Pollution Levels in Bolivia Plummet on Nationwide Car-Free Day

Yearly event offers opportunity to do environmental education, encourage physical activity

Air pollution levels have plunged in cities across Bolivia as the country marked a nationwide car-free day in which all non-emergency vehicles were banned from city streets.

As Bolivia’s middle-class population has increased over the past 10 years so has the number of cars clogging city streets. The car-free event started 18 years ago in Cochabamba, one of Latin America’s five most polluted cities, and has gradually taken root across the country. By 2011, it had become so popular that Bolivia’s legislature declared a yearly “Day of the Pedestrian and Cyclist in Defence of Mother Earth.”

photo of zebra in boliviaPhoto by Flickr Micaelegaymer In Bolivia, young people dressed as zebras help direct traffic. Every year, Bolivia has a car-free day to celebrate pedestrians and cyclists and honor the earth.

“Air pollution drops by 60 to 70 percent because 70 percent of our air contaminants come from vehicles,” said Soledad Delgadillo of Cochabamba’s municipal government. “The difference in air quality is noticeable. It [pollution] drops to almost zero when normally it can rise as high as 100 parts per cubic meter,” said Jorge Martin Villarroel, director of the environmental charity PAAC.

Cochabamba now has three pedestrian days a year, including the national day, while Bolivia’s highland city of Potosí recently set up four.

In Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, the 2017 pedestrian day was also used to promote participation in sports. “We have so many blockades and demonstrations, we want to encourage a positive citizen takeover of the streets,” said Jessica Nieto from the city’s government.

“Pedestrian day complements the zebras who defend walkers’ rights,” she said. The zebras are young people named after pedestrian crossings who are hired to dress as the animals and calm traffic in the free-for-all that is La Paz.

As 70 percent of Bolivia’s urban workforce are employed informally, vendors of every kind flood the streets in cities nationwide on pedestrian day. “Our biggest problem is the spike in consumption of drinks and food packaged in plastic bags and disposable containers,” Delgadillo said.

Families love it. Jesus Romero, who lives on the northern edge of Cochabamba, said: “We really enjoy that it is so quiet and peaceful without any cars around, and that’s there’s space in the streets for the kids to play.”

Deyanira López, 14, highlighted another benefit. “Our city is very beautiful but you just don’t see it because of all the cars,” she said.

“It gives us a great opportunity to do environmental education about climate change and protecting the environment, as people enjoy it so very much,” Delgadillo said.

Last Friday Cochabamba inaugurated its second bike- and pedestrian-only path. “Our plans for the future include turning part of the downtown into a pedestrian-only area, and hopefully acquiring a citywide public bike system like other cities have,” said Villarroel.

Increasing bicycle use is a priority. “We worked with the municipality to get a law passed promoting bicycles, pulling together over 1,000 signatures in support it,” said Villarroel. “We have managed to unite people who ride bikes into quite a lobby to pressure the city and get bike lanes and routes set up.”

“I’ve been riding a bike for 30 years but I can’t do it any more because it’s just gotten too dangerous,” said Jesus Romero. “Today we get a rest from the car contamination, which is so toxic for all of us.”

Andres Clares, 16, agreed, saying: “I really like walking at least one day without cars. It’s quieter and the air is so much fresher.” In a typically noisy city, the sudden silence is striking.

This year the event’s catchphrase is “leave your green footprint in Cochabamba.” Six eco-stations are focused on different themes in coordination with local businesses and charities. “These educate about the air, animals, water, recycling, protected areas and trees,” said Gaviota Borda, head of the municipal department of environmental protection.

The sports focus in La Paz is inspired by the worldwide challenge day, which began in Saskatoon, Canada, in 1983 after a particularly brutal winter, when the mayor challenged residents to do 15 minutes of exercise together on the last Wednesday in May. Over 50 other communities accepted the challenge — and more than 650,000 people took part. By May 2017, world challenge day had grown to more than 50 million participants in over 20 countries.

“We want to reclaim physical activity in an age when young people are so focused on computers and technological entertainment,” said Nieto. In April this year, La Paz adopted a second annual car-free day. “Pedestrian day is intimately connected with expanding citizens’ rights.”

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