Drive to bring annual car-free day to central streets

By Iain Gray

ARDS and North Down has begun a drive that could see parts of the borough go car-free for one day a year.

The idea, brainchild of Green councillor Rachel Woods, was voted through by a council committee last week.

Officials will now put together a report into the practicalities and affordability of holding one car-free day per year, which will be brought back to the council for a final debate on whether or not to go ahead with the move.

Arguing that urban planning puts too much emphasis on cars and not enough on people, Ms Woods told the council’s Corporate Services Committee that temporary pedestrianisation of parts of towns and villages could bring a new perspective to local streets.

Stating that evidence from pedestrian-only schemes throughout Europe and the rest of the UK proved they can boost footfall and improve fortunes for businesses by keeping people walking around town centres for longer, she suggested a single day every year would give the borough a chance to test out the idea.

She pointed to September 22 as a possible date. That’s World Car-Free Day, a global event that’s been running since the 1990s that gives residents and commuters a chance to see how towns and cities could be reworked to be more people-friendly.

Car-free days usually involve a handful of central streets being sealed off so that only pedestrians, cyclists and buses or trains can get through.

Encouraging walking, mass transit and pedal power, they’re held to help people to realise that the car isn’t necessary for every single trip.

Said Ms Woods: “We have a shameful record here in Northern Ireland on promoting active travel.

“This is about placemaking, access, and health and wellbeing. Covid-19 was a massively missed opportunity, where we all talked a good talk about doing things differently yet nothing really changed.

“Cars are still king – to the detriment of people and place, and to happy and healthy communities.”

She was backed by fellow Green councillor Stephen Dunlop, who said: “World Car Free Day is perhaps something we could look at to join in, and implement across the Borough.

“We could have events on and encourage people to rethink our streets and who they are for; have local and independent businesses showcased, encouraging increased spending, and promoting active travel for all.

“Our public space is not just for cars.”

But a handful of unionists raised objections to the idea, with DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen asking how much bringing back a report would cost.

He questioned whether local officials would be qualified to properly analyse the price and difficulties of closing off streets, suggesting that the council could be forced to hire costly external consultants just to check into whether a car-free day would be possible.

Mr McIlveen promised to abstain during last week’s committee; asking to be given an estimated price of the report, he would vote in favour or against when the idea comes up to be rubber stamped at a full council meeting this week.

And independent unionist Tom Smith objected in principle. Declaring himself ‘pro-car’, he alleged that the idea was part of a wider anti-car agenda he has seen growing in recent years.

Replying, Ms Woods refuted the suggestion that her idea is anti-car per se, and maintained that council officials would be qualified to compile the report as the local authority carries out assessments for major street closures several times every year.

“We close streets for the May Day parade in Holywood, for Christmas lights switch-ons and Santa’s arrival, and every July 12,” she said. “We have the expertise of doing that.”

The committee voted to bring back a report into the idea of setting up a car-free day by a majority of two votes. That decision has to be debated again at a full council meeting this week before it can come into effect.