Who doesn’t love Paris, the city of fine arts and fine cuisine? Here at Groundswell, we got pretty excited about the Eiffel Tower’s green makeover, France’s steps in preventing food waste, and its stance against planned obsolescence. This September 27, the beloved city of lights is doing another thing right, at least, between the hours of 11am and 6pm.

Say a hearty bonjour to Paris’ first-ever La Journee Sans Voiture. Just a few months ahead of the 21st session of Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11), which Paris will host, the whole city is going (almost) car-free for (almost) a day, for the first time ever. And who knows? According to Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo, they’re hoping it’ll become an annual tradition.

Well, D.C. area residents, did you know that we have a car-free day too?

This year, Car Free Day in Metro D.C. will fall on September 22Car Free Day is a worldwide event spanning 1500 cities in 40 different countries, with the goal of promoting a healthier, environmentally-responsible lifestyle. Take the pledge, eschew those gas guzzlers for a day, and you could even win prizes: we’re talking loaded SmartTrip cards, bike shop gift certificates, tickets to Six Flags. Incidentally, it falls during Pope Francis’ visit and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s Try Transit Week (September 21-25). 

This all seems really nice, but I’m going to be honest: public transportation in the D.C. metropolitan area leaves me a little skeptical. What does it really mean and who can really afford to participate?

This summer, I was a hardcore commuter: to get to my part-time job and summer internship, I traveled in to D.C. via car, shuttle, feet, and metro, from as far away as Centreville and Fairfax and as close as NOMA (where, for a brief, blissful time, I was so very close to the city’s red line). It wasn’t easy on my sleep schedule, and it certainly wasn’t easy on my wallet.

Take for example how much it cost me to get to my job in Chevy Chase, D.C. from Fairfax, Virginia: just shy of $20 a day—metro parking ($4.75 per day), gas (around $3.32 to get to the metro and back, in my beat-up old sedan), and metro ticket ($11.80, round trip, during peak hours) included. I drove to the metro because it shaved 20 minutes off a 2-hour commute, and that’s on a good day.

My point is this: the metro is expensive and gas is cheap. I wanted to use my car less, but I soon started driving to work, because it was cheaper and faster. For a recent graduate working a slightly-above-minimum-wage job, a round trip worth $6.50 in gas and 55-minutes on the highway in the comfort of your own vehicle was simply too convenient to pass up. If I still lived in Fairfax, I might take the Pledge to go car-free this September 22, but I could only do it for that day. While I admire the intention of Car Free Day, for some people, that lifestyle is not always realistic or sustainable.

According to the Washingtonianprices for one-bedroom apartments in D.C. almost double, the closer the apartment is to a metro station. Maybe that’s why when MIT’s You Are Here project recently mapped out average incomes within a half mile radius of the Washington, D.C. metro lines, it found that the highest median wage was on the orange line at $97,236. After my sublet in Northeast D.C. was up, I moved to Alexandria: a longer commute in exchange for lower rent and easier access to the metro.

I know I’m not alone. 70% of people who work in Washington, D.C. commute in from outside the county. As a result, D.C. is the second busiest mass transit network in the US. According to Matt George, founder of Bridj, a ridesharing app, “only 37 percent of jobs are accessible to the average Washingtonian via 90 minutes on public transit.”

And if your alternative to cars this Car Free Day is walking or biking, it means you live close enough that you can do so, which seems to hinge on other social and financial variables. A study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governmentsshowed some interesting correlations between a person’s race, wealth, and the likelihood that he or she would opt for #teambike and #teamwalk. I’ve traveled to around thirty different countries, and I can’t help thinking that we can do better.

Aside from the Washington, D.C. metro’s other limitations (hours and service areas, for starters), consider Price of Travel‘s comparison of 80 different cities’ public transportation costs in 2010. While D.C.’s metro might not be the most expensive in the world at $1.60 – $5.00, it’s still more expensive than notoriously more efficient transit systems, such as in Seoul ($0.89 – $1.77), Madrid ($1.37), and Paris ($2.33.) In contrast, gasoline is a fraction of the price of what most European countries pay for the same.

Now in Alexandria, I’m lucky enough to live close to a metro station and bus stop, but even though I’m closer than I was in Fairfax, it still is significantly cheaper and faster for me to commute by car than by any other form of transportation. I’m neither economist nor city planner, but making public transportation accessible—financially and physically—should be a top priority if we’re to make Car Free Day more than a gesture: one day when we might use a little less gas and burn a few more calories.

I’ll still take the Pledge this year (#car-lite #teamrail), and it’s not just because I want a free t-shirt. Even with Frederick County TransIT offering free shuttles and connector buses that day, it’s still no solution. However, it has helped me consider possibilities besides the bus and metro (which, I’m sorry, I’ll stop railing about, no pun intended). Although I can’t be #teamtelework, I’m excited to try slugging, bikesharing, carpooling, or, with apps like CarFreeAtoZ, maybe a combination of all three.

Any real change begins with an act of imagination, and Car Free Day gives us the excuse to do just that.


Ah-reum Han was born in South Korea, but bred on the sandy savannas of West Africa. She’s been to five different continents, but learned to keep her feet still long enough to get her B.A. in Creative Writing and Cross-cultural Sociology from Carson-Newman University and her M.F.A. in fiction from George Mason University.