Car Busters in Action

In the fall of 1997, anti-car activists from 50 groups in 21 countries converged on Lyon, France, for a conference that was far more than the usual round of speeches. Although there were some relatively sedate workshops, the real action at "Towards Car-Free Cites" was in the streets, with protesters blocking highways, physically moving illegally parked cars, and even distributing official-looking "tickets" explaining the environmental consequences of car ownership.

AFP / Corbis

Randy Ghent, an American now based in the Czech Republic who co-edits Car Busters magazine, says anti-car sentiment is far more common in Europe than it is in the U.S. The movement to "liberate" drivers from their cars can be seen, perhaps, as a close relative of road rage. It’s an activism not only in reaction to an increasing international obsession with the private car, but also the dire environmental impact of all those automobiles.

Though it’s little-noticed in America, a quiet movement to rid city centers of cars is growing in Europe. European Car-Free Day, first held in 1998, has many enthusiastic participants, and 60 municipalities have signed on as members of the Car-Free Cities Network. In Eurobarometer opinion polls, 51 percent of respondents mention "density of traffic" as a serious concern.

Car-free days are not limited to Europe, either. Bogot?, Colombia, where 1,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year, held one in the winter of 2000—and it was mandatory. Hong Kong, where air-quality advisories are frequent, closed parts of its central commercial district to cars in 2001.

In England, the anti-roads movement, crystallized by the formation of Reclaim the Streets in 1991, has turned militant. In early 1996, activists took on the would-be Twyford Down bypass, which would have bulldozed through three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, containing ancient bogs, wildflower meadows and archeological sites. Also in 1996, Reclaim the Streets persuaded 8,000 people to take temporary control of the M41 motorway in West London. The movement was re-energized in 2000 by a plan announced by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to build 80 new bypass roads.

The most visible American anti-car group is Culture Change, formerly the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, headed by a dedicated Arcata, California-based activist named Jan Lundberg. "I don’t think the auto will be replaced," says Lundberg. "I know it will be."