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Car Trouble?

World of fewer vehicles is possible

December 30, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


People have an innate urge to increase their personal mobility, which cannot be deterred no matter how alarming statistics about traffic fatalities, oil depletion, or global warming look. Or can it?

I am sitting in the back of a motionless taxi on the way from New York’s JFK airport to a meeting in the city about, of all things, traffic and cars. I feel guilty about hailing a cab to research an article on innovative ideas in transportation, especially when I know that a new train connection from the airport recently opened.

I don’t want to be late. Yet here I am stuck in traffic and it isn’t even rush hour.

The driver, recently arrived from India, knows a few tricks. He edges the cab toward an exit ramp and then barrels along city streets before heading back onto a slightly less congested stretch of the expressway. The radio is tuned to traffic reports — pile-ups, closed lanes, construction delays, and inexplicable slowdowns.  “It’s one big parking lot out there,” the announcer says.

“How’s that new Air Train to the airport?” I casually ask the driver.

“People don’t want to take trains,” he replies in a voice that clearly indicates this portion of our conversation is over.  Sixty minutes and $45 later, I arrive 38 minutes late at the offices of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a non-profit devoted to encouraging alternatives to cars in third-world countries. 

Car Inundation
On days like this it’s hard to believe there could be any more cars in the world. Yet if economic forecasts are to be believed, auto use will rise dramatically in coming years as emerging middle-class households in China, India, and even Africa achieve the universal dream of owning their own means of transportation.

The truth is that people have an innate urge to increase their personal mobility, which cannot be deterred no matter how alarming statistics about traffic fatalities, oil depletion, or global warming look.

It’s helpful to remember that before there was Prague, with its fiercely reckless drivers, or Bangkok and Jakarta, with their horrendous traffic jams, the picture of a transportation nightmare in most people’s minds was Rome, Madrid, or London.  In each of these places, autos represented something deeper than just a way to get around.

In Rome of the 1960s, car culture was a mark of Italy’s arrival as a prosperous nation; in Madrid of the 1970s, a badge of the modern consumer society that replaced Franco’s dictatorship; and in London of the 1980s, the supreme symbol of free-market freedom as defined by Margaret Thatcher. 

Congestion Pricing and Other Relief
But look at them now. London shocked the world in 2003 with the huge success of its congestion pricing policy, which charges drivers a hefty fee to enter a traffic-unsnarled city center.

Madrid tamed its famously unruly traffic with aggressive implementation of pedestrian streets and other measures to keep cars from ruining neighborhoods.

And Rome, the butt of so many jokes about impossible traffic and insane drivers, reduced traffic by 25 percent in its center — an initiative that has become the model for Paris, a city usually looked to as the urban ideal. 

In most cultures around the world cars offer a potent symbol of privilege and progress.  People everywhere are enraptured by the idea of speedy personal mobility that automobiles seem to offer — a love affair best evoked in an anecdote told by Song Laoshi, a teacher in  Beijing, to a journalist from the Guardian: “When I was a child, we used to walk miles to the nearest road and then just stand and wait. You will never guess why.  We wanted a car to pass so that we could breathe in the fumes. For us, that was really exciting.” 

But the experiences of London, Madrid, Prague, and Rome also illustrate that residents and city leaders are gradually coming to recognize that automobiles can actually stand in the way of greater mobility and a better life. 

Bicycles and Rickshaws
“I don’t buy this business that car culture is unstoppable,” says Walter Hook, executive director of the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which promotes sustainable transportation projects throughout the developing world.

“Sure, people in the developing world dream of owning cars. But they also want beautiful public places, a metro, bike lanes, pedestrian zones and sidewalk cafes. What they want is to be Paris, not look like some American suburb.”

Mr. Hook knows quite a lot about suburban America — He grew up outside Washington, D.C. — and the developing world. When he was 16, Mr. Hook abandoned his bicycle for a fast car. He fell back in love with biking while working for an import-export firm in China. In New York, he cycles through the city’s heavy traffic. When he’s in Asia, Africa, or Latin America he advocates balanced transportation policies, the idea that governments need to invest in transit, sidewalks, and bikeways rather than pouring all their money into more roads.

His ideas make sense. He’s worked with colleagues in Ghana and Senegal and Indonesia to equip African health workers and tsunami relief volunteers with bicycles. Mr. Hook promotes the rickshaw as a sustainable alternative to cars in Asian cities. He advises municipal officials on other continents on how to build 21st century bus systems.

At every stop, Mr. Hook emphasizes that sustainable transportation is not only an environmental concern, but also a question of economics, justice, and safety. “We need to remember that owning a car is out of reach for all but the upper 20 percent of people in the developing world,” he says.

When automobiles come to dominate a nation’s streets, he adds, those who don’t drive are in harm’s way. Mr. Hook notes that pedestrians comprise more than half of all those killed in road fatalities in some developing nations. His central point is that cars are most useful when they serve as just one of many ways to get around.

This notion hit home in the rear seat of that New York taxi. I decide to take the Air Train back to the airport. The ride costs seven bucks and is smooth and simple, even at rush hour. Arriving early, I find the airport lounge and decide, while relaxing over a meal and a glass of wine, that car culture no longer represents either privilege or progress.

Jay Walljasper, a regular contributor to the Elm Street Writers Group, lives in Minneapolis and is executive editor of Ode magazine, and strategic communications director for the New York-based Project for Public Spaces.  Reach him at jay@odemagazine.com

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