Mobility Car-Free Ideas Into Actions: 7 Steps to Advocate for Car-Lite Cities

Ideas Into Actions: 7 Steps to Advocate for Car-Lite Cities

Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

Ever had a desire to become an activist for reclaiming car space for people but don’t know where to begin? Ever looked to places with car-free centres like Amsterdam and Oslo and wondered how your city could do it too? This 7-step guide tells you everything you need to know about how you can advocate for your city’s car-lite future.

Advocating for people to use their private cars less in your city will be perhaps one of the most crucial parts in getting started in taking back your urban space from cars for people.

It can be a struggle to get support for car-lite measures – but as they say, if there’s a will, there certainly is a way. Big movements always start with small actions, and that’s why knowing how to advocate to get people to really stop and listen to your voice is so important.

So, if you wake up one day and decide that you’ve had enough of cars, how do you put your new-found desire to advocate into action? 

1. Know Your Stuff

If you really want to get serious about getting people to give up their cars, knowing your facts is crucial. You don’t have to memorise every number or become a policy expert overnight – but having an understanding of the topic in general will mean being able to share your ideas with others to get them on board. 

You’ll also be able to have discussions with others who perhaps don’t share the same views as you to convince them that what you’re fighting for is important. To help you do this, take a look at our guides on what the challenge and key facts and figures are when it comes to reducing cars in cities.

2. Decide What You Want to Change

Once you expand your knowledge on cars and why they are a problem for cities, you should try to focus on setting out your objectives, and what it is you actually want to advocate for.

This will probably depend on the unique needs of your city and whether or not you want to see temporary or permanent car-lite measures. Knowing what you want to achieve at the very beginning will help you when it comes to identifying stakeholders and which interested parties you will need to consult with.

Short term / temporary: a short-term car-lite campaign may focus on trying to organise a car-free zone pop-up trial, transforming unused car-parking spaces into makeshift ‘parklets’, or hosting a car-free event for the day. See our guide on How to Create a Pop-up Car Free Zone in your City for more detailed information on how to do this.

Long term / permanent: a long-term car-lite campaign may focus more on trying to bring about permanent changes to mobility policies, laws and regulations and may include things like parking charges, vehicle taxes, creating a Low Traffic Neighbourhood or pedestrianising a street.

Perhaps your initial goals are temporary, but over time you hope to achieve long term improvements. By making an advocacy plan for what you want your first few accomplishments to be, you will be able to celebrate your small gains, feel more motivated and have a better idea of what you want to work towards in the long run. 

3. Check Your Privilege

Something to keep in mind when advocating for car-lite cities is that whatever you are trying to achieve is something that is going to benefit everyone in your community. 

This means that it’s essential to always consider those who may have different needs to your own, especially those that may rely entirely on private transportation – such as disabled or elderly persons.

We spoke to CityChanger and activist Katja Diehl, who emphasises that the car-lite movement is about justice more than anything:

“We must involve marginalised groups; women, children, those of different ethnicities, disabled persons and the elderly. Their perspectives are the ones that always have to be considered.”

4. Identify Stakeholders

For advocacy to be effective – you need to identify and make a list of all interested parties. This includes those who are likely to be allies to your campaign, facilitators who may be able to help you achieve your goals, as well as those who may be opposed to car-lite measures. 

This will allow you to decide the best way to target particular groups and tailor your campaign to get them on board.

Potential stakeholders for car-lite measures may include, but are not limited to:

  • Community residents
  • Local politicians and council representatives
  • Local, city, municipal and national government
  • Tourism board
  • Schools
  • Transport companies
  • Elderly and disabled persons
  • Property owners
  • Commuters
  • Car-only users
  • Emergency services
  • Postal services
  • Delivery drivers
  • Business owners

You should aim to make a detailed plan/strategy of all stakeholder interests and their potential impact on your advocacy. Try to think about which questions they might ask and which ones you should prepare answers for: for example, what are their expectations, what benefits will they get, and what are their conflicts of interest with my advocacy goals?

5. Mobilise Stakeholders and Build Support

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, try and figure out how to mobilise them by defining at which different stages of your campaign each group should be involved and to which extent each stakeholder should be involved.

Create Facebook groups or face-to-face meetups with local residents, for example, to generate ideas about how to make your city car-lite, build support for your campaign and generate public rapport.

Hold conferences, exchange emails and phone calls with politicians and other interested groups to introduce them to your campaign, its objectives, consider their opinions and concerns and crucially; gain their commitment.

6. Emphasise the Positives

When it comes to car-lite advocacy, one of the most important things that we have gathered from experts from cities around the world that are already car-lite is that language and what you showcase to the public is important. 

Here are some of the things they had to say:

No ‘car-free’ label: When we spoke to Ellen de Vibe, chief town planner in Oslo from 1998-2019, who’s city centre is now almost entirely pedestrianised, she said that when campaigning for reducing cars the ‘car-free’ label should be avoided. 

“Don’t call it car-free because it will never be car-free. People who need and rely on them will always have them. From a political rhetoric perspective, the concept is too strong and will make people afraid of change.”

Fiona Coull from Cross River Partnership – an NGO aiming to deliver the wider aims of the Streetspace London project for more active city travel – also flagged the sensitivity of the ‘car-free’ term: “We should be making walking and cycling a choice, not the only option. We need to be clear that it is not about banning cars, but about giving people alternatives.”

Benefits for all: Xosé Cesareo Mosquera, the councillor of spatial planning and mobility in Pontevedra, a small Spanish city that is almost entirely pedestrianised, said that in the campaign to reduce cars in city spaces the thing that helped to win stakeholder support the most was “verifying the benefits that the new measures would entail for commerce, life on the street, for children and the safety of the elderly.”

By focusing on the positives, for example, how people will benefit from less pollution, more space for families, that businesses actually do better when people are walking rather than driving by, etc. – it removes the focus from what people may be afraid of ‘losing’ if they give up their cars.

7. Get Vocal and Take Action

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to put your plan into action! Once you have your own vision, start to put together rallies, workshops, meetings and fundraisers to support the car-lite cause.

There is no limit to the actions you can take – and it will depend on the number of people you have involved in your movement, the types of organisations involved, the timing of your actions and all of these unique contexts. Get out there, get vocal, and you might be one step closer to a healthier and happier city by tomorrow.

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