In praise of Bolivia’s ‘Day of the Pedestrian’

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Bolivia’s president Evo Morales divides opinion. Since coming to power in 2005 in what some term the ‘second Bolivian revolution’, the country’s popular leader has established himself as just the sort of Latin American leftist that Washington loves to hate.

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Since the recent death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state has become the standard bearer for Latin American socialism. He’s nationalised the mineral transportation and telecommunications industries and, as a champion of coca leaf production, is at loggerheads with the USA’s ‘war on drugs’.

As is the case with many Latin American leftist politicians, Morales hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the populist caudillo. While he has made some improvements to health, education and infrastructure for the poor, there’s a long way to go. Moreover, he’s been accused of cronyism in the filling of state positions and in his closeness to the nation’s coca barons.

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El Dia del Peaton

But I’ve witnessed one policy of Evo’s at first hand and it’s really impressed me. It’s the ‘Day of the Pedestrian’ (Dia del Peaton). Five years ago, Morales decided that the entire country would be traffic free for one day a year. For the good of public health and for social cohesion. The first Sunday of September is now enshrined as that day.

The results are a joy to behold. The first thing you notice is the tranquillity: the absence of the rude, ubiquitous car horn. And with the removal of fumes, the air is actually breathable. The streets resemble an end-of-the-world movie: highways usually clogged with noisy traffic are completely car-free.

Car-free streets

Car-free streets

The most impressive thing, though, is the evidence of people coming together as families, individuals, community. There’s a carnival atmosphere as people reclaim the streets. Children play hoopla, skipping and hopscotch. And further down La Paz’s Avenue of the 16th of July there’s a big ‘zumba’ dance in progress.

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Then there are the spontaneous games of football. Few shops are open, but in those that are most of the staff have downed tools in favour of a big kick-about. There is music and street food in abundance and, in the bus central boulevards, the entire affair is subject to low-key marshalling by city officials dressed in zebra costumes.

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Of course, Dia Del Peaton is not popular with all. Hotel receptionist Silvia moans about the time it will take her to walk home this evening. But overall, the ‘Day of the Pedestrian’ is a reminder of the beauty of life without the motorcar. It seems to me that this scheme of Evo’s is a definite success.

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