One of the sayings we use most often at World Streets is one that goes “you can never tell where the next good idea is going to come from”. Here is an example.
As some of our readers certainly know, we have something of an affinity with the concept of Car Free Days — which we nonetheless attempt to qualify with ample doses of realism and critical thinking (often sadly lacking). So as luck would have it we end up being something of a worldwide turnstile for news and views about how this or that concept of taking a few cars off the streets of the city and thinking about it for a day is treated in different places. Sometimes this can bring surprises.
As one example, a few weeks back we fell into conversation (Skype) with one of our long distance transportation planner colleagues who had in recent years moved to Israel, and we ended up hearing about a kind of Car Free Day of the sort we have never thought about. We asked him to tell us about it, to see if there are any broader lessons to be learned from this experience.
Israel enjoys a Car-free Day without really thinking about it
– David Stein, Bat Yam. For World Streets
While the sun was setting over the Mediterranean Sea to mark the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in Israel, a unique socio-physical transformation occurred in Israeli society to mark the spiritual significance of the day: a 25 hour period of car-free streets and highways.
Officially, there are no official traffic laws prohibiting driving on Yom Kippur. Rather, it is a societal agreement that the sanctity of the day is to be one without any driving– and there are plenty of reasons not to. The Five Books of Moses of the Old Testament (known in Judaism as the Holy “Torah”) states that the Jewish nation is to observe a day of fast and repentance just 10 days after the New Year Holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Observant followers of Judaism hold a fast for 25 hours and pray for forgiveness of past sins starting from the start of sundown until the complete sundown the following day. All stores, shops and restaurants are closed, even those usually open 24/7 affecting even the secular and non-observant members of society as well.
This day is most significant for children, who take well advantage of the situation left by adults and literally take over all car-free streets with their bicycles, scooters and big-wheels as well as games of soccer and hop-scotch. Adults are usually quick in tow of their smaller ones while kids old enough to ride their own bicycle usually do so with little parental supervision. Because of the amount of people – children as well as adults – walking about on just about all streets and intersections, police are known to discourage driving of any kind in major cities and population centers.
The owner of the local bicycle shop in my city of Bat Yam said that sales at his shop increased from an average of 10 bicycles sold during a normal week to 50-60 bicycles sold during the week prior to Yom Kippur.
It became for me an amazing to see, during my first Yom Kippur in Israel, children being able to ride without concern—and without fraying a nerve of their parents—down the middle of major streets usually teeming with cars. Some children rode against one-way streets or down a slope into a major intersection straight through a red light.
Major traffic circles featuring a central green space that are usually devoid of people throughout the year suddenly become a major playground full of children. In Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean shore, many traffic circles feature large plastic or ceramic figures of sea creatures such as dolphins or whales, which became the object of affection for dozens of toddlers who used their fins and tails as a slide.
This scene, however, was repeated in communities and cities throughout Israel. In major cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, major attractions were the overpasses of major expressways that were devoid of a single car and taken over by gangs of kids riding their off-road bicycles.
“The people are reclaiming the street on Yom Kippur,” Eran Ben-Yemini, Chairman of the Israel Green Movement told MediaLine.
“Though only for a single day, this magical change manifests itself in tangibly less pollution, less noise and feelings of expansiveness and community” said Dr. Jeremy Bernstein, deputy director of the Herschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership.
Environmental evidence collected supports the benefits of having car-free travel for an entire day.
“The decrease in average concentrations of nitrogen-dioxide was more than 90% and for nitrogen-oxide, 95%. Decrease of CO was 50-75% based on high background concentrations while respiratory particles of PM 10 decreased by 50%,” said Dr. Aryeh Wagner and Dr. Eliezer Ganor in an Israeli Ministry of the Environmental Protection Report.
Air quality monitoring stations in Israel’s largest cities recorded decreases in Nitric-Oxides (NOx) a pollutant mostly attributed to automobiles. The Gush Dan Region which includes Tel Aviv and its neighboring cities showed a drastic drop in values from 94 parts per billion the day before to 1 and 6 parts per billion on Yom Kippur. In Haifa, NOx concentration dropped from 174 parts per billion to 4.8 ppb at the end of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur in Israel therefore is a special day not only in terms of its religious significance but also because of its’ car-free streets with benefits for the environment and for people who rediscover the social value of car-free streets. Unfortunately, the social benefits occurring on Yom Kippur has not lead to serious debate on inaugurating other car-free days throughout the year that for purely secular reasons.
Nevertheless, with this being Israel, it is the more religious aspects of society that are calling for car-free days throughout the year. Citing the biblical reference to the Ten Commandments and the Torah, which stresses the Jewish Sabbath of Friday evening and during the day on Saturday as a holy day of rest, most religious Jews already refrain from driving on the Sabbath since it unanimously falls under the definition of work according to Orthodox rabbinical councils throughout the world.
Perhaps, this then may offer a divine solution for further car-free travel in Israel throughout the year. Given the secular nature of most Israelis however, it will most likely require a wait until next Yom Kippur to see Israel’s streets once again car-free.
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About the author:
David Stein works as a transportation planner for ROM Transport in Israel. The firm focuses on providing transport concepts and consulting for developing countries. Originally from Chicago, David has lived in Israel for the past 1.7 years after previously working and living in Vienna, Austria. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Several readers of a preliminary draft of this article made the remark along the lines: it is an interesting story if you explain to us, as David Stein has, how one organized religion may or may not emerge as at least part of the solution to our problems of too many, too dangerous cars in our cities. But in the spirit of equal time they said it would be good to hear about how other religious groups are, or not, helping us in this important respect. Consider this an open invitation.