A Website Celebrating Car-Free Culture

A Car-Free-City Project

A Car Free Cities Project Proposal

If you’ve read the vision that I have outlined for the car-free-cities project, then you’ll know that I am calling for grassroots car-free-city organisers in every town and city, crowd funded by local groups and residents. The idea of this page is to give an outline proposal of what such a campaigner could focus on achieving for the first 5 years or so of their tenure, depending on the size of their town or city.


Let me first give a bit of background to this project idea. In the UK in the period 2005 to 2012 there were several high profile government Sustainable Travel Towns projects (see also here), along with various other sustainable transport projects, such as the Cycling Demonstration Town projects.

The aims of the projects were to effect whole-scale behaviour change over the areas concerned. To do this the projects were broken into two components: the first component was a capital budget, for making structural changes to the transport system, such as smart travel, more integrated transport systems, cycle lanes, electronic readouts of buses at bus stops, setting up car clubs, etc. The second component was targeted marketing, aimed at effecting behaviour change across the population in order to facilitate a shift away from single use car occupancy and towards using more sustainable modes of transport. This latter element of the project utilised a wide range of innovative ideas that the environmental behaviour change think tanks were coming up with at the time.

The projects were all big money (millions of pounds each), had lots of consultants, experienced staff and paid volunteers, and they all produced extensive and publicly available project reports which outlined what they did, how they went about it, and how effective their results were.

My interest as a community organiser was how the results of these projects could be used at the community level to effect changes in people’s daily travel habits, without having access to the big budgets and teams of consultants and paid workers. I wanted to use these projects to put together something that could be run at a community level, by people who weren’t experts on sustainable transport, civic transport issues, behaviour change, or targeted marketing, and that had a far smaller budget, so that it could be funded by local funders, and not require national scale funding. Also, it had to be effective.

So that was the idea. Obviously I discarded the capital component of the projects as that is only suitable to specialist organisations like Sustrans or local authorities, and instead focused on the behaviour change aspects. I ended up running three such projects. The first was in 2008 in the village of Staveley, Cumbria (population 1,500), with a budget of £20,000 (around £30 per head of population, which was roughly in line with the per capita spend of the big flagship projects). The second was the following year, also in Staveley, as I wanted to see if I could build on the successes of the initial year and roll it out again but having learned from the previous year, and being even more streamlined with the funding. In 2010 I also ran a larger version of the project in Kendal, Cumbria (population 30,000), which was even more streamlined. All of the projects had one part time project officer (me), and otherwise everyone else involved were volunteers.

So the broad project contained here is really based on the experiences I had running those projects. I was really very keen when I did those projects that they would be taken up by other community groups around the country, and that was one of the key political motivators for me: to produce a model that other community groups could take up, and thereby deliver a national scale project that wasn’t centrally driven by government, but that was grassroots and decentralised. It always disappointed me that this model wasn’t taken up and applied and developed at community levels, and that the innovative, cost-effective, and bottom up nature of the projects developed were not realised by others.

So that’s the introduction finished with, which I hope was useful in putting this project into perspective. With that done, let me get on with outlining the project idea itself.

The Broad Vision

Social conformity is the biggest barrier to social change, as social conformity is what legitimises people’s every day actions. It was social conformity as a result of nationwide publicity and the threat of a virus that caused people to stay in their homes during the Covid lockdown, not fear of the government or the police. During that period levels of car traffic dropped to their lowest since the 1950s. That is the power of social conformity. We don’t have anything like that sort of social consensus and need for action around the threats posed by air pollution, climate change or ecological extinction. Yet as I explained in the Cars and Covid section of this site, deaths attributable to cars and pollution from cars are in the same ball park as deaths from Covid, yet single occupancy car driving is still routinely legitimised by the social body.

So the vision here is to place a wedge in the way that current travel options are legitimised within the social body, by not only marketing the detrimental social and environmental effects, but also by pointing out the sustainable options that are available and to make those options more appealing.

So the idea is for the local car-free-cities campaigner to take a direct role in influencing policy and inspiring new ideas and visions, and also to market sustainable transport to the public by presenting those options as far more exciting and interesting than the existing unsustainable options by coupling them with an artistically driven vision of a sustainable future for their city or town. The aim here really is to help create a definite civic movement within the city, one aimed at putting sustainable transport on the agenda and in peoples daily conversations. Every city needs a car-free-cities campaigner, and that is the broad vision that guides this project.

The Broad Aims

With that broader vision in mind, the aims are simply to change peoples habits and attitudes around travel, so that they utilise more sustainable and life affirming travel options, making their city a more pleasant place to live, reducing GHG emissions, creating more vibrant and interesting neighbourhoods, and benefiting people’s health, wellbeing and creativity. It’s also to create that civic movement, so that within the professional, political, bureaucratic and civic life of the city, where key policy decisions are made, the issue of sustainable transport is revitalised and on everyone’s mind, along with the key vision that we are in the midst of a transition to a sustainable future.

The Project Outline

The idea is to develop a core project idea promoting sustainable travel and then to roll this out through all the different neighbourhoods of the city, with a focus on the urban areas where the biggest gains can be made (rural areas generally have fewer transport options). So the project is rolled out over, say, a three or five year period, eventually covering all of the main urban areas of the city. In each area the materials are individualised to that area, for example with the bus and train maps and individualised timetables for that area (see e.g. here for an example a community group developed), and with events focused in that area.

A key part of the project will be creating the vision for the sustainable city of the future that will draw people in, and that will act as the motivator in driving everyone involved in the project to reach further and further with their ambitions. This is likely to be an image or series of images of the city as it might look in the future, if the transition to a more just and sustainable world has occurred. Allowing people to view and absorb such visionary imagery can have a powerful effect upon them, and is critical to the project’s success.

In addition to this, more local imagery can be produced specific to the neighbourhoods of the city, and that showcase the local area as a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN). National charity Possible have done some great work in this area (see here), though I believe that this can be much improved upon by local campaigners and rolled out at a far lower cost.

As part of the creation of the vision for a sustainable city of the future, local advertising campaigns should be developed. The use of billboards in particular, or fly posting and stickering, should all be encouraged. Even subvertising. The advantage of a local campaigner is that they do not have to conform to the rules, but are free to be creative, provided their methods are not anti-social or detrimental to the community. One of the main critiques of NGOs after all is their lack of any radical critique or edge, and the degree to which their projects and narratives conform to the status quo due to their need to maintain their funding from within the system itself. This seriously limits their effectiveness at creating real grassroots change, and is one of the main reasons why freelance local grassroots campaigners beholden to no authority are essential.

The local advertising campaign can be extended to include other forms of marketing. For example, highlighting the effects of air pollution, or traffic deaths, or the contribution to climate change, or the Covid campaigns that I outline in the Cars & Covid section of this website.

Another key part of the project will be in marketing the sustainable transport options to residents in each neighbourhood. This can be done, for example, by producing a project brochure (see, e.g. Staveley Green Travel Initiative for an example) which is delivered to all the homes in the target area. This can be done by a team of volunteers (ideally), or by a team of paid workers, or a commercial mail operator. The brochure contains details of what the project is about, is attractive and personalised to that area with e.g. local pictures, a listing of the events and what to expect, and so on. Ideally, prior to this launch, the car-free-cities campaigner will have also got in touch with local community organisations to get them on board, so that there is already some awareness by community organisers that a key project is about to launch.

The next stage is targeted marketing of the sustainable transport materials that have been collected. For example, the delivery of a request card to every home which has a tick box list on the back of materials they can order for free, so they can select what they want and then post the card in a post box for free (see eg here for an extensive example, or here for a more simple example, although in this case it was for a home energy awareness campaign rather than sustainable transport). We then post them the materials that they have asked for, which we have already collected and/or designed and printed ourselves. The selection of these materials and their design is a key element of the project. Examples would be cycle/bus maps, an active travel brochure, local bus and train timetables, local walking routes, and so on. This works best when there is something new being offered – a new timetable, a new map, or new services such as a car club or free cycle maintenance sessions – and is less effective if the same old materials are been collected and offered.

It is also essential to work with any schools that are in the neighbourhood, and this is quite an involved part of the project so almost needs to be treated as a separate strand, although at the same time it needs to operate hand in hand with the main project roll out. Its good not just for getting the kids enthusiastic, but also in getting the parents on board. This has a lot of potential, and project ideas include: bicycle powered smoothie breakfast mornings, cycle maintenance events, free bicycle reflectors and bicycle stickers, organising a ‘bike week’ where the kids who cycle everyday get prizes, mini school cycling festivals, and so on.

Lastly there is the organisation of community wide events for the duration of the project in that particular neighbourhood, as well as periodic city-wide events to keep the buzz and vibe going. Community wide events could include things like an efficient driving simulator, free bicycle maintenance sessions, participation in existing community events with stalls, bicycle powered activities such as smoothies or film showings, etc.

The Project Plans

So the key elements of the project that need their own project plans would be:

  • A big cycling festival to launch the roll out of the project over the next three years, along with attendant publicity and the involvement of as many community groups, organisations and statutory bodies as possible. This is also great for getting a good group of volunteers who can then participate in helping the roll out of the project over the next few years. In short, some kind of community group to form to promote sustainable travel with a focus on the project initially.
  • Workplace Challenge events and critical mass bike rides throughout the project duration for periodic publicity and creating more of a cycling vibe across the city.
  • Begin the roll out neighbourhood by neighbourhood over several years of the travel marketing and events, beginning with a project brochure delivery. This needs to be led by a paid project organiser and a small team of committed volunteers if possible (I think the project officer will need support, at least at the planning level).
  • Develop plans to work with primary schools and maybe secondary schools in line with the project roll out (this may need a separate project officer).
  • Ensure a well organised publicity plan and constant press releases throughout the project in order to raise the level of ‘sustainable travel vibe’ in the city over several years. Generating a city-wide level of awareness is really essential in trying to shift the level of social conformity as people need to be feeling that this is really important, and happening city wide, so that the sense of a non-coercive social shift is created. This will work mainly for those who are already interested to some degree, and to those on the periphery who have been thinking about it. That is the key audience. Again, this may well need a separate organiser if the project is to be really effective.

The Specific Project Planning Areas

I’m organising the project this way so that any community organisers reading this can see how the project needs to be organised in terms of staff/volunteer resources, time, and planning. Each can be planned separately and budgeted, and then all the strands can be brought together or they can be organised separately as independent projects.

Travel Marketing

The neighbourhood by neighbourhood roll out of the project, which has three components:

  • The first component is the marketing of tailor made materials to all residents. These need to be project branded, localised and specific to the area, and be something new and novel, not just existing material. So this is where the new cycle map of green projects in the city could be inserted. This is where better cycle/walking/bus maps could be developed. This is where individualised timetables can be developed. This is where an active travel pamphlet could be developed, and so on.
  • The second component is the development of local events tailored to each neighbourhood while the marketing is going on. If you look at the Staveley brochure that was sent out to local residents at the beginning of the project there is an extensive list of planned monthly events over a three or six month period. There are lots of possible ideas, but one of the essential ones was multiple free bicycle maintenance sessions where people can bring their bikes to be fixed. These were always very popular and greatly appreciated, and created big community capital for the project. A bicycle powered cinema (doesn’t cost that much to make, especially if you get the monthly repair cafe team to help, they could do it no problem) showing bicycle films like the Critical Mass documentary that inspired the world wide protest movement, or the World Naked Bike Ride documentary, or many others which are fun, interesting, and suitable for varied audiences.
  • The third component is the engagement of the primary schools with a specially designed project. This really relies on finding a supportive teacher(s), and so often requires some initial groundwork, such as developing some kind of relationship with the school. It will also require the development of bicycle specific equipment, such as a bicycle powered smoothie maker (really popular, great buzz and publicity, and again, the repair cafe team could be drafted in to make one, they are not hard to make), and need to be tied in to the travel marketing if that is happening as well. If a cycling festival went ahead, then this could be used as a template to run smaller events in the local primary schools and/or secondary schools over the next few years. I have to say, organising cycling festivals for primary schools was really rewarding, so many kids and parents got involved, and it was great to see so many happy faces. It’s another thing that develops real community capital and involvement. Other ideas include the bike week that I mentioned before, and that was really popular with the kids. I can recall one teacher telling me that she had never seen so many bikes at the school, and was amazed.

I made the focus on primary schools and not secondary schools, as the latter are much more problematic to work with. Unless you have staff experienced with dealing with groups of teenagers, especially in a troubled areas, I would avoid it, as you do need experienced staff for this, and I say that as an ex-secondary school teacher of 7 years. Primary school kids, on the other hand, are a different matter.

City Wide Marketing

This is essential to create that civic buzz and the sense of a change, that something is happening around transport. This needs to be on and off throughout the project, but the most important factor is that an impressive launch event is essential, and for me that must be a community driven cycling festival. The planning for this could be the sole focus for Year 1, in order to develop a larger volunteer base for the project, in order to cement ties with cycling groups and other transport organisations, and in order to really excite a section of the population.

Another thing that helps create publicity and that civic buzz is a Workplace Challenge competition. The competition has three sections, one each for the big, medium, and small employers in the area. For a specific period, say a fortnight or three months, the workers in the organisation log their cycling miles and this is sent weekly to the Workplace Challenge HQ where they are input into a Workplace Challenge website where there is a league table of employers which is updated each week. So people can see whose employees are cycling the most and who the worst. It’s a fun thing, nobody takes it too seriously, but at the same time it really helps to engage employers and workers at all levels, creates lots of opportunities for press releases and media stunts, and generates a civic buzz around the project and higher awareness of sustainable transport. After the end of the allotted period prizes are awarded by a notable local dignitary.

Other ideas include mass cycling events like critical mass, large banners to be hung across shopping streets, large and small posters for supportive shops and business who want to help promote the project, eye catching all-pink bicycles with signs attached promoting the project being parked around the city, and so on. Good creative energy and ideas needed!

The Project Website

Obviously, this is a key element of the project that will need its own focus. The design is key – and I would like to recommend something like what I did with the Staveley project (see e.g. this brochure), which is something I got from the sustainable travel towns. Its really effective design and conveys the right message and sense about the project. The website is where the Workplace Challenge can be hosted, the cycling festival, the travel marketing resources, and where people can request resources to be posted to them, and so on.

A Car Club

Can you believe that in the early 21st century, with all the climate and ecological nightmare unfolding, that car clubs are still not the norm? Its crazy! An electrical vehicle (EV) car club would really be a big win for a project, so I would consider this a really important component. But it has two sections. The first is establishing community car clubs, and the second is establishing an EV car club in liason with the local authority and other large public bodies.

Co Wheels are a community interest company (non commercial) who I worked with for a couple of years during the Staveley and Kendal projects to set up a community car club. We managed to get one going in Staveley using a leased car from one of the resident’s of the village and with Co-Wheels organising the insurance, booking, maintenance, finances etc, so that all we had to do was find the car, get the community to use it, and have someone inspect it once a week to ensure it was clean. The car we used was a small people carrier type vehicle with the back being used like a van, as that was what the project had identified as a need within the village.

The second component is more of a flagship car club, with an electric car. Replacing conventional cars with electric vehicles is not a sensible response to climate change, but an electric car club is. Every car club car removes on average around 20 cars from the road, and an electric vehicle has much more appeal. I noted on the co-Wheels website that they recently launched an EV car club in partnership with Lancaster City Council. Alternatively, it could be done with a commercial operator.

In short, I think a car club project is needed, at least to approach Co-Wheels and scout out the potential, and also to sense out other operators and organisations, councils, businesses etc that may be interested too.

Budget & Staffing Options

In all of this I am thinking of a very bare bones project to keep the costs as low as possible.

The full project as laid out would probably cost £120,000 with a target population of, say, 200,000 people. So that’s about 75p per person. But this can be scaled down, and is essential to slim down, as the likelihood of funding for this type of project on this scale I think is slim. You could just focus on the travel marketing, for example. A project officer, some new resources designed, a mail operator to do the mailing, a website, and that’s it. Maybe a budget then of only £20,000 – £30,000. You can focus on the health benefits (active travel) as well as the environmental benefits to increase funding streams.

The other option is to start with a cycling festival, with a budget of, say, £20,000 – £30,000. You could do a lot with that, plus it establishes your initiative in the community, brings together a wide variety of groups, helps to form a more cohesive network, can draft in lots of volunteers for ‘active travel’ projects, and so on. This then puts your initiative in a better position to convince funders about a larger project focused on sustainable transport, and it allows us to try out a few things during the build up to and at the festival.

Other options include just focusing on the city wide marketing, though I think you might struggle to find charitable funding, but maybe not. If you focus on the air pollution factor, and the other health benefits, in partnership with a statutory health body, then you can potentially draw in a pot of public money, and run a transport project focused on the city centre, mainly marketing, but also with some centrally placed events.

You could also just focus on the primary school side of the project, and do a cycling promotion project with all the primary schools, one at a time. That would be a cool project, and is a realistic option.

The car club I think could be taken forward without funding, it only takes a few emails to assess the possibilities, and then take it from there. I think if you get core funding then this could be part of that, as I doubt a founder would specifically back this kind of project, unless it was to establish one in a rural area where the transport options are limited and there is a need.

So there are lots of ways this kind of project could be organised, by combining or dropping out various elements, and by scaling up or down. I think the cycling festival, the basic travel marketing plan without events or volunteers, and the primary school cycling promotions would be the ‘bare bones’ things to focus on. These keep the project simple and cost effective, the budget not too high, the paid staff limited to one part time organiser, and yet still be a really effective and fun project. The basic travel marketing could be initially limited to one specific place, like a village or urban area, and similarly with the primary school, and then on the basis of that further funding sought. But if you started out with just those three things in mind over the whole of an urban area of several hundred thousand people, or a significant portion (say, 25%), then I think a skeleton budget of £50,000 is do-able.

The End

That’s the end. Hope it’s all been useful. Obviously there’s a lot more planning work to be done if you wanted to take anything forward, but hopefully this is enough to stimulate ideas and enable you to vision the possibilities.