Car Free Days

A group of people participate in a car free day event.To promote bicycling, walking, and physical activity, cities and towns around the world are closing streets to automobile traffic and opening them up to a variety of modes and uses. Using these temporary street closures, communities have safe and convenient opportunities for bicycling and walking.

This guide can help you host Car Free Days in your community.

  • What are Car Free Days?
    • Car Free Days are when communities close a road or portion of road to traffic for a day.

      There are many versions of Car Free Days across the globe. However, many Car Free programs today were inspired by Bogotá, Colombia's Ciclovía, or "bicycle path" in Spanish. During Ciclovía days in Bogotá (every Sunday) the city closes 70 miles of its roadways to vehicular traffic and opens the roads to bicyclists and pedestrians from 7:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.

      In addition to bicycling and walking, there are various aerobics and dance workshops and musical events integrated into the day's activities, which typically draw 1 to 1.3 million participants each week. Though it began in 1976, the program has since grown beyond the country's borders and has been embraced across North and South America and in several countries in Europe.

      The true charm of Car Free Days is that no two events are the same. It can be catered to reflect the individual goals and unique assets of the city hosting the event, taking into account what resources are available. A program can be designed to encourage residents to think differently about their city streets, to improve physical activity, to reduce obesity rates, or even just to highlight the cultural and physical amenities of the city. This adaptability is perhaps one of the program's greatest assets, as it allows communities to make it their own.
  • What are the Benefits of Car Free Days?
    • The original Ciclovía was born from the vision that a more equitable and happier city is possible. If cities are equally welcoming for people as for cars, through increased public space and pedestrians streets, then people of all incomes, neighborhoods, and backgrounds would have safe and equal access to community, personal health, and recreation. Ciclovía envisions streets as places for people verses solely for cars and considers streets places themselves rather than just a medium to carry people from place to place.

      Car Free Days offer numerous benefits. Though very much interrelated, the benefits can generally be categorized as community development, equity and access, economic development, improved mental and physical health, and increased education.

      Community Development
      This program develops community on two distinct levels. First, planning for such a large-scale event requires citywide coordination. A city's Department of Transportation, Police Department, Health Department, Planning Department, and the Mayor's Office and City Council must all work in tandem.

      Second, the event builds community between city residents. By giving people a venue to meet as either volunteers or participants, a Car Free Day gives the community a face. Additionally, with or without city support, private sponsors, foundations, and corporations often become active stakeholders in the event. With more community and more "eyes on the street," an additional benefit could be reduced crime.

      Personal and Environmental Health Improvement
      Unfortunately, there are significant barriers within a city that discourages physical activity, such as the presence of high-volume, high-speed roads; safety concerns in street and sidewalk design; poor air quality; exclusive costs of gyms; and lack of public parks. This program provides safe space and social encouragement to be physically active and healthy. In terms of environmental health, with a collective reduction in auto use, there is also a reduction in air and noise pollutants.

      Equity, Access, and Happiness
      The program is free to the public and presents no barriers to entry. It provides a time and place for all people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or wealth to occupy the same space. Without the structures of class or the hierarchy of the workplace, individuals from these different places are considered equals. This element, combined with those above, promotes a sense of belonging and acceptance, which increases mental happiness and health in a city.

      Economic Development
      In keeping with the original Bogotá model, the main path should be on a central thoroughfare, so it is both easy to find and hard to miss. It should also be at the heart of the city, so it highlights what the city has to offer — whether that is historic architecture, unique boutiques, or tree-lined pedestrian-friendly city streets. Also, by promoting a city as bicycle-friendly and healthy, the programs encourage tourism, as well as investment in the local economy and downtown revitalization. Not only does it give people a reason to come to the city, but it also gives residents a reason to stay in the city instead of vacationing elsewhere.

      Education
      Car Free Days provide a safe and encouraging environment for people to experience their cities in a new way and to get comfortable riding on the open road. It is a prime educational device to promote cycling and walking as a safe and fun recreational activity, as well as an alternative mode of commuting. It could also have the spillover effect of reducing auto dependency and encouraging long term planning for alternative transportation choice. Not only does it educate current and future riders, but it also sends the message to the driving population that bicyclists and pedestrians are present in the community.
  • What are Some Common Barriers and Concerns?
    • There are several common obstacles cities may face in implementation, such as cultural acceptance and understanding and a hesitance in political and financial support.
    • Lack of Financial and Political Support
      Though not all cities experience difficulty, those who have consider insufficient financial or political support their primary obstacle. The two often go hand in hand, as initial political and community support often ensures funds from federal, municipal, private, or other sources. If it is not possible to win city support, an alternative is to solicit private funds so the event can be held regardless. Pushing forward in this scenario can be integral in the future success of the program, because it proves it can be done and provides evidence that the community supports it even if the government initially does not.
    • Uncertainty and Fear
      The lack of support may stem from cultural barriers and fear of the unknown. As the event has been successful in Colombia for decades, it is ingrained in their culture and is accepted as part of their lifestyle. Police presence is not as much of a priority because people understand how the event operates and, in lieu of police, volunteers can be trained to facilitate the event. In the U.S., there is still doubt in how traffic could be rerouted and how throngs of people taking the streets could move safely without officers. The amount of police staff is influenced not only by the perceived need, but also by the number of intersections on the route. Smaller routes will generally require fewer officers. However, the generally seamless operation of first events of several US cities were enough to convince city police staff to cut its presence for later events.
    • Lack of Information
      Another element that factors into uncertainty is a lack of hard facts to prove the need and success of the event within individual cities. A majority of what has been collected is documented in anecdotal and qualitative data. There is the concern that successes in other cities may not translate. City officials may request proof that city residents want the event, proof that it is possible, and proof that it is effective.
    • However, there are difficulties inherent in collecting and measuring that data. It requires time, money and priority, and event planners rarely have these luxuries. Pre- and post-event surveys are sometimes utilized to measure satisfaction and to solicit suggestions for improvement, but these can be time and labor intensive, while only reaching a segment of the population. Proof of effectiveness can be measured by counts of participants, but the length of routes, the open nature of when and where a participant starts the route, hampered by the sheer mass of people present, makes definitive counts difficult.
    • Air and noise pollution reduction are other benchmarks of success, but can also be difficult to measure. However, some officials argue that with a reduction in cars and congestion, pollution reduction is obvious. While quantitative data may strengthen the argument, some would argue that the true measure of a program's success — happiness and community growth — cannot be easily measured.
  • How Much do Car Free Days Cost?

    • The cost of implementing a program depends largely on the length of the route, how many major intersections are blocked or rerouted, how many police or road management personnel are needed, how long they are needed on site, and how extensive neighborhood outreach is. The cost of each of these elements and the quantities in which they are demanded will be different for each city.
    • However, there are typical budget line items a city should consider when planning and fundraising for their program. Basic budget line items may include many of the following:
    • Traffic Engineering and Logistics
      • Police and police overtime
      • Road management personnel
      • Transit detours
      • Road barricades (rental/procurement and delivery)
      • Signage
      • Street closure
      • Park permits
      • Volunteer training

      Outreach
      • Meeting expenses
      • Translation services
      • Printing (e.g. posters, maps, and brochures)
    • Day of Event Costs
      • Lawn signs
      • Street banners
      • Event insurance
      • Tents, tables, chairs
      • Entertainment, sound system, and staging equipment
      • Dumpsters/trash/recycling receptacles
      • Portable Toilets
      • Emergency vehicles
      • Volunteer packets (e.g. safety vests and T-shirts)
      • Radio communication
      • Food/water for volunteers
      • Comfort stations for participants
      • Photography
      • Bicycle rental service
      • Bicycle parking (mobile)
      • Freebies/event memorabilia (e.g. buttons, bandanas, lights, etc.)
    • Staffing
      • Project manager
      • Organizers
      • Day of event parks and logistics support
      • Volunteer coordinators
    • Police and road management costs are often cited as one of the most costly line items. However, the actual price will vary from city to city. Some cities may cover those expenses (i.e. administrative, police, traffic engineering staff time), and in one case, police flex time has been offered to leverage program costs (see case study from Clearwater, Florida).
    • Ultimately, road management staffing costs depend on route selection, as the level of authority and staff experience required for an intersection depends on the typology of that intersection. For example, a police officer might be required at major intersections with a traffic light, but they are the most expensive to staff. Lower-volume intersections along the route could be staffed by a trained traffic director at a lower cost than a full officer. These individuals could be hired from a local company.
    • Finally, volunteers can be trained to manage intersections with no cross traffic for no cost. Thus, costs of staffing can be minimized by programming the route to travel roads with natural borders, such as parks or lakefronts, and by avoiding major intersections and roads used by transit. See the Creative Solutions section on this page for more ideas on how to minimize the costs of a program.
    • In Bogota, Colombia, there is an established and trained organization of volunteers that manages the length of the route. Cities in the U.S. may not be able to staff a program entirely by volunteers, but volunteer staffing is powerful in cutting the costs of an event. The following chart gives a summary of the costs for Bogota's program:
    • Costs in Bogota Event Annual
      Total cost (USD) $23,813.77 $1,714,591.23
      Cost per user .02 1.71
      Cost per km 245.50 17,676.20
  • What are Some Examples of Creative Solutions?
    • There are a number of ways to leverage funding with the city and area organizations, but there are also ways for an organization to design a lower-cost program. The following is a list of recommendations and ideas:

      Route
      • Choose a route that does not have many high-traffic cross streets that will require police staff time, major barricades, or traffic re-routing.
      • Avoid roads utilized by transit.
      • Favor roads with natural barriers, such as lake fronts and parks.
      • Train volunteers to staff low-traffic intersections.

      Planning and outreach
      • Work with community groups and volunteers to build the event from the ground up. This saves staff time and builds community ownership in the program.
      • The more groups that are involved, the more avenues there are to promote the program through word of mouth.

      Programming
      • Encourage community groups to showcase their services and talents — this provides great publicity for them and brings life and entertainment to the program at no cost.
      • Power equipment with solar panels or by bicycle power.
      • Reduce waste from paper cups and handouts to reduce the need for street sweepers and clean up (try portable water fountains).
  • How are Car Free Days Funded?
    • Generally, program support can be solicited through a number of means, such as city, state, and federal grants and donations; corporate sponsorships; media and publicity support; and private and organizational donations in the form of funding or volunteers. Since Car Free Days have such a diverse array of benefits, funding from these many sources can be justified for a vast number of reasons. Some examples include organizations, businesses, neighborhood associations, city departments, or community groups that have a focus in:

      • Public health
      • Active transportation
      • Pedestrian and bicycle planning, manufacturing, or advocacy
      • Environmental issues or advocacy
      • Community development

      It is important to have the goals of the program clearly articulated from the beginning to help garner support from key organizations. One might also consider contacting hospitals, health insurance providers, gyms, schools, or local church groups. Media publicity can often be donated or offered for free.

      Madison, Wisconsin — located near several major bicycle manufacturers — managed to solicit most of its 2009 program funding from private donations. Additionally, a number of local organizations offered assistance with media support. More information is available on the program's web site.

      Portland, Oregon, received funding for its "Portlands's Sunday Parkways" program from a broad number of community, business, and government sponsors dedicated to investing in the city's vitality, livability, and diversity. In 2013, more than 85,000 residents and visitors participated in the four Sunday Parkways events. A list of sponsors and budgets can be found in the 2013 Portland Sunday Parkways Final Report.

  • What can be Learned from Other Programs?
    • Many of the uncertainties about implementing a program can be addressed with education and information. If local decision makers can attend a Car Free Days event, or experience the program through video or conversations with organizers and attendees, they may be more likely to offer support.

      The following tips could help guide the development of future events:

      • Win political, financial, and community support early on.
      • Build a coalition of stakeholders early in the planning process.
      • Have regular and open communication between event planners, the community, and city officials throughout the planning stages.
      • Have a leader (individual or organization) to oversee project development.
      • Choose an appropriate route (it should be accessible, central, and comfortable for people, while also allow options to re-route traffic) and keep the community on the route involved and informed.
      • Build a brand, and promote it widely.
      • Market Car Free Days as a program, and not an event. "Event" suggests a temporary or one-time-only happening, whereas a "program" suggests a long term and dependable series of happenings.
      • Provide a venue for people to get involved and to offer feedback.
      • Hold a follow-up meeting to debrief after the event.

      Implemented at any scale, the program sends a positive message. There is an adage which reads, "To do great things one needs an idea, a lot of excitement, and not enough time." It is just as important to have a sense of urgency. Car Free Day details could be planned endlessly, and without a sense of urgency to make it happen despite uncertainties within minutia, such as if there will be a good turnout or whether there will be enough volunteers, it may never happen.

      Perhaps the best way to assuage a city's concerns in the long term is to convince them to allow a pilot test or pilot test event series in the short term. If the event is successful, then the city can choose to increase future support, and if not, the city can modify or abandon their support. Fortunately, there has consistently been an overwhelmingly positive response from residents and from city officials. These elements combined with a strong organizing team can ensure the long term viability of the program.
  • How do I Get Involved?
    • Many cities are beginning to organize their own events and are always looking for volunteers to help make it work. Volunteering is a great way to get involved.

      If there is not already one in your area, begin by getting in touch with your local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups. Building interest and forming a strong coalition is necessary to get a successful project moving. 8–80 Cities offers a comprehensive handbook on how to implement a program, from beginning to end.

More Information

Families of all ages participates in a car free day event in Portland.Though informal networks and information sharing between cities was limited in the 1990s and early 2000s, there is growing momentum towards a more formal national and international community of Ciclovía cities. United Ciclovías of the Americas (CUA) provides a forum for much needed information and networking for program facilitators in English and in Spanish.

8–80 Cities, a Canadian nonprofit organization, hosts numerous resources related to Ciclovías and Car Free Days. Additionally, the group is hosting a series of Car Free Days study tours to showcase some of the most successful programs in the world, provide organizers an opportunity to experience one first-hand, and to provide an opportunity to network and share ideas and best practices.

Resources and Case Studies

The 2010 World Health Day web site, maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO) offers a number of resources related to Car Free Days.

Ciclovía Recreativa Implementation and Advocacy Manual— This comprehensive handbook offers a guide for communities who want to start their own program.

Sunday Parkways: Helping Minority Communities Connect to Bicycling and Walking (Chicago, Illinois)

Sunday Ciclovía: Bike. Walk. Dance. Breathe (Clearwater, Florida)

ViaRecreActiva Metropolitana (Guadalajara, Mexico)

Films

Streetfilms offers a huge selection of films from Ciclovia and Car Free Days events from around the world.

8–80 Cities also hosts a number of films from Car Free Days programs.

A child rides a bicycle during a car free day event in Chicago.Links to Program Web Sites

Madison, Wisconsin

San Francisco, California

New York City, New York

Atlanta, Georgia

Cleveland, Ohio

Chicago, Illinois

Portland, Oregon