Car Free Day Offers Chance to Look at Transit Alternatives

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

By the time noon rolls around today, more than 8 million people will have driven from some place to some place else in the Washington region. By midnight, that number will double to 16.3 million.

What if they hadn't? Tuesday, after all, is World Car Free Day.

Forget for a minute that jobs would be lost, classrooms would be empty, that the president and the polar bears at the zoo would go hungry. Dream of a day when not a single ignition key turned.

By the end of that day:

The air would be free of 60,000 tons of CO2 and 238 tons of other chemical byproducts created when a spark meets gasoline.

Seven million gallons of gasoline would have been preserved at a savings of about $18.5 million.

Several hundred people would have avoided those close encounters of the worst kind, the 244 daily traffic crashes.

One hundred twenty-two people wouldn't end the day injured.

And at least one person (statistically, 1.19 persons) wouldn't have died in a car crash.

World Car Free Day is the annual apex of a global movement that promotes alternatives to a car-dependent society, including 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.

In an area that ranks in the top five in every survey of urban congestion, of commuter stress and of time wasted going bumper to bumper, the notion of a day without cars sounds as delightful as it does preposterous.

In this region, the group is asking people to pledge to leave the car at home -- a step taken by 5,445 people on Car Free Day last year. Car Free Day Metro D.C. organizers are keeping an online tally of those taking the vow this year. They hope this number will top 10,000.

"People are given a chance to consider how their city might look and operate with a lot fewer cars," said Nick Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, a regional transportation network coordinated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "It produces many benefits in air quality, reducing stress and alleviating congestion."

For those who embrace the notion of the day but can't get to work without a car, Ramfos promotes a "car light" day through use of park-and-ride mass-transit options and carpooling. His organization provides a year-round service matching people who want to carpool rather than ride alone.

On Car Free Day, F Street NW will be closed between Seventh and Ninth streets from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., and Commuter Connections and other organizations will provide information and demonstrations about alternatives for getting around.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, sees an upside in the downside of the day that would unfold if no one drove a car here.

"We'd quickly show that we don't have enough mass transit," Schwartz said. "You'd find that bicycling would be an option, along with telecommuting. Those who would be more successful in their daily chores would be those who live in walkable communities."

A 24-hour break from burning carbon fuel might mean a peaceful hiatus from noise and a reduction in air pollution, but there's no guarantee of a Code Green air-quality day. When the Washington region has a bad-air day, it's caused by an atmospheric inversion that stalls soot blown our way from the Midwest.

"If everybody turned off their cars, we still could have a Code Red day because of that pollution coming in from the smokestacks in the Ohio Valley," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "There is a major misconception about how much vehicles contribute to pollution."

Anderson said about 25 percent of the region's pollution comes from cars.

"What comes out of the tailpipe is about 95 percent cleaner than it was 25 years ago," he said. "A lawn mower that runs for a couple of hours puts more pollution in the air than a car driving from here to New York and back."

Anderson said a true car-free day would be "very frustrating for those of us in this region."

"Our mass transit, if anyone has noticed, is at capacity at the rush hours," he said. "It's fun to dream, but every now and then your feet have to come down and touch the concrete."

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