The Car Free Day has now become a tradition many look forward to in Kigali. It continues to attract the participation of residents.
Introduced in 2016, the bimonthly event is meant to highlight issues on environmental protection such as air pollution, but also promote non-motorised transport and encourage a healthy lifestyle through physical exercise.
In the progressive universality of these objectives, it is only a matter of time countries in the region and around the world follow suit within the larger global climate agenda.
In December 2018, Ethiopia became the second country in the region to observe its own version of the car-free day.
And, earlier this week the Ethiopians participated in the second edition of the day in Addis Ababa and other cities across the country.
Although it is still a monthly event, the enthusiasm displayed by the Ethiopians suggests that the occasion is set to take a firm hold in the country as it did in Rwanda.
Nairobi has had plans to launch a similar event since mid last year.
The proposal involves having a have car-free Wednesday and Saturday in Westlands and the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), the city’s busiest areas.
The hope is that it will tackle the city’s infamous traffic, reputed to be among the heaviest in the world and contributing to increased air and noise pollution, not to mention the man-hours wasted in jams and cost in fuel.
When Kenyans visit Kigali, other than remarking on the city’s orderliness and Umuganda (monthly communal clean-up day), upon their return home many don’t hide their admiration for the Car Free Day.
Pointing to the example, they are disappointed that organised car-free days in Nairobi are long overdue.
They note that in various other cities across the world motorists are encouraged to give up their vehicles to tackle the same traffic problems they endure.
And it is not just the Nairobians. Kampala residents express similar concerns.
However, with the infrastructure development in both cities, including in Dar es Salaam, it is apparent the authorities are alive to the concerns and the impact on their economies as they also cast an eye around the world.
Many are aware that every year on or around 22nd September various cities around the globe celebrate World Car-Free Day, encouraging motorists to give up their cars for a day. The event highlights the numerous benefits of going car-free to citizens.
The benefits need no emphasis, deriving from minimising or eliminating the traffic problems above mentioned with the overall improvement in the health and well-being of city residents.
Authorities in the remaining cities in the region should make haste to put in place the necessary policies. Observe that the idea of places where there simply are no cars as a matter of policy is not alien to the region or even in Africa if one looks at the coastal town of Lamu or Morocco’s Fes el Bali.
Both towns are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Lamu is among the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, which has necessitated it remains a car-free island in Kenya. Only pedestrian, bicycle, and donkey traffic is permitted on the narrow streets of Old Town Lamu to preserve its heritage and architecture—a blend of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian, and European building styles.
Morocco’s Fes-al-Bali is one of the largest contiguous car-free urban areas in the world. Its medieval streets comprising of narrow alleyways and streets are completely inaccessible by car, so most people get around by foot, donkey, or cart traffic.
However, enforcing the notion of the car-free zone is not an easy matter in modern cities.
A recent analysis by the online platform, The Conversation, remarked on Rwanda’s tremendous success in implementing the car-free zone and organising exercise and wellness activities. It also discussed how a city like Nairobi has a long way to go.
It notes how it is about raising awareness and bringing the public on board and being sensitive to issues of convenience, not just for the motorists but for commuters who use public means and those employed in the transport sector.
Even in Kigali, the Car Free Day is held in the morning from 7am to 10am in selected zones in order not to inconvenience those who may be engaged in other activities—say, those who have to attend a church service or engage in other activities, economic or otherwise.
The point, however, is that it is possible and it’s time more cities in the region took the cue. The analysis notes that all that would be required for the cities is to follow a sequence of car-free days, pedestrianisation, larger car-free areas, and events to increase appeal and awareness of such a policy and its benefits.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.