CAR FREE DAY Pittsburgh group promotes life with less driving, more walking

An estimated 100 million people participate in International Car Free Day each Sept. 22.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- When the United States refused to ratify an international treaty that would impose limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases, four twentysomething Pittsburghers decided to take action.
They formed Car Free Pittsburgh which, for now, promotes walking, bicycling and public transportation. The group is part of the World Carfree Network, a loose-knit coalition of more than 40 groups dedicated to eradicating cars, which they say hurt the environment, the economy and society.
The car-free movement is growing in the United States, although more slowly than in other countries. An estimated 100 million people participate in International Car Free Day each Sept. 22 in 1,500 cities worldwide, according to the Sierra Club and other groups.
An uphill battle
But it's not an easy sell, especially in an older, hilly city like Pittsburgh, one expert said.
"I think it would be an extremely difficult, if not miraculous, feat if organizations would be able to sway the general public, let alone the average Pittsburgher, to give up their cars," said Audrey Guskey, a consumer trends expert from Duquesne University. "Instead of retreating from technology, we're constantly grasping at it and seeking more of it."
The local group will hold a Car Free Day in Pittsburgh on July 23, asking people to pledge to drive less. A street fair is also planned to help educate people about the cause.
"In 20 years, I think the goal would be a society that doesn't focus as much attention on and rely as heavily on the car," said Katie Bombico, one of Car Free Pittsburgh's founders. "Any small step is going to be a positive one."
Although the Pittsburgh group's founders bicycle or walk as much as possible, Bombico does drive. She said she uses her car to drive to work and to visit her parents, who live five hours away, but otherwise stays out of it.
"We realize, for many people, you just can't jump into a car-free life," Bombico said.
Addicted to cars
Steve Schmitt, director of the Bethlehem-based Coalition for Appropriate Transportation, said people aren't motivated by the message that cars are responsible for ills ranging from obesity to suburban sprawl.
"When I first started out 15 or 16 years ago, I was very upset. I thought that if I explained all these things to people that they would stop driving," Schmitt said. "I soon discovered people were too addicted and too dependent on their cars."
The group tried to get folks to stop driving one day in five and then one day a month, but both efforts failed. Schmitt said that's when the group decided to instead focus on educating people about transportation alternatives.
The World Carfree Network, based in Prague, Czech Republic, publishes Car Busters magazine and is sponsoring its fifth annual world conference from July 18-21 in Budapest.
"It's about people moving around by walking, by cycling, by public transportation," said Randall Ghent, co-director of the network's International Coordination Center. "Obviously, [the car] is not going to disappear overnight. But we strive for a society where its convenience is lowered and the convenience of these alternatives is raised."
Around the nation
Cities including Montreal, Seattle, San Francisco and Chapel Hill, N.C., participate in the International Car Free Day, or sponsor their own during which residents are urged to not drive.
"There's no guilt. We're not like that. We're not hard-core," Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy said. "But what it is supposed to do is expand your mind that you can do other things and it can be very pleasant to move around in other ways."
Foy said Chapel Hill, neighboring Carrboro and the University of North Carolina invested in that idea. They operate a combined transit system with an annual budget of more than $12 million, serving about 6 million bus riders a year. The towns' combined population is about 75,000, plus some 25,000 UNC students.
Ridership has doubled since the transit agency decided three years ago to make the service free. The cities recoup lost fares by not having to widen roads, build parking areas and other car-related infrastructure, Foy said.
Despite such success, Foy said it's hard to gauge the impact of International Car Free Day, though he said the effort is growing each year.
"If people view it as fun and interesting, then it will grow, but if they view it as sort of taking a pill, then it won't grow," Foy said.
The Pittsburgh group is opting for the fun route.
"That's what we're about. We're totally about promoting the alternatives," said Ola Creston, another founder of the group. "We're not anti-car -- well, personally we might be -- but the group's not about that."

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