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Car owners test a day without wheels

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All across europe this Friday, life in more than 700 cities and towns will proceed at a slower, quieter pace than usual. Instead of grabbing their car keys and driving, many residents will put on walking shoes, dust off bicycles, or take public transportation.

The occasion is an international Car-Free Day. Promoted by environmentalists and local authorities, the event will offer a reminder of what cities can be like without belching fumes, honking horns, and traffic jams. It also serves as a way to highlight other forms of transportation and increase environmental awareness. One scientist has suggested that unleaded gasoline might be partly responsible for the steep decline in songbirds in recent years.

Beyond Europe, even Bangkok, one of the most congested cities anywhere, is participating in Friday's car-free day. Last February, Bogota, Colombia, celebrated a no-car day. And last winter Italy began designating one Sunday a month as car-free in major cities.

Planning for the international car-free day on Sept. 22 long predated the protests against high fuel prices waged by farmers and truckers in France and Britain this month. But those blockades play neatly into the hands of organizers of Friday's event, showing the world's dependence on cars.

News photos of Europeans going nowhere because of empty pumps and barricaded roads combine with this week's no-car observance to make an American ask: How would I manage on a car-free day? For most of us, the answer would be: not very well. Just ask residents of Los Angeles who are struggling to get around this week in the midst of a transit strike.

A single car-free day can be a lark, an adventure, a conversation starter. ("How did you get to work?") But a second day, to say nothing of a week, a month, or a year - well, that's another, less appealing proposition.

Getting to work might be the easy part for anyone with access to public transportation. But then there are all those other activities - errands, appointments, children's sports - that require families to zigzag through suburbs and cities, traversing individual routes where no public transportation runs.

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