Not quite a car-free city

Last weekend in Vancouver, two events took place that sought to advance the idea of the car-free city. One I attended, the other I tried to avoid, with limited success.

Saturday was the World Naked Bike Ride, an event I favour for several reasons. Any opportunity to run around naked ought to be exploited enthusiastically, but especially when it’s being done to increase public consciousness about, as a friend once put it, the “offensive ubiquity of the horseless carriage”.

That same friend – who recently bought a car to replace his deceased one – had to drag his old bike out of storage and dust it off in order to participate, as it had not been used since the last World Naked Bike Ride. It would be easy for someone less charitable than I (!) to accuse him of hypocrisy, but on the contrary, I think he is being courageous and intelligent enough to recognise that he resents feeling the need to own something that he doesn’t really want, but that the forces of capital conspire to virtually (for lack of realistic alternatives, perceived or otherwise) require him to purchase and maintain. He feels powerless to live without the comfort and convenience of a car, and his participation is an act of symbolic defiance.

The point of the World Naked Bike Ride is not to promote nudity, or cycling, or civil disobedience (though those are all very worthy pursuits), but to remind us that “car culture” is not something that we are necessarily stuck with, that we, as a society, have the power to choose a different kind of city, one in which we are not all subservient to the private automobile and the special interests that have caused us to be enslaved to it. That a large majority are convinced otherwise suggests, in my opinion, lazy thinking rather than conscious commitment.

The other event lends some credence to this view, I think. Car Free Day was spawned on Commercial Drive by people not unlike those who participate in the Naked Bike Ride, citizens on feet and bikes and wheelchairs and crutches and elderly legs who took over the street by force of their collective mass as a reaction to the domination of the automobile. Since those early days, however, it has been largely hijacked by civic politicians and business interests, and become an object of curiousity by those who have either no opinion about car traffic, or one supportive of the status quo.

The result is that Car Free Day is quite the opposite: seemingly large numbers of people drive to a neighbourhood that is holding a Car Free Day event. Sure, six blocks of one street are “car free”, but sixteen blocks in all surrounding directions are jammed with cars whose drivers are either trying to park for the event, or are trying to bypass a formerly accessible artery. It’s not “car free”, it’s “car relocated”.

A major cause for difference between the two events is that the naked bike ride is unsanctioned by city hall (in other words, an “illegal protest”) and is largely unplanned. The route is spontaneously made up by those participating. Meanwhile, the city is involved in planning the so-called car free day, an official series of events that are car-free in name only.

Of course, those who enjoy taking over the street and playing hopscotch where cars normally roam will see it more positively. And good for them. They can enjoy their day of faux-rebellion, and I’ll take my opportunity to flash my scrotum at Floridian tourists. In the end, the cars are still going to get to dominate for the other 364.75 days of the year. It’s that that we need to come together to change.

(Main page photo credit: Hepcat Cabal –

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