Chengdu was one of 114 Chinese cities to participate in the annual World Carfree Day event yesterday. The event happened to coincide with the first of the three-day holiday in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
All private cars were banned from entering the streets bordering Tianfu Square in the middle of the city from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday. Signs were set up to inform drivers of the road closures, and traffic police and guards were stationed at all intersections to enforce the rules. In order to accommodate the expected influx in visitors to Tianfu Square on this Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, the Chengdu Public Transportation Group increased bus frequency on lines that serve Tianfu Square.
In previous years, traffic snarls would occur just outside the car-free zones due to the unexpected rerouting of traffic. And inevitably, some drivers would ignore the the road signs and barriers and drive on into the car-free zone.
But this year, things were different, according to this West China City Daily reporter. Local media reported detours days in advance, and partly due to this and to the fact that Wednesday was a non-working day, there were no blockages, and most drivers voluntarily followed the detours. Drivers who disobeyed the closures were to be fined RMB100, but as it turned out, not one driver needed disciplinary action.
A taxi driver said that the journey from Shuangqiaozi to Tianfu Square usually takes 40 minutes to an hour, but on Wednesday morning, it took only 20 minutes. "It'd be great if the trip were that quick every day!" he said.
Another driver added, "We usually don't want to hear a passenger utter the words 'Tianfu Square'" because the city center is so congested that most taxi drivers don't want to go anywhere near it. But on Carfree Day, they were happy to.
In addition to the road closures, 200 carfree enthusiasts took to the streets on foot and by bicycle to advocate sustainable, healthful transportation choices. Heading out from Tianfu Square in the morning, they made a loop around the four sides of the city.
Even some private drivers elected to take the bus in honor of Carfree Day. A woman surnamed Zhao who ordinarily drives her car every day, said that she decided to take the No. 4 bus to People's Park. "I just need to walk a few steps. It's very convenient," she explained.
But not all the news reports were this glowing.
One traffic guard grumbled that the Carfree Day led to an "embarrassing" situation in which pedestrians, seeing that no cars were around, would cross the street while the light was red. "But in any case, it's very safe," the guard admitted.
Drivers, too, failed to see the significance of Carfree Day, particularly because they could simply avoid the restricted areas. As a Chengdu resident surnamed Hu said, "The Carfree Day is only limited to near Tianfu Square. If I want to go out, I'll just drive around them." Hu lives near the Chengwen Flyover and drives his car—a white Fukang he purchased three years ago—every day to his job near Chunxi Lu. But it was only a decade ago that he was a Carfree Day advocate, organizing with his coworkers to ride their bikes to work during Chengdu's first observance of World Carfree Day in 2000.
On that day, October 14, 2000, a 14-square-kilometer swath of road space in the west part of the city was closed to private motor vehicles. Motor-vehicle traffic decreased by 65.2 percent and traffic accidents decreased by 37.5 percent.
Yesterday, of 10 private-car owners interviewed, only one vowed not to drive unless an emergency arose. The other nine all said they would continue to drive as usual.
Indeed, this article reports that although Chengdu has been participating in World Carfree Day since 2000, every year, the area closed to private vehicles gets smaller, and the length of time roads are closed to cars becomes shorter.
On September 22, 2007, Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai, and 105 other cities in China held Carfree Day activities. Every year after on the same date, more and more Chinese cities participated in Carfree Day activities. Starting from last year, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development published the "Guide to the Organization of Chinese Cities Carfree Day Events" which clearly states that Carfree Day events should not last less than 12 hours and that the area closed off to private motor vehicles must be at least 5 square kilometers.
In actuality, during Chengdu's first Carfree Day in 2000, the event lasted for seven hours, and the limited area was 14 sqm. In 2007, the event was prolonged to 12 hours, but the size of the total area was decreased. In the following years, the duration has become shorter and shorter until this year's four hours.
In response to this, a spokesperson for the relevant department of the Chengdu government said that Chengdu, like Beijing and Shanghai, is undergoing urbanization and opposes the rapid increase in the number of cars on the road; it's clear that the road space cannot keep up. Add to this the amount of construction in the city center, and there is great pressure on the city center traffic. Despite this, Chengdu has still chosen to participate in Carfree Day this year in order to express the city government's acknowledgment of and commitment to advocating environmental causes.
This spokesperson added that because this year's Carfree Day coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival, the relevant administrative departments drafted two different plans early on. One limited private motor vehicles in the south of the city for 12 hours while the other would restrict cars from the city center for four hours.
After the plans were drawn up, a number of departments were consulted and finally decided on the latter plan. "Our idea is that the Carfree Day events should continue, and that they shouldn't become just an exercise in formality, but at the same time, we can't inflict serious consequences on the whole entire city transportation just for these public-welfare activities." ...
The number of motor vehicles on Chengdu's streets has tripled in the past decade. According to official data from the Chengdu City Transportation Bureau, as of September 19, 2010, there were 2.55 million motor vehicles registered in Chengdu. That figure is up from 650,000 in 2000.
A carfree "expert" interviewed explained that in contrast to Europe's grassroots Carfree Day movement, China's Carfree Day events have always been organized from the top down. "The past few days, over 130 of Beijing's streets have been completely blocked up with traffic. In this kind of context, some cities' Carfree Day activities are starting to look more like those cities' environmental protection performance art pieces," the expert explained.
In related news, Sichuanese city Mianyang has announced that it will host Carfree Day activities on September 25 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Ironically, in the meantime, Chengdu's current and future car owners are probably attending the 23rd Chengdu International Motor Show, which kicked off Wednesday evening.