asked how long I thought it would take us to be ready, and I suggested that we organize so that it could occur in tandem with the first European car-free day planned for late September.
Then, Oscar pulled the rug out from under me, telling me about his mayor’s political reality. Bogota was ready to do a car-free day, and they were pleased to do it on a Thursday and follow our guidelines, but, for specific political and electoral reasons, the car-free day had to take place on the last Thursday in February — five weeks from the time we were talking.
That, of course, was entirely out of the question and I let him know that in no uncertain terms. And so if they wanted to do it that soon, count me out. I had already seen enough middling car-free day attempts here in Europe, and I certainly did not want The Commons or myself to be associated with what would certainly be the world’s greatest Car-Free Flop ever. No Oscar, it can’t be done. Count me out. Sorry. Goodbye.
Now this Oscar turned out to be a very cool character and, instead of getting mad, saying goodbye, and hanging up, he just kept talking. He asked me to think about it for 24 hours. Which I did.
Since you know about car-free days, I guess you can figure out what happened next. I called back the next day and said that if they were ready to put in the many thousands of hours of preparation that this was going to take, that if they really understood the magnitude of the challenges, and that if they were ready to prepare some kind of sleeping arrangements in their office and forget about going home for the next five weeks, then I guess they could count on us. In fact, they very definitely could count on us and we were going to make it work.
The rest, as they say, is history. Five weeks later, during which many of us incurred considerable sleep deficits, “sin mi carro en Bogota” opened for business at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, 24 Feb., in a light drizzle, and went on until 7:30 p.m. Latin America’s fifth-most polluted city hit the road by foot, cycle, bus, collectivo, taxi, and train, except for a few of the more privileged, who stayed home for the day and gave telecommuting a try. And all but a handful of the 800,000 cars stayed home in the garage.
It was not a perfect day, but what day is? It could have been better, but the results were of course phenomenal and are well-known. By all counts, pollution and noise levels were down anywhere from 8 to 30 percent. For the first time in eight years, no one was killed in traffic accidents (normally, they lose two to four per day), and hospital admissions for accidents and respiratory cases were down by more than 50 percent. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it should be noted that in our first days of preparation, all the polls showed a very skeptical public (less than 50 percent of those polled said that they thought it might be worth trying). But on the night after the great day, an independent poll found that 87 percent of the population thought it had been a success and that it should be repeated. The fact that the day was spruced up with music, street theater, massive media coverage, events, and smiles did not hurt one bit.
In a way, this was just the start. With such a strong public vote of confidence, the mayor and his team immediately set out to work full-steam on a major reconstruction effort that is already changing the face of transportation in Bogota. The new system is based on a combination of smart new public transportation, heavy participation of small businesses, and for the first time, massive reserved-access provisions for cyclists and pedestrians.
So if you are thinking about organizing a car-free day anywhere in the world, your first point of reference should be Bogota, 24 Feb. 2000, rain and all.
Friday, 23 Mar 2001
The phone rattled once again, but this time it was a voice that I knew all too well. “It’s me,” the voice rasped, “Don Corleone” (as if I could forget that voice!).
“How’s things going, Rico?” (Rico?)
And without waiting for an answer, he said, “Never mind. There’s a limo outside waiting to bring you here, so just leave off whatever it is you are doing and get over here. I gotta talk to you about some of those car-sharing guys.”
I had almost forgotten that the Don had shown so much interest in car-sharing, but I knew that he was into diversification these days. I’ll never forget the first time I mentioned the word “car-sharing” and saw that he was frowning. It was more than a year ago. He asked me what it meant, and I tried to explain. (I told him this: Car-sharing is what you get when people stop using their own cars and instead use a shared vehicle whenever they need one. Think of it as a very handy short-term rent-a-car that is right around the corner and costs a lot less than owning your own car. It works best if you live in a city that has decent public transport. There are more than 500 cities around the world today where you can join a car-share club. (See www.worldcarshare.com for details.) Then I jabbered a lot about car-sharing being such a great idea because it represents a terrific first step toward decoupling the desire to use a car and the actual ownership of the car — an important change toward a more sustainable transportation system. And on and on.
Now, the Don is not exactly what you would call “into sustainability,” but he did stop me to ask if any of these guys, the 500 (or whatever it was) car-share operations in cities around the world, made any money at what they did. I said that some did and some didn’t, but that the operations are starting to become more profitable as they gain more experience.
The Don seemed to like what he was hearing, which was not surprising because he always had liked international issues. After a long pause, he said, “Tell me something, Rico. How many cars do you think there are in the world? And how much do you think those stiffs pay to keep them on the road?”
Of course, I don’t like giving the Don answers on anything like that without being able to check it out first by computer, but I took the risk and gave him some ballpark figures. I told him there were something like 700 million motor vehicles on the world’s roads, that the annual growth rate of new cars on the road was approximately 7 to 10 percent, and that it cost something like $7,000 per year to cover all the costs, at least in the wealthier parts of the world.
The Don is fast. Without losing a minute, he said, “Hey! Have you ever multiplied those numbers together? ‘Cause if you do, you are looking at a $5 trillion price tag. That’s a lot of zeros And the whole pile is growing at 10 percent a year? But I need to know another thing, too. What part of the world market do you think those car-share guys could eventually get if they got their act together?”
I had never thought about that before. Let’s see. Studies suggest that car-sharing becomes a serious economic option for city dwellers who drive less than 6,200 miles in one year. Other statistics suggest that, with wide regional variations, this also happens to be the average figure for annual car travel in many places. Putting these two together would suggest that perhaps in good time, as much as one-half of the entire world of car drivers might be candidates for car-sharing.
I had the Don’s attention and I could see him juggling those numbers and smiling broadly at the same time. He said, “Rico, you’ve given me a pretty good idea here. I’m even starting to like you. The way I see it, if you think of car-sharing as a whole new business, it could account for up to one-half of all the money that people spend in the world car market not only for the cars themselves but also for the insurance, parking (and we like parking), fuel, and all the rest. Let’s round off. Call it $3 trillion a year. That’s a number, ain’t it? And I, the Don, want a piece of that market. A big piece!”
That was the last time I had seen the Don, until the phone rang last night. And as I was getting into his waiting stretch limo with the armor plating and one-way bullet-proof glass (the motor was running — as I said, the Don is not really into sustainability), I tossed my laptop into the car, just in case he wanted more background on this car-sharing stuff. With the Don, it pays to get it right the first time.
When I arrived at the great house and entered between the snarling Doberman and the usual large gentlemen with the sunglasses, I found the Don waiting for me with a glass of wine. That was nice, but I still wondered what he had in mind.
“Rico,” he said, “My boys tell me that you are doing a thing called Earth Car Free Day. Is that right?”
What could I say but, “Right, Don.”
“And I hear that you have asked all those carsharing guys to come in and organize open houses to invite the public in, and in general cooperate with the big guys in their cities to make sure that the Day works out for you.”
I replied, “Right again, Don.”
Then he said, “So here’s my question: How many of these guys have already signed on to do this? My boys tell me that things are going a little slowly.”
“Well Don,” I whined, “this sort of thing takes time. We have just recently asked them to get involved, and they have a lot of other things to do to keep their businesses running. But the first groups have already come in, and I am sure that we will have a number of others join in.”
I have rarely seen the Don so mad. “A number of others?” he roared. “I want all of them. This is a trillion dollar business and we need to get moving on it. Tell them that the Don wants them in. Or else.”
He was really angry, and I think that if you are running a car-share operation anywhere in the world, that you would do well to listen to the Don. He is famous for his long arms and short temper. And you can’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Saturday, 24 Mar 2001
“G’day,” sang the friendly voice on the other end of the line. “Eric is it? This is John. John Pinkard? From Fremantle?” (One of the great things about Australians and Canadians is that they often end even their most definitive sentences with the upward lilt of a question mark. It makes you think they are consulting you and value what you have to say. Great stuff! Gotta get that habit.)
The voice was fresh and lively. Why not? In Australia, it was mid-afternoon, peak concentration time. But here in Paris, it was only 7:00 a.m. on a gray Saturday morning, and while I was already at my desk, I hadn’t even had my first coffee yet. Not fresh. Pull yourself together, my man. Focus!
I said, “Hi John, I guess you must calling about that great Shed A Car Day project this year. I hope you’re not in trouble with it. After all, it was such a terrific event last year. And, by the way, thanks for signing in to this year’s Earth Car Free Day database. This is terrific information for other cities and groups that are planning their car-free days. I’m sure glad to be able to post it for the crowd to see and benefit from.”
He replied, “No, Eric, no problem there. But I have a question for you about dates. You see, last year we ran Shed A Car in late November, but this year we wanted to see if maybe we could coordinate with one of the international events. Your April deadline is just a tad close for us this year, since there is an awful lot left for us to do to get in shape here, given that this is a full-scale citywide event. We were thinking about maybe trying to run this year in rough parallel with the European events in September. What do you say?”
The last thing we wanted to do was to lose John and Fremantle from the movement just because of a date. Anyway, that has never been a problem for us, since we have always maintained that every day of the year is a great candidate for a car-free day. And since we want to get behind the European events in any way we can, what better way than to have groups at the other end of the earth running their own car-free days in rough parallel?
So I told him, “John, that strikes me as a first-class idea. But you know they are aiming for 22 Sep. 2001, a Saturday. I dunno for sure, but around here, we tend to like our car-free days on a weekday, rather than on the weekend where, in many cities, things tend to look quite different. The basic idea is for people to see a sharp contrast with the usual “car-full” weekday. But of course, that’s your call.”
John responded, “Well, good mate. We’ll think about that one. I guess the Europeans will be just as happy if we do our thing a day or two earlier or later. Since we are almost halfway around the clock from you, we are as often as not a day away anyway.”
I figured that we had given that topic its due and wanted to change the subject. The Fremantle volunteer group had recently completed a first-rate survey of the impacts of their Nov. 2000 Shed Your Car happening, and
we have been looking for a way to draw it to the attention of those who are trying to get ready for the 19 Apr. 2001 event. Hmm.
So I said, “You know, John, I’d like to try an idea on you for size. In a moment of inattention, I committed myself to writing a series of shortish commentaries this week on this whole Earth Car Free Day business for the Grist Magazine people over in Seattle. And it occurs to me that maybe I could try writing something tomorrow about Fremantle, and your push to turn the Shed A Car Day into an all-Australia, volunteer-led annual event. But I may need some help?” (I was trying out the Australian rising lilt ending to see if I could make him my prisoner.)
I had a number of reasons up my sleeve for wanting to do this. Not least because I like their approach of starting with volunteers and then gradually piecing together a citywide alliance that not only draws in all the usual transportation and governance actors, and the environmental and sustainable transport action groups, but also the local business community. Their nice-and-easy approach has gained the enthusiastic support of local businesses by making them an active part of the planning and implementation process — giving them a sense of ownership. It makes a terrific example for us all.
In fact, I like just about everything about the way they are tackling this, right down to the name. “Shed A Car” strikes me as a terrific temperature-lowering name, which draws a smile to the face. (It is surely a lot less aggressive than our phrase, “car-free,” which to some extent is an albatross we have hung around our own necks.)
I also like the laid-back supporting events they are organizing, such as the Cycle Instead Breakfast, Walk Your Child to School, Walking Bus, Workplace Challenge Award, and the Slow Bike Race, together with first-rate, continuous media support and careful environmental monitoring.
So I finally say, “Okay John! I can try to write a piece on Shed A Car as my Saturday Grist contribution, but I really feel we should run it through your gang for comments before going to press. And since it is almost the end of the day over there in Fremantle, we may have an impossible timing problem.”
John replied, “No, I don’t think we do, Eric. We’re used to that over here. Let’s see, I’ll go home and get some sleep now, while you hunker down and write that piece. Then you can email your draft to us at the end of your day that will make it Saturday morning here in Fremantle. We can then get it back to you with our comments by the end of our day (which is the beginning of yours). That gives you time to give it a last whack before you send it off to Seattle, since they are 10 more hours behind you? Nothing to it, mate. Got it?”
Hmm, of course, that works out quite nicely. So I thanked John for his idea and cooperation and started to sign off. But he was not quite ready to let me go yet: “Well, y’know, Eric. It strikes me that all this is just one more example of how you can get Earth Car Free Day right. You keep saying that every day is a great candidate for a car-free day. And I say that if we get it right, then ‘the sun never sets on Earth Car Free Day.'”
You’re so right, John.
Sunday, 25 Mar 2001
Well, yes. No doubt John and the Fremantle crew had it right when they said, “The sun will never set on Earth Car Free Day.” But they also said, “if we manage to get it right.”
Come 19 Apr. 2001, we’ll know one way or another if the sun will set on that day — and at that point, our Earth Car Free Day movement will have moved past a very important milestone.
How are we going to look on the morning after? Will we all feel great satisfaction? Disappointment? Or will we just hide our heads in the sand, declare victory, and then skitter off to other, “better” things? (Which is what projects of this sort all too often do.)
To get a bit of a head start on reality, what if we crank up our imaginations and “go back to the future” for a moment — and see what it may feel like once the sun finally has gone down on 19 Apr. 2001 on the International Dateline, somewhere near the distant Kingdom of Tonga.
Well, we are not completely ignorant at this point. After all, it’s 25 Mar., our E-Day is less than a month away, and we already know a few things. We can, for example, get a bit of help here if we check out the new database that was painfully pieced together over these last few weeks and brought on line just last week. As of this evening, we can already see that the first 50 or so projects, plans, and propositions have already rolled in from more than a dozen countries. Hmm.
In addition to being encouraging from an Earth Car Free Day perspective, the list also has something terribly touching about it. If you look at the list, you will see that we have connected people from around the world working on a common agenda with a shared commitment to sustainability — people from countries that have been unable to register any significant progress on the sustainability agenda over the past 15 years through conferences, treaties, or even veiled threats. In some cases, our teams come from countries in which government representatives have a hard time sitting at the same table, much less actually doing something useful together. Thus, what we are seeing here simply has to mean something that goes well beyond cities and cars, and is certainly worth thinking about, and possibly building on.
On 20 Apr., I think we would have to be quite mad if we didn’t have a certain number of reservations about what we all managed to accomplish on this first big day. An Earth Car Free Day worthy of its name should have thousands of projects and bring together many hundreds of cities into a shared experience and a common learning system. We will almost certainly not get to those ambitious heights, at least not this first time around.
One reason is that we started with the planning effort back in early November, altogether too late for a pioneering effort of this sort with so much to do and to learn. Secondly, there can be no doubt that we needed more time and more resources in order to finish the necessary groundwork for the model Earth Car Free Day. It was not money that we needed, because Earth Car Free Day deliberately eschews money. But all those volunteers do need time.
(An aside on projects like this that take place, in our favorite phrase, “off the economy.” Since they are handled by volunteers, who tend to treat time in a somewhat different way, specific deadlines are not as important as the job that needs to be done. As a consequence, there is a tendency for projects like this one to spin on longer than those that are done in the money economy. As a result, they can be better if the commitment and expertise are also there.)
So, to summarize: Our likely major shortcomings in 2001 are (1) not enough projects, (2) not enough of the information people need to learn deeply from each other, and (3) not enough interaction between the projects.
So I ask you: Is that failure? Have we all wasted our time?
It will be best to answer that question, not on 20 Apr., but in the weeks following. One of the main things that we are trying to encourage and support here is frank self-evaluation that we can share with each other. How useful it will be if we take advantage of our shared database and knowledge platform to remind ourselves, and our sisters and brothers in other cities around the world, about the lessons learned.
Let’s also recall that every step of the way has been led by volunteer groups, people who were not being paid to do anything. One by one, they just figured that it was time to stand up and be counted. One by one, then 50 by 50, then 500 … and keep your eyes open to see where this goes in the next few years.
I think our shared common judgment will be, “Not bad at all.” Because of the database, a truth machine of sorts, we will
be able to see both what we have managed to achieve and what we have missed. We will thus have identified our zone of ignorance, which, as Pascal told us a few years back, is the first step to knowledge.
And we will have made a pretty large number of new friends. People and groups around the world who not only share our concerns about sustainability and social justice, but who also have shown that they are willing to get together and do something about them. And almost every one of them surely would be ready to do it again — together.
I think we will conclude that Alexis de Tocqueville would have been very proud of us when the sun finally sets on the Kingdom of Tonga on 19 Apr. 2001. Citizens who get together to do something themselves instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them — this was the kind of active citizen democracy that Tocqueville surely had in mind 170 years ago.