Getting active for a cause

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Marissa Oteiza is organizing World Car-Free Day in Hay River, and she also plans to participate on her bike.

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
Marissa Oteiza is organizing World Car-Free Day in Hay River, and she also plans to participate on her bike.

Ecology North is encouraging people in Hay River to leave their cars at home for just one day, and bike, walk or carpool to work.

That one day is Sept. 22 – World Car-Free Day.

The idea – which has been around for over 20 years – has ecological and financial benefits but it is also a way to get active.

“I’ve found that even if you’re biking a short distance, it’s still really good exercise,” said Marissa Oteiza, who is the manager of the Ecology North office in Hay River and the organizer of the community’s Car-Free Day. “It’s a great workout and you notice a difference. Like people say, sitting is the smoking of our generation.”

Oteiza said that with Netflix, video games and desk jobs, not a lot of people are physically active during the day.

“So whether it’s going for a bike ride at lunchtime, biking to work or going for a swim during the day, it helps you get more active and get your daily physical activity,” she said.

Of course, there is more to World Car-Free Day than a chance to get some exercise.

It’s also a chance for people to reduce their carbon footprint by getting outside and getting active.

Oteiza organized a Car-Free Day last year in Hay River with minimal success but she is giving it another try.

“We tried to do it last year but it was not successful. People were kind of not wanting to leave their cars at home,” she said with a laugh. “There were three people that participated last year.”

That number included Oteiza herself on her bike.

This year she is trying some new tactics, including starting earlier to promote the event – including at Make the Connection Night on Sept. 7 – and trying to get more coverage.

Plus, this year Ecology North is partnering with the recreation department of the Town of Hay River.

“I’m hoping that will help a little bit to get more people interested in participating, and we’re doing draw prizes,” said Oteiza.

She described last year as a learning experience.

“I wanted to see what the response would be,” she said, noting it is just one day out of a person’s life.

Oteiza said she received a lot of mixed reviews on Facebook last year.

“People were saying you should have it earlier in the year, which you can’t really do because it’s a world event. It’s the same date for everywhere,” she said, although she speculated that a community could have two car-free days, one in the spring and one in the fall.

“And I had a lot of people saying, ‘I can’t walk to work because I live so far away,'” she recalled. “And I realize the way Hay River is structured a lot of people are driving quite a distance to get to their jobs.”

So she took those lessons and incorporated them into the planning for this year’s Car-Free Day.

For one thing, she is encouraging people who can’t bike to work or school to consider carpooling with co-workers or friends.

“So I’m just trying to encourage people that not every person needs to get into a vehicle and use all these vehicles,” she said, explaining that will help to decrease carbon footprints. “Because if each person is driving their own vehicle around town all day, you have all these emissions, you have all this gas being used. So it makes a lower carbon footprint even just that one day of people not using their personal vehicles.”

While she is working on World Car-Free Day in Hay River, Oteiza said it is a significant event in Europe and has even caught on in Yellowknife over the past couple of years.

The City of Yellowknife offers free transit on that day, and people are encouraged to bike, walk, rollerblade or skate to work or school.

There’s even a corporate challenge in Yellowknife involving businesses signing up to be car-free.

Oteiza is optimistic for this year’s World Car-Free Day in Hay River.

“I think it’s going to go better this year,” she said. “I’ve had better responses this year, and more enthusiasm about it this year. I feel that people’s minds are shifting a little bit to be more open minded to biking as fun and biking as an alternative to driving.”

–Paul Bickford