Breathe Easier: SF Celebrating Car-Free Day! by Susan Vaughan

Community groups are teaming up with Supervisor Sophie Maxwell to spearhead the drive for San Francisco's first car-free day on Friday, September 27. It will roughly coincide with European Car-Free Day on September 22 and the two-week period of international car-free events, September 13 through 27. As of press time, Maxwell, in cooperation with the Department of Parking and Traffic, is working to close Montgomery Street (from California to Market) to car traffic from 10am to 2pm. All cross streets except Bush will also be closed to motor traffic (including Muni). Sometimes referred to as the Wall Street of the West, Montgomery Street during rush hour more closely resembles the Miles of Cars auto mall.

Groups and individuals working with Maxwell have established goals for the city's first Car-Free Day (CFD):

1) have a successful first year that can be built on in successive years; 2) expose people to the benefits of going car-free; and 3) begin to change transportation patterns such that car use is seen as less and less necessary.

A wide range of organizations is expected to endorse the concept, from the Chamber of Commerce to the Bicycle Coalition, although the SFBC has expressed its concerns that this event does too little to discourage car driving on Car-Free Day. "By failing to close even one parking space or one block of street during rush hour, this event is not likely to eliminate one car trip or really show how our streets-or even a street-could be different if not for so many cars," says Dave Snyder, executive director of the SFBC. "The SFBC supports Car-Free Day, but is advocating next year for an event more true to the international concept and therefore more likely to inspire at least some people not to drive a car."

The event will provide opportunities to demonstrate how nice it is to have that street space for something other than cars. We don't even need to look to Europe for great ideas: Fremont's car-free day included an all-day street party featuring live-people chess, bike repair classes, and a street lounge complete with comfy furniture.

Maxwell's CFD inspiration was former Bogota, Colombia, Mayor Enrique Penalosa. During his term, Penalosa created and revitalized low-income neighborhood parks, created a green belt, and organized the city's first CFD in which seven million people left 800,000 cars at home.

The need for a car-free day in San Francisco is clear. Currently there are about 470,000 cars in the city, up nearly 15 percent from January 1996. Cars are inching up onto the sidewalks, and we are using more and more real estate for parking lots and garages instead of much needed housing. Add to that the fact that the operation of these cars is contributing to global warming and geopolitical instability.

"[Car-free days] are the beginning of looking at cities differently," says Maxwell. "We need cities for people instead of for cars. If we continue the way we're going, cities will not be convenient for people or cars."

"I think people around the world expect San Francisco to establish models, whether those models are about world peace or environmentalism," adds Rick Ruvolo of the SF/SMRTAQ. "It's time we all experience life with less dependence on automobiles. Car-free day is a party waiting to happen."

Help spread the word and expand Car-Free Day to other parts of the city! For more information or to get involved, contact Sarah He, legislative aide to Sup. Maxwell, 554-7671 or sarah_he@sfgov.org.