With Metro Manila rush hour traffic often slowing to less than 5 kilometers per hour and with 2- to 3-hour commutes becoming the new normal, many commuters must be imagining what it would be like if streets were free of cars. People could walk, play and bike safely. Public transport would move faster, unobstructed by private motor vehicles.
Around the world, more cities are implementing car-free days and car-free areas. A great example is found in Jakarta which goes car-free along Jalan Thamrin and Jalan Sudirman every Sunday morning. These are major roads busy as EDSA. Yet, on Sundays, over 100,000 Jakartans—people of all ages–take time out to breathe clean air, stroll along the center of the boulevard, enjoy street food, ride a bicycle, play, dance and skateboard. Street performers and musicians abound. Visiting the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout at Jalan Thamrin on a Sunday morning is considered a “must do” for any tourist visiting Jakarta.
Some Indonesians have described the car-free Sundays in Jakarta as a “surreal” experience. These are on major roads notorious for gridlock and pollution (like our own EDSA). These wide boulevards transform into public parks—where people bring their families (instead of taking them to a shopping mall) to take in fresh air, enjoy light exercise, find free entertainment, meet up with friends, and participate in the happy chaos.
There is a global trend towards transforming roads into public spaces that people can use and enjoy. In Paris, the riverside expressways have been converted into a pedestrian promenade, dotted with gardens, cafes and sports courts. Paris even has an annual city-wide car-free day when no private motor vehicles are allowed to operate.
In New York City, Times Square was permanently closed to cars in 2010 and has since attracted record numbers of tourists; Prospect Park and more recently Central Park have also become car-free. Cities like Hamburg, Barcelona, Oslo, London and Madrid are identifying zones in their cities to be car-free (with entry permitted only for cars owned by residents within the zone).
In December 2016, right in the middle of busy Christmas traffic, Madrid’s mayor announced that private cars would be banned from Gran Via (the city’s 6-lane version of EDSA) for nine days. It reduced pollution drastically and encouraged people to walk and bike. Businesses along the boulevard reportedly had 15 percent higher sales compared to the previous year. Encouraged by this positive experience, Mayor Manuela Carmena announced that Gran Via will be made car-free permanently within 2019.
In Bogota, Colombia, 121 kilometers of its streets are closed to cars every Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm. In what is called “Ciclovia”, the city creates a huge park out of road space. Over a million Colombians come out to cycle, skate, walk, run and party.
Although there are critics, the public has been generally supportive of these bold efforts to curb private cars use. Traffic congestion is eased and people get to work faster—on foot, on bikes or on existing public transport. But the biggest impact of the car-free initiatives is the reduction in air pollution. People are healthier and lives are prolonged.
In Greater Manila, only a few areas are car-free on weekends. But they are treasured and they attract a loyal following. One of the best places to enjoy a car-free environment is the University of the Philippines Diliman Campus on a Sunday. There, the Academic Oval, closed to motorized traffic, becomes a haven for walkers, runners, and bikers. With huge shade trees and lots of greenery, the UP Campus is a favorite retreat for stressed city-dwellers.
In the heart of Ortigas Center, Pasig City, in collaboration with the Ortigas Center Association, the city government has made practically the whole stretch of F. Ortigas Jr. Road (formerly Emerald Avenue) car-free on Saturdays and Sundays. The road is closed from Dona Julia Vargas Avenue up to Sapphire Road. City police install temporary barriers to restrict through-traffic, but cars owned by residents who live along Emerald Avenue are free to get in and out of the area.
Joggers do their rounds; skateboarders practice their routines; parents and kids go by in bicycles; pets are on display; and infants in strollers take in the sun. On any weekend, you will find a festive atmosphere with Zumba and aerobics classes conducted right on the road; bicycle and kiddie car rentals; and food vendors. Not something one would expect in the middle of a central business district.
Instead of just dreaming about what a car-free city might be like, let’s give ourselves a taste of freedom from congestion and pollution of private cars. A suggestion to MMDA and Metro Manila LGUs: how about setting aside a day each month when selected streets in the city can be car-free? It would be an amazing way of giving streets back to the people and making Metro Manila a more livable city.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy