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Why This Rwandan City Bans Cars Once a Month

Kigali’s #CarFreeDay is a first for Africa

A street scene in Kigali. The city's population is expected to nearly triple by 2020. (Adam Cohn (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

In the streets of Kigali, Rwanda's capital city, pedestrians and vehicles mix. And given that the city's population is expected to almost triple by 2020, traffic and pollution increases show no signs of slowing down. But if you looked around the streets last Sunday, writes Quartz’s Lily Kuo, you may have thought that the city didn’t have any cars at all. That’s because Kigali banned cars for five hours in an ongoing effort to reduce traffic and improve its residents’ health.

The city’s monthly #CarFreeDay is a first in Africa, reports Nairobi News. And Sunday’s blip in traffic was the third time the city has banned cars on major streets—part of a bigger bid to clean up Kigali, Kuo writes. On Car Free Day, closed-down streets were used for things like fitness classes and free eye exams instead, and cyclists and runners could be spotted enjoying the newly empty streets.

Carless days and car-free areas have been growing in popularity in places like Paris, which cut smog by 40 percent with a single car-free day, and London, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 40 percent by charging nearly $20 for downtown travel during peak hours. As cities in the developing world surge in size, mixed-use design and public campaigns that put pedestrians front and center are becoming priorities for city planners.

In Kigali, at least, car-free days are part of a bigger initiative to clean up city streets. For years, Rwandans have been required by law to participate in umunsi w’umuganda, or mandatory community service days, on the last Saturday of the month. The practice dates from colonial times and puts local residents to work tidying up their streets and building community ties. But there’s a dark side to Kigali’s ambitious goal to be Africa’s cleanest, most sustainable city. As Sibusiso Tshabalala reports for Quartz: Rwandan police will round up and detain people like "street vendors, prostitutes, petty criminals, beggars and street people," under the guise of keeping the streets “clean.”

For now, Kigali residents can expect to see more car-free days, with different major routes closed to traffic each month. Perhaps it will help ease the city’s transition from relatively small city to booming metropolis. After all, the idea of traffic jams is actually a relatively new one in the city. As the Rwanda New Times’ Allan Brian Ssenyonga wrote in a tongue-in-cheek commentary 2012, Kigali’s new rush hour, while tiny by the standards of African megacities like Nairobi, is still new enough that residents need to be schooled on how not to melt down while driving through the sanitized city streets.

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