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The problem with Vancouver’s Car Free Day is your car

Too many people driving to car-free street parties
Car Free Day events across the city draw sizable crowds. Ironically, that also includes people in ca
Car Free Day events across the city draw sizable crowds. Ironically, that also includes people in cars. Photo Car Free Day Vancouver/Facebook

Don’t get me wrong. I love Car Free Day. In recent weeks, Main Street, the West End, and Commercial Drive have all hosted car-free events to roaring success.

In particular, Main Street’s Car Free Day was the largest in the city, stretching from Broadway to 30th Avenue. Unfortunately, for all of Car Free Day’s achievements throughout the city, it appears that many party-goers are completely missing the point: they’re driving cars to Car Free Day.

The aim of Car Free Day is to promote pedestrian-friendly public spaces. Matt Hern and Carmen Mills are the co-founders and co-organizers of Car Free Day. They held their first Car Free Day on Commercial Drive in 2004.

In 2008, they added Main Street and the West End. According to their website, Hern and Mills felt the urge to create “a street festival where those from the neighbourhood could be engaged to rethink the range of uses for neighbourhood streets.”

The unfortunate situation that has arisen like an obnoxious cloud of exhaust from Car Free Days is that side streets become traffic jams. How’s this for irony: it’s impossible to find parking on Car Free Day.

Driving a car to Car Free Day is like bringing your drone to the symphony. It’s totally inappropriate, and it makes life hell for those around you, the exact opposite of the event’s intent.

To wander down streets that have replaced cars with happy faces for as far as your eye can see is an amazing sight. To step into the side streets to realize those arteries are clogged with cars snaps you from the dream. 

My dentist lives east of Victoria Drive, and says that on Car Free days on the Drive, there’s no parking for blocks, including as far as her house. 

A Main Street retail vendor, who asked not to be named, was also critical of the event, but for different reasons.

“Yeah, not a fan,” the retailer, who was out-of-province for the event, told me. “The hospitality places do well — coffee shops, restaurants, bars — but for retail not so much. Car Free Day actually hinders my business. Because of the festival atmosphere, it feels like most people are looking for free stuff, and the side streets are a zoo. Why do you think I leave town?”

Dave Gowans co-owns Red Cat Records at 4332 Main St. and offers a different perspective.

“I find the event very well-organized. The volunteers work really hard,” Gowans said the day after Main Street’s event. “It’s true that sales don’t equal the amount of people that come through the store, but I tend to think of the long arc. All of these new people found our store. Maybe they don’t want to carry a record around with them on Car Free Day, but hopefully they’ll be back. We also get to mount a stage on the sidewalk. We had six bands play and it was a lot of fun.”

Gowans lives a block away from his store and admits that driving a car to Car Free Day is a weird problem. “On the side streets, people are honking, getting angry, yelling at each other. That part of it is pretty ridiculous. I mean it’s just one day a year, you know?”

Hern and Mills have obviously always encouraged the central point of their initiative: “Get in the spirit of Car Free Day and leave the cars at home. All festivals are centrally located and are easily accessible by transit and by bike.”

Gowans had another idea to help ease the ironic congestion: “Open up public transit,” he suggested. “Make it free for the bus routes that service the neighbourhoods on Car Free Day. That would encourage more people to take transit to get down here and leave the car at home.”

Upcoming street-closure events that encourage you to park it include the Strathcona Street Party at Cordova and Campbell Street on June 23, Greek Day on Broadway on June 24 and the Khatsalano Street Party on West Fourth Avenue on July 7.