Los Angeles has a solid reputation for its traffic. People complain of long commutes, air pollution, common traffic collisions and delays. And Los Angeles certainly isn’t the only city with these problems.
Santa Monica Planning Commissioner, Richard McKinnon proposed closing off a portion of the city to vehicles for a few hours one Sunday to lessen vehicle traffic and encourage biking and walking. The initiative would be part of their bike action plan, which was approved 4 years ago and has documented increased bike use among residents. His idea is based on the success of many other cities where officials have incorporated car-free days to promote improvement of mass transit, biking and walking, and the development of communities where jobs are closer to home and where shopping is within walking distance. Instead of pressuring the individual to develop healthy habits, the intervention creates an environment where exercise is not only possible, but pleasant, ultimately motivating some individuals to choose to be physically active.
Car-free days first gained popularity in Bogotá, Colombia in the 1970s, when the government developed an initiative to close city streets to motorized traffic every Sunday and holidays. Ciclovía, as it was called, worked to encourage cyclists and pedestrians to use the road space. The car-free day received enough support from Bogotá city officials and citizens that it has since turned into an annual car-free week.
Car-free interventions are a prime example of a comprehensive public health intervention. We see impacts across domains, including improved safety and air quality, decreased noise pollution and increased physical activity. A meta-analysis of car-free literature documented a number of these positive benefits. Programs that close down streets on a weekly basis make a significant contribution to their residents’ meeting overall requirements for weekly physical activity. These programs also encouraged social wellbeing, provided employment and helped to reduce environmental pollution. In Israel, air pollution dropped by 99% during a 24-hour car-free period. Paris closed a third of their streets for the first time this past September and the air pollution dropped by an average of 40%. Additionally, the sound level dropped by half in the city center. In a city grappling with severe pollution, the results were dramatic enough that the Mayor’s office is proposing car-free days happen once a month.
Los Angeles’ CicLAvia event had a similar impact. The organizers recently published the results of two years’ worth of data. They found air quality significantly improved on and off the no-car route and it increased physical activity (more than 50% said they would be inactive if not for CicLAvia). Ciclovías are generally inexpensive given the beneficial impact. The meta-analysis reported that the direct costs of setting up and running Ciclovías were as low as 1 cent per participant.
Some business owners have expressed concern for these events because they worry it will block access to their business. This didn’t happen in Los Angeles, where businesses along the route saw an increase in consumer visits. Slower foot traffic makes it easier for people to make unplanned stops into retail stores and restaurants. Others have had concern about increased crime due to the large influx of people to the event, but data from the Los Angeles CicLAvia event show this is also not true. In fact, violent crime dropped by 40% in areas adjacent to the event.
These types of programs create demand for city infrastructure that allows for safe bicycle and foot movement. It also helps change the public’s perception of their city from a dangerous, car-choked obstacle course to a habitable public space that allows for easy movement without their car. The result is an effective and efficient way to promote public health, local economic development and social cohesion.