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ELIUD OWALO: Alternatives to car free days

The Star logo The Star 20/02/2019 The Star
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Since automobiles first started to clog roads, citizens around the world have been grappling with how to take back their streets. Urban municipalities have pondered how best to balance safety with speed, and air quality with convenience.

Every September 22 nations mark World Car Free Day and people are encouraged to get around on train, bus, bicycle, or to carpool/vanpool, use the subway, or walk, instead of taking their cars. Those who can work from home (telework) are encouraged to do.

The Nairobi car free day that was suspended on January 30, just before it was to begin, was part of preparations to roll out the Bus Rapid Transit system. All vehicles were to be barred from the central business district two days of the week. Dedicated parking was to be at Uhuru Park and Railways.

At least 5,000 stalls were to be erected in the CBD to allow hawkers to sell their wares. This was envisaged to generate Sh39.5 million daily revenue for the government from over 100,000 hawkers. This would employ many, generating Sh3.8 billion annually. The pilot would have affected Moi Avenue, Harambee Avenue, Taifa Road, City Hall, Mama Ngina Street, Kenyatta Avenue, University Way, and Haile Selassie. Staggering of working hours for city residents was to be considered.

The plan was, however, strongly opposed by the Motorists Association of Kenya, among others, who argued that Nairobi doesn't qualify to have a car free day since 'a car in Nairobi is a convenient mode of public transport and not a luxury. This is because there is no acceptable alternative mode of public transport to carry the masses to and from work'.

Car free days have multiple objectives, including reducing traffic congestion, environmental preservation, encouraging alternative modes of transport and reducing driving costs. They help improve mass transit and promote cycling and walking. Studies have shown that for short trips in cities, one can reach their destination faster using a bicycle instead of a car. It is estimated that about seven million people globally die from air pollution every year, not to mention the millions more killed in accidents involving motor vehicles.

Car free days have been running for almost 20 years in cities such as Washington, Paris, Brussels, Stockholm and New Delhi. In Africa, Rwanda was the first country to introduce car free days, in 2016, for two Sundays every month to allow pedestrians and cyclists to exercise in the streets of Kigali.

Last year Ethiopia introduced a once-a-month car free day across all cities. The second car free day was held on January 13. On Lamu Island, with a population of 25,000, no vehicles are allowed; the populace instead uses 2,000-3,000 donkeys, bikes or walk.

World Car Free Day is meant to encourage motorists to give up their cars for a day in a year, with the resultant improvement of mass transit, cycling and walking, and the development of communities where jobs are closer to home and where shopping is within walking distance.

Although the impact of this initiative has not been well evaluated, it can be argued that events which disrupt the transport system can lead to long-term behaviour changes. For example, strikes and road closures force people to try something different, and alter their knowledge and perceptions of the travel alternatives available.

Indeed, a worldwide 2002 study of more than 70 road closures due to natural disasters and planned roadworks found that, on average, 11 per cent of vehicles previously on the road could not be found in the surrounding area afterward. A study on the impact of strike action on the London Underground in February 2014 used data from travel cards to examine travel patterns before, during and after the strike. It found that five per cent of travellers continued using their newly discovered routes after the disruption.

However, unlike in many parts of the world where the event is celebrated once a year, or as in Rwanda where they hold it on two Sundays a month and once a month on Sundays in Ethiopia, Nairobi had introduced car free days on two days of the week (Wednesday, a full working day, and Saturday, a half day). This was bound to create more disruption, with the major focus seeming to enhance hawker trading instead of the typical reasons for a car free day.

The greatest concern is whether a city with the highest per capita vehicle population in the country and 'not so efficient' public transport system, can afford a car free day. Also, a car free day does not factor emergencies such as bereavements or rushing to a hospital to see a patient in the shortest possible time.

Moreover, one day without cars cannot really change travel habits. On average, we take 66 days to form a new habit. So when an initiative sets out to change our habits in just 24 hours, there's cause for scepticism. Besides, altering the transport infrastructure and services is not all that's required to alter travel behaviour.

While these initiatives can play a role in changing the behaviour of some people for one day, occasionally, they are far from adequate to influence longer-term changes to the scale required. What is needed is to make changes across the whole mobility system, to continually reinforce greater uptake of alternative transport methods.

Changes to travel patterns after a disruption are also not any greater than the day-to-day variability. There's no guarantee that enough people maintain these changes for long enough to alter overall travel patterns, such as the total kilometres driven from one year to the next. For example, a three-year study found that although more than half of participants before and after the 2012 Olympics in London said they had changed their journeys to work during the games, three-quarters said they did not always travel to work the same way on a typical day anyway.

One alternative on the way forward would be to target the youth, who are yet to form driving habits. For example, in America, millennials are driving less than other generations, citing car ownership as expensive and a hassle.

Secondly, autonomous technology can turn driving into just another rote task, best left to robots. Companies such as ZipCar make fractional ownership a more viable option for city dwellers. And affordable ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft get people to leave their cars at home for short distance rides. Thirdly, promoting car sharing and ride sharing services presents another alternative.

Instead of observing car free day once in a blue moon, we should develop a long-term policy to control pollution and vehicular congestion, such as provision of bus service at increased frequency, pooling of cars and vans, introduction of double-decker buses, and more involvement of the public in decision-making.

Other options include: flexible working hours; transport system solutions including payment systems to cater for multi-modal journeys such as the Mobility Mixx card in the Netherlands, which can be used to pay for all public transport, taxis, carpool, bike and car rental and park-and-ride tickets; and seasonal re-allocation of road space to pedestrian spaces or non-motorised road users as they did in New York.

We also need a broader understanding of how and what shapes people's travel choices, and how these vary across locations and societal groups. Hence, the concept of a broader 'mobility system' that includes not only the transport system (infrastructure, legislation, fiscal arrangements like charges and fares, and public transport operators), but also communication system (patterns of work, shopping and socialising as well as the information we use on the go) and the social context (the norms about how things are done, the know-how and resources of those in the system, including workplaces and communities).

Other options could include a hierarchical systems approach where commuter rail provides metro level transport, Bus Rapid Transit serves major urban arterials, with regular public bus service serving non-major artery roads to CBD, while flexible modes link neighbourhoods and satellite business activity centres to rail, BRT and other bus services.

The government is to be applauded for acknowledging the need to solve the automobile and hawking problems, but it is advisable that such monumental decisions be informed by adequate studies and effective stakeholder engagement. Most importantly, let us seek the experts' input first.

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