Week # 24: Car(e) free


As city dwellers we enjoy those remarkable moments, should we happen to be awake in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the streets are truly quiet. The constant thrum is strangely absent, strange because you only notice it now its gone. Over that surprising layer of silence you hear, clearly, just the dawn chorus or your mates nonsense chat ringing out up ahead.

Now imagine if that unusual tranquility lasted the whole day. You crash for a few hours, wake up, make coffee and scrambled eggs and read the paper and outside still only hear the sound of birds and people laughing. The customary low buzz of traffic, so ingrained we dont know its there, is missing (along with, here in Bolivia, the omnipresent twin frequencies of car horns and car alarms).

This was Cochabamba last Sunday, on the first of three dedicated Da del Peatn Day of the Pedestrian which will take place in 2011. This has quickly increased from what was an annual event, and according to unverified sources there is rumour of an attempt to inaugurate a monthly car-free day. In a city of 800,000 that would be a truly trailblazing decision and confirmation of Cochabambas progressive reputation; a beautiful example to other cities, societies and governments looking for ways to decrease car use and pollution and encourage physical activity.

The growth of Da del Peatn (which could just as well be called Da del Bici, since vast numbers of the population of all ages turn out on bikes which, presumably, are in storage for the rest of the year), suggests that Cochabambinos have embraced this reclamation of their streets. And its not hard to see why.

Many urban neighbourhood communities in the UK and elsewhere hold an annual street party, creating a shared front yard out of the road that connects them, but on which the through traffic normally imposes a hazardous division. These mini-fairs with their facepainting, bbqs and baking, paddling pools and gossip are a treasured opportunity to share public space safely and get to know your neighbours. Da del Peatn recreates that sense of fun and communality on a grand scale. To have that atmosphere of relaxation and festivity spread across an entire city centre is a remarkable thing to experience. People love it the smiles on their faces beam this space is ours!, from the grandparents pushing their small charges along in buggies to the jovenes stunt-jumping over one another on their BMXs and the kids messing about in the public fountain.

Take traffic out of the equation and that lost sense of community that we bemoan and feel so keenly quickly comes flooding back and if you dont believe me, you have two more opportunities to come to Cochabamba this year and experience it for yourself. Evo himself was of course present (see picture here), on a 20-year-old bike. Im sure Boris Johnson would like a similar opportunity to prove his green credentials he could learn a thing or two from Cochabamba.

It couldnt last, and the traffic when I awoke the Monday following was particularly insulting. Of course, now Ive just got used to it again. But pushing my way through the post-work pavement crowds, I remember that feeling of ownership when we could all walk in the road as well. How lucky that I only have to wait until June to experience it again.

For some great information and campaigning work on sustainable transport and communities in the UK, visit Sustrans

Mads Ryle

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