February 06, 2024

How a Car-Free Day Helped Shekhou, China Reclaim its Roads

From Bogotá, Colombia to Jakarta, Indonesia, car-free and open streets events have been part of the fabric of cities for years, demonstrating to the public the potential of cities designed for people rather than vehicles.

In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, home to over 17 million, car-free events have been growing in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, in the Shekou port district of Shenzhen, a public movement to promote car-free days and programs is growing. While such open streets activities are not a new concept in China’s cities, they have traditionally been initiated by the government rather than the public. In Shekhou, a ground-up campaign for a local Car-Free Day in 2023 demonstrated the impact that communities themselves can have to effect change.

In many cities, stakeholders with different interests are often resistant to street closures; residents see them as a disruption to their daily living spaces, while business owners think this will interfere with their daily operations. Although local governments continue to show support for car-free events, opposition and concerns from the public must also be reconciled to ensure support. Recent successes by residents in Shekou to organize their Car-Free Day demonstrates that change is possible with the right amount of collaboration, outreach, and commitment.

The Shekou Car-Free Day attracted thousands of people in 2023.

The Power of Collaboration

In November of 2023, a two-way, four-lane road was temporarily closed and turned into a one-day paradise for residents of Shekou. People went on the road to play and host picnics, enjoying the road as a canvas for community and creativity. On this day, more than 2,000 people joined on the streets, which were filled with laughter and applause from residents instead of the sound of wheels and traffic. Many domestic and foreign organizations also participated in this event, which was widely highlighted in the local media. The success of Shekou’s event is the result of the efforts of committed organizers and the support they received from both the government and from area residents.

Over the summer of 2023, a Car-Free Day working group was launched with an event notice and an online voting process to involve residents in choosing the event’s venue. Shekou’s Gongyuan Road emerged as the winner with 36% of the public’s support, the most among the three options. Preparatory work commenced in early September, and the working group initiated communication with various stakeholders for input. 

First, the working group prioritized communication and engagement with residents by actively promoting potential activities that would encourage greater participation. While some residents expressed opposition to the road closures, viewing them as hindrances to daily travel, the working group conducted outreach to these groups to hear their concerns and outline the purpose behind Car-Free Day activities while highlighting the sustainability and health benefits.

The city supported the planning process by removing a central road partition in advance of the event.

Second, collaboration with the government was also a necessary hurdle to address. In China, streets often fall under the jurisdiction of multiple departments, each responsible for traffic, activities, and pavement facilities management. Securing support from these departments to close a main road for a ground-up event is no easy task. Through comprehensive field research and data collection, the working group actively advocated for the Car-Free Day to the government, ultimately obtaining support letters from three government departments and two schools. In a positive turn of events, the government temporarily removed the middle road fence in favor of the Car-Free Day. On the day itself, the government also assistance with traffic control and participated in programming, promoting traffic safety knowledge and policies to the community.

United for Sustainable Urban Development

To make Shekou’s Car-Free Day possible, a diverse array of 46 organizations, including universities, architectural firms, non-governmental organizations, bicycle companies, theater troupes, and industry associations, all worked together to bring it to life. Their various areas of focus encompassed sustainable transport, climate, water ecology, accessibility, and much more. This effort not only reflects the organizers’ vision and dedication to transforming street space, but also served as an important platform for other groups and individuals to share their work and express their desires for a more sustainable, accessible city. 

ITDP China played an active role in the success of event. During the organizing meetings, staff from ITDP shared thoughts, feedback, and experiences on working with car-free communities. Throughout the day, ITDP facilitated a children’s road painting activity, encouraging participants to use their imagination to reinvigorate and enliven the streetscape. Additionally, ITDP organized a “Wire Winding Workshop” where participants crafted intricate wire bicycles by hand to promote interest in urban cycling. At the workshop’s conclusion, the ITDP team urged participants to take action against vehicle congestion and pollution in favor of choosing more sustainable modes for their commutes.

Engagement activities for families and children helped promote road safety and active mobility in Shekhou.

MLA+ Architects and NESIA, firms that focus on urban design, water ecology ,and climate issues, also curated an “Ice Crosswalk” art installation. This crosswalk roadblock featured raised and thickened ice bricks, symbolically blocking motor vehicles. As the ice melted, it visually highlighted the global threat of melting sea ice and rising sea levels caused by climate change, cleverly linking the issue to urban mobility and transport. The installation not only drew attention to the need for pedestrian-friendly street designs, but also prompted people to rethink their car and fossil-fuel focused habits.

Encouraging Sustainable Living

The Shekou Car-Free Day event ultimately combined theory with both technical design and social practice. Urban planner Wu Wenyuan, one of the initiators of the working group, conceived the event from an urban planning perspective nearly eight years ago.

“As the density of buildings and traffic in the city increased, the connections between people were diminishing,” Wu said. “Through community events and activities, creating random connections and fostering high-density relationships among residents promotes self-growth and enhances community resilience.”

The “Ice Crosswalk” installation and other programming helped educate the public in creative and informative ways.

The Car-Free Day event not only allowed residents to experience the joy of reclaiming their streets, but also raised awareness of sustainable alternatives to private car travel, such as metros, buses, electric two-wheelers, bicycles, and walking. The purpose of Car-Free Day is not to force everyone to give up using private vehicles, but rather to guide people towards a rational use of limited transport resources, thereby achieving a safe and efficient balance within urban mobility systems. This approach, in the long-term, can shift people’s behaviors and reliance on private cars and, consequently, helps reduce related emissions.

The creative and organizing teams behind Shekou Car-Free Day is currently transitioning to a new generation of residents for their working group, including younger individuals who have recently moved to the area for work or to live. This new generation has taken up the torch from their predecessors, passing down a vision for sustainable neighborhood mobility that is built around walking, cycling, public transit, and community space.

Read about other local and national efforts to enhance active mobility in cities across China.


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