Car-free days in Vancouver fuelled by imaginative rebels with a cause

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      Car-free days have become a hallmark of Vancouver on the Father’s Day weekend, and this year is no different.

      On Saturday (June 17), Denman Street from Robson to Davie streets will be blocked off to motor-vehicle traffic from noon to 7 p.m. for the West End Car Free Day Festival.

      The following day (June 18), it’s Main Street’s turn, with 21 blocks of car-free fun between East Broadway and East 30th Avenue, also from noon to 7 p.m. The family-friendly event will feature 15 stages, bike-valet service, and a kids’ zone.

      There will be local musicians, DJs, and spoken-word performances on the Beaumont Stage between Broadway and East 10th Avenue. Over at the Biltmore, there will be more music. A kiddie pool will be set up at Uncle Abe’s (3032 Main Street), and in front of Heritage Hall, the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association will be handing out free popcorn and cotton candy.

      Meanwhile, there are block parties in various areas of Kitsilano on both days of the Father’s Day weekend. And on July 9, there’s a car-free day on Commercial Drive.

      So where did these events originate? And how did Vancouver become so enamoured with clearing cars and trucks off the street for massive street parties that attract tens of thousands of people?

      Author and university lecturer Matt Hern and Vancouver writer and self-described Bicycle Buddha Carmen Mills came up with the idea 13 years ago as a protest to mobilize community opposition against the provincial Gateway Program. This was a massive transportation-infrastructure program promoting several major road expansions, including a new Port Mann Bridge, the expansion of Highway 1, and a new South Fraser Perimeter Road.

      “Our tag line was ‘More community equals less cars and less cars equal more community,’ ” Hern, author of What a City Is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement, recalled in a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “The idea was to think about larger kind of ecological issues around the city in general.”

      But unlike demonstrations where people are subjected to speech after speech after speech, Hern and Mills decided instead to create a celebration. That led to the birth of Vancouver’s first car-free day on Commercial Drive in 2005.

      “The honest truth is we didn’t have the first clue what we were doing,” Hern confessed. “I had never run a festival of any kind before. And we had no idea if anybody would show up.”

      The first year, they placed barricades on Commercial Drive and 25,000 people poured onto the street. The following year—“just by dumb coincidence”, according to Hern—it occurred at the same time as soccer’s World Cup.

      “So we had 50,000 people on the street, including a huge number of Brazilians who were already dancing first thing in the morning,” he noted. “From there, it just kind of took off.”

      Matt Hern confesses that he knew nothing about how to run a festival when the first car-free day was held in 2005.

      The following year, the city asked Hern and Mills if they could hold four car-free days, but they declined the offer and only did it twice on Commercial Drive because they didn’t have the money. But that prompted Hern to think about taking it to other neighbourhoods.

      That led to the launch of festivals on Main Street, on Denman Street, and in Kitsilano the following year, all with the full cooperation of the city.

      “When we first proposed the idea, the city was extremely concerned—especially with it being on the East Side—about needing a lot of cops and a lot of security,” Hern recalled. “I think that we demonstrated over time to them that we could do it with all volunteers, no professional security, and very little cop presence, and people ended up behaving really, really well.”

      Car-free days were created through a deprofessionalized, horizontal organizing model, according to Hern.

      He likened it to a potluck, where participants bring different things to the table to create a feast. And the inspiration was indigenous movements and Latin American social movements, which have been known to employ humour to make a point about serious issues.

      "You can see a sensibility that eschews this normal kind of corporate heirarchical methadology that seems to infiltrate even social movements—and this particular sense of saviourness that a lot of white organizers, I think, have," Hern said.

      Hern’s job was to obtain the permits for the early car-free days. Mills organized volunteers to sit around the barricades and close the streets.

      When people would tell Hern that he couldn’t organize a festival without music, he would ask them to look after that. If another person said there needed to be a kids’ zone, he encouraged them to create one. Others would say there needed to be some politicization if it was a protest, so he urged them to create a speakers’ area and set up tables to offer information to the public. It was a potluck writ large over several city blocks.

      “Everybody had a very little job, and it was true for me, too,” Hern said. “People would ask me, ‘How did you organize a festival of 250,000 people, at its peak?’ It sounds stupid, but I didn’t do that much.”

      Nowadays, the festivals are organized by Car Free Day Vancouver, and for a few years, Hern and Mills sat on its board of directors. One of the current organizers, Matthew Carrico, looks back fondly on those early days. He volunteered for the first event on Main Street, which then extended only from East 12th to East 16th avenues.

      “I’m pretty sure Antisocial Skateboard would have brought out their half-pipe that year,” he said. “That would have been a big attraction.”

      Carrico also recalled how environmental groups, other nonprofit organizations, and local artisans helped defined the early car-free days on Main Street.

      Nowadays, the city charges from $40,000 to $45,000 for policing and other expenses for car-free events in the four neighbourhoods. As these festivals have grown, there’s been a need to seek more sponsors and hold them on different days to allow each to really thrive.

      This video about Vancouver's car-free days was made in 2016.

      This year marks the 10th anniversary of car-free festivals on Main and Denman streets and in Kitsilano. Their success has helped spawn similar days in other communities, including a large one on Douglas Street in Victoria.

      Carrico pointed out that the Viva Vancouver program, which puts on local festivals, emerged out of a partnership between city hall and Car Free Day Vancouver.

      Hern is no longer involved with the organization that he helped create. And he wishes it the very best, saying the last thing he would ever want to do is take a pot shot at how car-free days have evolved since he moved on to doing more academic work, writing, and other forms of community organizing.

      However, Hern added that he hopes that car-free movements around the world remain a force not only for ecological justice, but also for social justice. To him, this involves thinking about equity "in the context of colonial land".

      Carrico said that car-free days haven’t strayed too far from their roots, and still demonstrate how the removal of motor vehicles from key city roads can bring people together.

      “We’re throwing a community street festival and we’re connecting it to our environmental goals,” he emphasized. “We’re basically laying down an example of what we think the city spaces will be like if you prioritize people over cars.”