Have you ever wondered how Birmingham's urban environment might be improved if the small pedestrian area in the city centre was enlarged, for instance from the Bull Ring to Five Ways, even just for one day? September 22nd 2004 was International Car Free Day (formerly known as 'In Town, Without My Car!' day). This year 34 countries, 1,151 cities and about 70 million people took part. Sadly, once again, Birmingham did not.

Since 1995, the organisers of European Car Free Day have sought to draw attention to the environmental damage caused by excessive car use and promote alternatives. The basic concept of Car Free Day, which falls every year during European Mobility Week, is to close part of the city centre to traffic for 24 hours and have a party in the 'car-free zone'. It's an opportunity for pedestrians, cyclists and commuters to experience calmer, safer urban environments without heavy traffic for one day, and ideally to get people used to the idea of more permanent methods of traffic control, such as pedestrian zones and new cycle and bus routes. You can rediscover the pleasure of a walk in the city centre without the stress of driving into town, parking, and walking around in a noisy, polluted environment. The Day also allows baseline measurements of air quality and noise to be taken.

Catching on?
Compared to other European countries, ideas like Car Free Day have never really caught on in Britain, despite the growing cost of traffic congestion to our environment, economy and quality of life. Nevertheless, 36 UK cities did participate this year, holding street fayres and parties, organised walks, entertainments for adults and children, and public transport events. These attractions ensure that the 'car-free zone' stays busy and that local shopkeepers and traders don't lose business as a result of the traffic ban. In fact, on the continent shopkeepers and traders are the first to promote and publicise Car Free Day, putting up posters in their shop windows.

In the Midlands, successful Car-Free events were held in Hereford, Redditch, Stafford, Stoke, Warwick and Wolverhampton. Some of the most interesting events occurred in Wales: Swansea launched a regional car-sharing scheme, organised a treasure hunt and distributed 500 free bus tickets, and in Cardiff, 600 staff from more than ten companies made a commitment to cycle to work.

Growing impact
Road transport accounts for 80% (and rising) of total UK fuel consumption and is a major and growing contributor to climate change. Road traffic and aviation are the two fastest growing sources of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, emission of which from vehicles in Europe are set to rise by 30% by 2010 (source: European Environment Agency). It's not much fun inside the car either. As well as the stress involved, in heavy traffic jams the air quality can be poorer inside the car than outside. Car users suffer up to three times as much pollution as pedestrians (source: Environmental Transport Association).

Of the total journeys into town, 82% are by car (compared to 12% by public transport and 6% by bicycle) and half of these journeys will involve 1.2 persons per vehicle covering less than two miles. We're not even making efficient use of our cars. According to the National Travel Survey, 60% of cars on the road in Britain in 1999/2001 had only one occupant. In the case of commuting and business use the figure was 84%. Yet 76% of West Midlands workers say they want support from their employers to switch their journey to work from the car to public transport or other alternatives (Birmingham Post, 30th Sept 2004). A UK-wide survey published last year found that 22% of workers would be happy to use public transport to get to work if their employer provided discounted or free travel passes. In Birmingham this would cut rush hour traffic by 25,000 vehicles a day.

Birmingham does participate in the West Midlands TravelWise scheme, which aims to encourage alternative forms of transport to the car and to provide information and education. But we are still not doing enough to tackle traffic growth in one of the UK's most populated and polluting cities. We want the City Council to commit to taking part in European Mobility Week and International Car Free Day 2005. This summer's elections seem to have brought about a sea change in the Council's approach to environmental issues, so we are hopeful.

More needs to be done to reduce traffic, cut pollution and reduce noise during the rest of the year. Using the car less must become more than just an annual event. The Government and local authorities must also do more by investing in public transport and facilities for cyclists and pedestrians. For more information on European Car Free Day visit www.22september.org