A Short History of Car Free Days (Weeks, Months, Cities): Origins, Timeline, Progress

Toledo (Spain), 22 Sept. 1994 . Ciudades Accessibles (Accessible Cities) Conference
“Every day is a great day to take a few cars off the street and think about it.”


Here is how the Car Free Days movement got started and has taken shape over the last quarter century (time flies).  This is the second in a series of articles which we update and post annually just prior to the September rush to get the latest batch of Car Free Day/New Mobility Agenda projects off the ground. We hope that these pieces and the references you find here are going to prove useful to those responsible for making a success of their Days in 2019 and beyond. Getting a CFD right and making it a real success is no easy task — good knowledge of what has worked and not worked in the past should serve you well.

Quick background

Think this business of hauling all or most of the cars off the streets for a day of public reflection and dialogue is brand new stuff? Think again. In the world we live in the building of knowledge and the creation of a new consensus for change on matters of technology and society is a deliberate and almost always very indirect process. Rarely are there single persons or groups who all by themselves make the difference. Rather there is this slow, often irritatingly slow, cumulative process of assimilation of ideas, attempted actions, not all of which crowned by immediate success, and changing perceptions which occasionally combine, here and there, to change first attitudes and then, with any luck at all, some of the salient and important choices that we all make together which shape our daily lives, and those of our cities.

The Car Free Day “movement” has over the years been faithful to this formula as the following “timeline” suggests. Beginning in the fifties and mainly in the States back then as the first ill-clad doughty local groups began to assemble here and there in order to protest the intrusions of cars in their cities and neighborhoods, here are some of the main benchmarks which we have culled from our own observations and experience over this period. (Anything missing, wrong, or poorly explained here. If so, let us know and we can try to rectify.)

Our own involvement with the idea of hauling all the cars off the street from time to time and in the process inviting citizens to think and talk about it as a step in the process of rethinking the transportation arrangements in their city, traces back to a public challenge issued back in October 1994 in an international conference that we had a role in organizing with the Spanish government in Toledo Spain under the title Ciudades Accesibles.. The challenge took the form of a paper distributed to the meeting, under the title of “Thursday – A Breakthrough Strategy for Reducing Car Dependence in Cities”, the full text of which is available here.

Subsequent to the Toledo meeting, this site was set up under The Commons as one of the first to go onto the Web, which was then followed up in late 1997 by the Car Free Cafe which serves us all to this day. Within a bit more than a year the first car free day projects were planned and implemented by teams in Reykjavik, Bath and La Rochelle, all of whom were present at the Toledo meeting. Then in October 1997 we briefed a team at the French Ministry of the Environment on the Thursday approach, subsequent to which they launched their national “En ville sans ma voiture” project. Etc. Etc.

Internationalization of the Car Free Day experiment

While the first formally government mandated national Car Free Day program was without a doubt France’s “En ville sans ma voiture” (“In town without my car”) program which got underway in 1998, and which continues in various forms to this day, it is only fair to tip our hat to the British Environmental Transport Association (ETA) who opened the way by coordinating three annual National Car Free Days in Britain since 1997. Equally it is useful to recall that their Green Transport Week program also provided a model for the European Commission’s later extension of this approach to Europe as a whole.

Likewise, it merits mention that the Germans got the jump on the French as well with their Germany-wide Car Free Mobility Day – Mobil Ohne Auto, that first took place on June 21 1998, and which also continues to this day. Shortly thereafter the Italians, Belgians and other jumped in with their own national programs. (A good idea has many fathers and mothers.)

A major and very powerful bump in the road came in February 2000 when the City of Bogotá organized in cooperation with the World Car Free Day Consortium its first Car Free Day, Sin mi carro en Bogotá, the world’s first large-scale “Thursday” CFD project which resulted no less in keeping some 850,000 private cars in their garages for thirteen hours of alternative transportation and thinking about it. The join project was later awarded the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Prize for Environment in June 2000. The success of the Bogotá project spilled over to contacts with officials of the city of Chengdu of Sichuan Province, People’s Republic of China, who organized China’s first Car Free Day on 14 October 2000. Clearly the virus was spreading.

Stretching beyond national frontiers, the first international Car Free Day program was launched by the European Commission in September 2000, followed two months later by the first “>Earth Car Free Day, a joint project of the Earth Day Network under the leadership of World Car Free Days. The contribution of the Commission to keeping this flame lit, not always sunder the easiest of circumstances, has been a very important one. Probably the single person most responsible for this has been Margot Wallström, first as Commissioner for Environment and more recently as vice-president of the Commission. This personal long-term commitment has meant a lot, as well as the low key, decentralized, open door approach which the Commission has increasingly taken in all this.

Today, more than a decade later, with the Car Free Day movement having at long last gaining real momentum and international prominence, and in the process a certain respectability before the same administrations and bureaucracies that were certainly not among their best friends and loyal supporters until quite recently, it is important that we retain sight of the actual origins of these impulses for change. If we can remember this, we might all be a bit more open to the next good idea that tries to make its way onto the stage and move us toward a more sustainable way of life, rather than turning our backs and sticking with the good old status quo.

Timeline: Some Major Car Free (Days) Benchmarks

The following chronology sets out a number of the main CFD benchmark events that have occurred over the last decades, the best of which have together and gradually built on each other’s accomplishments to leave us today with a movement that is, in many ways, only now beginning to get under way. As you will note we have made no effort to capture and report on the literally thousands of CFD events that have taken place since the early years of this decade. Too many and too diverse. But what you have here shows how this ball got rolling.

1. 1958, New York. Demonstrations of neighbors of the Washington Square Park area of New York City eventually block proposed extension of Fifth Avenue, which would have eliminated this popular public park and social oasis.
2. 1961, New York. One of the ring leaders of the 1958 demonstration, Jane Jacobs, publishes The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books, opening up the discussions of car restraint in cities
3. Autumn, 1968, Gronigen, Netherlands. First neighborhood Woonerf
4. The goal of this at first entirely illegal project led by local residents was to claim back the street for cars and create safe space for people
5. 1972, Delft, The Netherlands. First “official” Woonerf opened
6. 1973, Abbaye de Royaumont, France
7. The OECD Development Center and EcoPlan (The Commons) organize 4 day international brainstorm on combining car restraint and non-conventional or “in-between” transit (paratransit) in Third World cities
8. January-February, 1974, Switzerland Four Car Free Sundays organized and greatly enjoyed by all during “Oil Crisis”
10. December 15th, 1974. Bogota, Colombia.
11. There was a 3-hour street closing along 3.9km of major roads which would later be expanded and named “Ciclovía”. Organized by “Propicia” and the local transit agency. There were more than 5000 participants.
12. 1981, East Germany (DDR). First German Car Free Day takes place.
13. October 1988, Paris. “Cities without Cars?” program begins. International, unstructured, non-bureaucratic, topic-driven, long term cooperative program launched by EcoPlan and The Commons. (Later morphs into today’s New Mobility Agenda
14. September 1991, New York. First International Conference on Auto-Free Cities. Organized by Transportation Alternatives
15. September 1992, San Francisco. Critical Mass. More or less anarchist, at least self-organizing, group cranks up to take back the streets from cars. Still at it.
16. Fall 1992, Paris, France. First New Mobility Forum opens in cooperation with ECTF on Internet. Car Free day concept discussed and expanded on this international list.
17. Fall 1992, Ottawa, Canada. Auto-Free Ottawa Newsletter started.
18. March 1994, Amsterdam. Car Free Cities Network Launched by DG XI and Eurocities
19. 14 October 1994, Toledo, Spain. Thursday: Car Free Day Proposal, work plan and public call for international collaboration presented at Spanish “Ciudades Accesibles” Congress. (Representatives of Car Free Cities and future Reykjavik, Bath and La Rochelle CFD projects all present.)
20. Winter 1994/5: Long term international contact/support CFD program created on the Web under The Commons and the New Mobility Agenda
21. 8 May 1996, Copenhagen: Copenhagen Declaration Issued by international meeting of European government groups.
22. 5 June 1996, Reykjavik, Iceland. Car Free Day Organized by local government and held in Iceland’s capital city.
23. 11th June 1996, Bath, U.K. Bath Car Free Day First British Car Free day. (A Green Transport Week street party had already been organised in Bath in June 1995.)
24. 1997, U.K. National Car Free Days The ETA steps forward and co-ordinates first three annual CFD’s in Britain.
25. 9 September 1997, La Rochelle, France. Journée sans voiture Lead by Mayor Michel Crépeau and Jacques Tallut, La Rochelle organizes France’s first real CFD.
26. 21 October, 1997, Paris. Thursday: Car Free Day proposal, presentation made to French Ministry of the Environment. Proposal from the new mobility Consortium made as part of The Common’s “Smogbuster” package for fighting car-related pollution and other problems in French cities. (The Ministry later uses this foundation to launch its own “En ville, sans ma voiture?” program one year later.
27. 26 October – 1 November 1997, Lyons, France. First Towards Car Free Cities Conference Organized by International Youth for Action and other. CarBusters program launched.
28. Winter 1997, Amsterdam. Car Free Times Car Free Times publishes Volume 1, Number 1 (with no public support and made freely available).
29. Winter, 1997, Paris. @World Car Free Day Consortium This open NGO site was first established by The Commons as part of their long term New Mobility program on the WWW to support Car Free day organization and expert follow-up in cities all over the world.
30. June 21 1998, Mobil Ohne Auto, Germany-wide Car Free Mobility Day
31. September 22, 1998, “En ville, sans ma voiture?”, France. French Ministry of the Environment and 34 French cities organize “En ville, sans ma voiture?” (“A day in the city without my car?).
32. December 1, 1999, Britain. First National ETA Car Free Planning support (UK) Sharing information on planning for European Car Free Day in Britain
33. September 19, 1999, The Netherlands. First National Car Free Sunday in the Netherlands
34. 22 September 1999, First European “Pilot Car Free Day”. On Wednesday 22 September 1999, 66 French towns participated in “En ville, sans ma voiture ?”, (2nd edition), while in parallel 92 Italian towns organized the first Italian National Car Free Day, “In città senza la mia auto”. The Canton of Geneva also participated in what later was later called the first European “Pilot Day”, wherein all the participating cities designated Car Free areas in their centers.
35. Sunday 26th of September 1999, First Belgian CFD announced
36. 1 December 1999, UK. Consortium of interested individuals and groups sets up first independent national support group on Web to promote CFD’s in Britain (see menu to left for direct link)
37. Sunday, February 6, 2000, Italy Environment Minister Edo Ronchi opens first of 4 successive Car Free Sundays in Italy, to take place on first Sunday of month for next four months.
38. 24 February 2000, Bogotá, Colombia. The Bogotá Challenge The City of Bogotá organizes in cooperation with the World Car Free Day Consortium Sin mi carro en Bogotá, the world’s first large scale “Thursday” CFD project, and launches its Bogotá Challenge to the rest of the world.
39. 5 June 2000. The Commons win Stockholm Challenge Environment Prize for outstanding accomplishment in supporting February 2000 Bogotá Car Free Day, and invites the Mayor of Bogotá to accept the award as a joint prize demonstrating the potential for technology-mediated international collaboration in support of major sustainability projects.
40. 10-18 June 2000, U.K. Green Transport Week, U.K.
41. 24-27 June 2000, Bremen, Germany Car Free Cities conference in Bremen
42. 21 September 2000. First CarBusters call for a World Car Free Day inviting independent projects to organize on that day, and later announced as a planned annual Open event. (Car Busters asks us to support their project, which we, as always, do.)
43. 22 September 2000. First European Car Free Day The government sponsors reported that 760 European towns jointly organized the first pan-European “In town, without my car!” day.
44. 14 October 2000. Chengdu City of Sichuan Province, People’s Republic of China, started the first ever “Car Free Day” of the nation.
45. 29 October 2000. Bogotá holds world’s first Car Free Referendum (which passes with flying colors)
46. 1 November 2000. Earth Car Free Day program launched by The Commons and WC/FD Consortium in cooperation with Earth Day Network. Preparations get under way for first ECFD on 19 April 2001.
47. 1 February 2001. Bogotá launches first ECFD 2001 project with its second Dia sin Carro.
48. Spring 2001. “Domeniche ecologiche 2001” – Italian Ministry of the Environment organises first Ecological Sundays Car Free program, running on five weekends in
49. 19 April 2001. First Earth Car Free Day. More than 300 hundred groups and cities around the world participate in this first Earth Car Free Day organized by New Mobility WC/FD program and Earth Day Network(the detailed results of which can be accessed here).
50. May-December 2001. Numerous independent Days and demonstrations organized and reported and supported by the World Car/Free Day Consortium of The Commons.
51. September 2001. Second European CFD and second CarBusters World Car Free Day organized.
52. 19 September 2001 Shed Your Car Day – FremantleFirst Australian CFD
53. September 22nd, 2001 Toronto became first Canadian and North American city to officially host a Car Free Day.
54. November 2001. United Nations contacts The Commons and proposes a joint world level project: the United Nations Car Free Days Programme, to be organized as a run-up to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, demonstrating that this approach is one that can make a difference.
55. 6-8 February 2002. First United National Regional Car Free Days Practicum organized for Latin America, in cooperation with and support of the third Car Free Day in Bogotá Colombia. Practicum brings together a delegation of mayors from across the region to observe and exchange information on the CFD approach for their cities. (The Commons participation in all stages is “CO2-free”, mediated by the Internet and an expanding array of new communications and distance work technologies. )
56. 8-10 May 2002. Second UN Car Free Day Demonstration and Practicum for Regional Mayors taking place in Fremantle, West Australia.
57. 19 April 2002. First European Mobility Week launched by EC in Brussels. Planned as annual event in September around their “In town without my car!” program.
58. 2002. World Car Free Network founded, building on the work of CarBusters.
59. 2002. Canadian Car Free Day Network established
60. Sept. 2003 Montreal became the first Canadian city to hold a major downtown, weekday street closure.
61. Sept. 2003 Camden (UK)celebrates first Travelwise Week building on Car Free Days celebrated every year since 2000
62. July 2004. Towards Carfree Cities III, Berlin Organized by World Car Free Network
63. 19 to 24 September 2004. Toronto’s first New Mobility Week launches a public enquiry into new less-car packages of policies and measures
64. 22 September 2004 “In town, without my car!”, organized by the European Commission and national partners
65. 16 to September 2004 European Mobility Week
66. September 2004: The city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan celebrates its first CFD (an annual event which has occurred each year since.)
66. Etc. etc.

Note: At this point we gave up on our housekeeping of city by city CFD progress (and setbacks) in different parts of the world. But the above should give you a good feel for the manner in which this concept took shape, took different shapes, and picked up speed from the beginning.

Like them of not, the world is just a bit better place for when we take a few cars off the street for a day or so and think about.

“Frog” wrote about this CFD shot taken in Wellington New Zealand: “This photo shows the space fifty people in cars take, and the space taken by the same amount of people in a bus.  It’s also supposed to show the space the same number of people on bicycles take up, but the cyclists seem to be mingling in sociably with pedestrians and and other gadabouts and gossipers. There’s even a couple cuddling in the corner! So the end result is you don’t really get a good impression of the space cyclists would take up if they all sat in tidy rows. I guess that’s either the benefit or problem with cycling, depending on your point of view.


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Homework: More on CFDs:

* Original World Car Free Days/New Mobility Agenda website at http://ecoplan.org/carfreedays/  (Opened in 1995, good resource/archive needs updating. Top menu now up-to-date and a useful resource in itself. Rest to follow shortly.)

* World Streets on Car Free Days at https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/tag/car-free-days/  (coverage by World Streets of Car Free Days since 2009)

* World Car Free Cities coverage at https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/category/car-free-cities – as above but broader coverage

* VTPI Online TDM Encyclopedia on car free days and car free planning– at https://goo.gl/wZGnJ5

* World Car Free Café on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WorldCarFreeDays/

*  Our historic (1998-present) YGroups Car Free Café at http://goo.gl/SqPhPD

*  Interview with editor of World Streets by Jane Harding of Carbusters magazine here.

* World Carfree Day page at Worldcarfree.net – http://www.worldcarfree.net/wcfd/

* Wikipedia on World Carfree Day – – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car_Free_Day

* European Mobility Week (EC)http://www.mobilityweek.eu/

* YouTube Car Free Days video libraryhttp://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=2120657BD0B30397 (informal and in need of work)

* xCars: Taking the issues from another angle, xCars: New Ways to Own and Use Cars

* And the latest car free day news here.


1. A good starting place – Thursday: A breakthrough strategy for reducing car dependence in cities.

2. Historical timeline (since 1958) of CFD events and trends at http://goo.gl/DE0BZH

3. The prize-winning collaborative Bogotá Car Free Day in 2000 – http://goo.gl/bg0IXJ

4. Very strong reference is the three-part series on “Rethinking Car Free Days in Taipei” – at https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/rethinking-car-free-days-in-taipei-city/

* Finally *World Streets: the Politics of Transport in Cities at https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/ provides a comprehensive introduction and reference source to our work and approach.

Euroepan Mobility Week banner

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About the author:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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