Europeans to Celebrate First Car Free Day

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 21, 2000 (ENS) - With gas prices almost US$1.50 a liter in some parts of Europe it is surprising no one organized it before, but tomorrow 65 million people in more than 800 cities are expected to participate in the first Pan-European Car Free Day.


Paris hopes to avoid typical scenes of Friday afternoon gridlock tomorrow. (Photo by Steven David La Rowe)
About 80 percent of Europeans live in cities, and 30 percent of car journeys in the 15-member European Union involve distances of less than three kilometers. This spells pollution in the form of ground level ozone - smog.

Ground level ozone forms when pollutants released from gasoline and diesel powered vehicles, and oil based solvents react with heat and sunlight.

Smog can inflame breathing passages, decreasing the lung's working capacity. Symptoms include shortness of breath, pain when inhaling deeply, wheezing and coughing. It is especially harmful for seniors, children, asthmatics and people with heart and lung conditions.

High levels of ground level ozone can result in increased emergency department visits, hospital admissions and, in severe cases premature deaths.

But tomorrow at least, there should be fewer cars on Europe's roads as people walk, take public transit, park and ride or, like Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, hop on a bike. With several members of the European Commission, Wallström will cycle to Brussels' Cinquantenaire Park to celebrate Car Free Day.

Among the 800 cities located in 25 countries, residents of Dublin, London, Athens, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Helsinki and Copenhagen are expected to be involved in Car Free Day activities, which are hoped to provide a temporary break from the usual traffic gridlock.

Wallström said the event is well timed. "Although European Car Free Day has been planned for some time now, the current discussions on fuel prices make Car Free Day 2000 particularly timely. Recent events have highlighted our over reliance on road transport as well our unsustainable dependence on one source of non-renewable energy," she said.


European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
The commissioner called tomorrow's event a unique opportunity for the public and governments to decide what kind of cities children should grow up in. "It provides us with an occasion to discuss the urban environment, air pollution in cities, and alternative forms of transport."

Wallström launched the car free day initiative in February following the success of a similar event last year involving 66 French and 92 Italian cities. It brings together national ministries and energy agencies, networks of local authorities, non-governmental offices and the European Commission, the legislative arm of the European Union.

It has inspired cities outside of Europe to follow suit. In Colombia, Bogota organized a car free day in February and in Argentina, Buenos Aires holds its version tomorrow.

The event comes at a time when the European Commission is proposing several legislative initiatives designed to address the issues of climate change, air quality and the urban environment.

Earlier this year, the Commission approved an air quality proposal which sets ceilings on carbon monoxide and benzene in ambient air. Two other legislative initiatives - the Large Combustion Plants and the National Emissions Ceilings Directives - were approved by Europe's environment ministers in June and are hoped to protect human health from ground level ozone.

Wallström will take part in an internet chat from Cinquantenaire Park Friday morning. She will answer questions at 11 a.m. European time at