Column: Bolivia proves possibilities for pedestrians

In the weeks leading up to Sunday, Sept. 2, I heard several mentions of some sort of national no-driving day. I didn’t take much notice.

In the weeks leading up to Sunday, Sept. 2, I heard several mentions of some sort of national no-driving day. I didn’t take much notice.

It has something to do with the environment, I was told by other backpackers and a couple of locals I met on my travels.

From my Canadian perspective, these green initiatives tend to be well-meaning events subscribed by enviro sympathizers who participate in symbolic acts, such as turning off their lights for an hour. The media dutifully reports on the action, but the vast majority of people pay little to no attention.

On Sept. 1, I got my first clue that things work differently in Bolivia.

I naïvely wandered into a travel agency in the historic district of the city of Sucre, and inquired about booking a tour the next day.

Not possible, the man informed me. No vehicles will be allowed on the road for 18 hours, starting at midnight. No exceptions for tour companies.

I blinked and sat dumbstruck for several moments as I tried to think through the implications of this prohibition to the tourist industry, to average citizens, to businesses and the workings of an entire nation, as transport grinds to a halt.

Then I thought about the implications for myself.

I admit, my first selfish thought was ‘What an inconvenience!’

When I emerged from my hotel room early the next morning, however, my first thought was ‘What a gift!’

The congested streets, typically filled with chaotic drivers and the sounds of angry horns, were completely silent and clear of all traffic. I could take a deep breath of fresh air for the first time since I arrived in the city.

I set out on what became an eight-hour wander through the neighbourhoods. As the day progressed, more and more people poured out of their homes. Bands of boys raced their bicycles down the city’s steep streets. Small groups of kids and families played road soccer. College students launched a badminton game in the major intersections surrounding the central plaza.

It was a glorious day. It also made me think about home.

Over dinner that night, I talked to some European travellers about the struggles in Victoria to implement a temporary road closure of our main historic street, during a major festival at the height of tourist season.

Businesses blocked the idea at first, I said. People in North America feel very strongly about the right to drive, I tried to explain, lacking any better explanation.

My companions couldn’t relate. They come from cities which boast entire no-car districts in their historic centres.

A national no-driving day didn’t seem outrageous to them, but I know it would never fly in Canada.

Business interests are much too important to shut down all traffic for a day – and rightly so. By comparison, Bolivia has a strong tradition of putting business interests behind other quality-of-life issues.

For instance, Día del peatón (day of the pedestrian) started 11 years ago in Cochabamba, a city made famous for kicking out a private water company that both invested heavily in building a dam, but also dramatically raised water rates for the people.

In June of this year, Bolivia nationalized the Colquiri mine, despite protests by mining company Glencore, which operated the mine previously.

Depending on your world view, Bolivia’s government could be seen as a brave defender of human rights, or naïve about the importance of foreign investment to the economy.

I’m not suggesting we follow Bolivia’s lead, but maybe take a bit of inspiration from its fearless stance. Imagine, for instance, a summer-long closure of Government Street and the hoards of people who would inevitably flock there to enjoy the pedestrian-only space.

It doesn’t sound like such a bold move, once put in a global context.

Roszan Holmen is a reporter with the Victoria News.

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