Today is the World Car Free Day. One day a year is set aside to try and avoiding using cars and cycling, walking or using public transport instead. Car Free Day aims to take the heat off the planet for just one day by encouraging people to be less dependent on their cars and try alternatives.
Albania as numerous countries across the globe, participated in the Car-free Day initiative. Organized informally in 1994, the initiative was officially endorsed by the European Commission in 2000. The capital city of Colombia, Bogotá, even institutionalized the car free-day through public referendum and celebrated the 15th anniversary of its annual car-free day this year by introducing restriction on motorcycles, as well. Since 2000, September 22 is officially named the Car-free Day, during which cities around the world are invited to close their centers to cars. Some cities, such as Paris this year, decide to move their Car-free Day to the weekend not to disrupt city residents’ daily commutes and others, like Tirana, even opt to make it a monthly event.
The idea behind organizing car-free days is to improve the quality of air and to decrease urban congestion. Indeed, air pollution is a major concern for many urban centers. Air pollution is not just a matter of simple inconvenience though, there is significant health risk associated with it. According to United Nations Environment Programme, “more than 1 billion people are exposed to outdoor air pollution annually, causing 1 million premature deaths and 1 million pre-native deaths each year”. Besides being the trigger for allergic reactions and asthma, as well as being the cause of increasing rate of cardiovascular diseases among city dwellers, air pollution also causes irreparable brain damage. According to the new study, published by Annals of Neurology, long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution causes brains to age faster, reducing significantly the levels of white matter in the brain, responsible for cognition. The researchers, led by Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen of the University of Southern California, studied effects of air pollution on 1403 elderly women from 1990 to 2006.
By means of studying their MRIs and residential histories and air monitoring data, the study concluded, that “several parts of the aging brain, especially the white matter, are an important target of neurotoxic effects induced by long-term exposure to fine particles in the ambient air”. These results support the growing body of work relating to the topic of air pollution and its effect on the human body. In his investigation, Aaron Reuben, journalist and researcher at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, uncovered the existing link between air pollution and degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. According to Reuben, as we inhale fine polluted air particles, they end up in our brains, causing inflammation and leading to various chronic diseases. In the recent years, studies have shown that people exposed to air pollution tend to lose their mental abilities faster.
With that said, there are things that can be done to counter the rising levels of air pollution and this is primarily what the car-free days are all about. Unfortunately, car-free days are generally seen by public as useless and a major inconvenience to otherwise established work day routines. In fact, there is a more significant message behind such initiative, than simply raising awareness and significantly reducing the level of air pollution for one day, just for it to spike back up in the following days. Car-free Days conducted in various cities expose a number of problems, associated with it, including inability of some of these cities to sustain the normal city functioning with the existing public transportation and urban transit network in place.
What this means is that urban planning, as well as maintenance of adequate urban transportation is as important in the question of air pollution, as the primary cause of the pollution – “high number of older vehicles, poor vehicle maintenance and low fuel quality”. Consequently, car-free days have the power to show, that in order to successfully fight pollution, we need to both change our mindsets about our unsustainable reliance on cars and our transport norms and attitudes, but also to implement smarter urban planning and cleaner public transportation alternatives, to ensure the healthier future for us and generations to come.
Car free Day and Albania
According to the 2014 report from the Environment National Agency, several European countries suffer pollution exceeding the EU regulatory limit value of 50 µg/m³ (daily mean). In Tirana, this value was exceeded in 102 days of a year and that is in only one area of four monitored.
Ministry of Environment had a chance to observe the great results, when on September 24th, the day of Pope Francis’s visit in Tirana; all vehicles were prohibited in the center due to security measures. Rruga e Durresit (Durrës Street) was temporarily blocked from 7 am to 5pm. When the level of pollution on the street was measured, the results came up to literally 0. Therefore, it’s up to cooperation between government and municipality to improve the air quality.