Drop your car keys and go car free on either Friday, September 21 or Saturday, September 22, or both days!  Join residents and commuters in the Washington DC region and around the world for Car Free Day, celebrated in 40 countries.  Like Earth Day, another worldwide eco-conscious event, Car Free Day was brought about to create awareness of ways to better the environment.  Using alternative forms of transportation not only makes cleaner air, it also helps improve mobility.  So get around on Car Free Day by bicycling, walking, or taking transit.  For those who must travel by car, consider carpooling.

Those who take the Car Free Day pledge could win great prizes such as an Apple iPod, Capital Bikeshare annual memberships, SmarTrip Cards loaded with $25, KIND Healthy Snacks, Giant Food Stores gift cards, and more!  To take the free pledge, and for Car Free Day happenings in Northern Virginia, visit www.CarFreeMetroDC.org, or call 800 745-RIDE. 

The Car Free Day event caught the attention of area leaders in the Washington, DC metropolitan region in 2008, when Commuter Connections “adopted” the event.  (Commuter Connections is a program of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.  The publisher of @livemore magazine, the Dulles Area Transportation Association, is a member of the Commuter Connections network.)  

Although Commuter Connections’ focus is on bettering the region’s notorious commute, participation in Car Free Day is not limited to commuters.  Anyone who typically drives alone to get around, regardless of where he or she is going, is encouraged to try traveling for a day or two in late September without a car.  Workers are encouraged to go car free to and from work, as well as for trips outside of the daily commute. Take transit to the movies, walk to a restaurant, ride bicycles to the park, share a ride to the mall or avoid travel altogether by shopping online or working from home.

The automobile has been an integral part of the American landscape for many generations, so for some, parting with a car for even just a day or two can be a challenge.  However, drive alone travel patterns have been shifting over the last decade and a half.  According to the Commuter Connections 2016 State of the Commute Survey, although driving alone continues to be the main way that most DC-region  commuters get to and from work, that number has been in decline over the last 15 years.  In 2001, 7 in 10 commuters reported driving alone to work at least three days a week. In 2016, a little more than 6 out of 10 commuters reported doing so. 

Here’s a bit of social history that explains how we came to need initiatives like Car Free Day.  By the mid-twentieth century, a solid romance flourished with road travel along the interstate highway system, which proliferated during the Eisenhower administration. By the 1950’s this network of highways ran east to west and north to south.  With a smooth path of paved roadways, America fast became imbedded as a car culture.  

With the newfound freedom to travel farther distances in a short period of time, young families moved away from central urban areas and into low-density, car-dependent communities. As the nation saw a mass exodus from urban areas to perceived better lifestyles in the suburbs, the term “suburban sprawl” was coined.  

Times were good, until the oil embargo of the 1970’s brought about sky-rocketing gas prices, rationing, and long lines at the pump.  The new reality turned carpooling into a legitimate way to move people more cost effectively and efficiently than driving alone.  Flash forward to current day, and shopping malls with expansive surface parking lots are becoming less prevalent, and regional planners aim to manage growth with a more transit-oriented, mixed-use development, walkable-communities model.  

Enormous population and job growth have made the Washington, DC region a national proving ground for variable-toll “Express Lanes”, as an approach to keep the immense flow of traffic moving at an acceptable pace.  The Express Lanes have made carpooling a more attractive option through the carrot of a quick, toll-free commute. 

Technology also helped to chip away at the need to rely entirely on driving alone to work.  The State of the Commute Survey has found that more workers in the region are teleworking. In the latest survey, 32 percent of commuters reported working remotely or from home at least occasionally, up from 27 percent in 2013. 

Ease of mobility and quality of life have become valuable commodities in today’s fast paced world.  And environmental concerns are yet another reason to use transportation alternatives.  So leave that single occupant vehicle in the driveway and discover the joys of being car-free!