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Auto-centricity and the Tyranny of Image – Part III

| Lewis Akenji

Policy-wise and at individual level, we’ve tried all the quick fixes by
the book – new technology for cars, medication for new illnesses,
insurance, lawsuits, new roads prior to elections – but only as far as
it circumvents our illusion of comfort. Nothing to touch our car-use or
fuel prices. But sometimes we need to give – a little now, or much more
in future.

When we calculate the cost of car ownership
based on the price paid the dealer, this is inherently misleading. The
following excerpt, borrowed from Culture Change magazine, illustrates the true
cost of car ownership, which will include:

“purchase price, financing costs, maintenance costs,
registration, tolls, traffic tickets, and so forth. Now, include all external
costs: road construction and maintenance, damage to health caused by air and
water pollution, loss of productivity due to death and maiming in auto
accidents, associated legal costs, and, of course, military budgets needed to
equip the armed forces to fight for and defend the oil. Now, take the drivers’ average income and
hours worked, and find out how many hours of labor it takes to cover all of
these costs. Add to that the actual time spent driving. Now take the number of
vehicle miles traveled, and divide it by the total number of hours spent both
driving and earning enough money to pay for cars. Rather than give you the
answers, I encourage you to do your own homework, but I can tell you that the
end result of this exercise is always the same.”

use the word ‘externality’ to refer to (positive or negative) effects of a
transaction on someone who is not directly involved, or a situation where
someone gets the benefits without bearing all the costs involved – in which
case someone external, or the general public, has to shelter some of the costs.

This year, as was last year and the year
before, the oil industry keeps shocking markets with profits unheard of before
(US Exxon Mobile, HUF 7,120.68 billion; Dutch Shell, HUF 4,517.46 billion; UK
BP, HUF 3,803.20 billion in 2005); glitzy car models are rolling out in their
sizes and numbers. Similarly, profits of pharmaceutical industry are up in the
billions; illnesses are running faster ahead, both in absolute numbers of
patients and in the number of newly discovered conditions. Accidents cost the
EU about 2% of its GNP (HUF 40,722.48 billion) annually; insurance companies
pay HUF 15,274.81 billion for compensation and repair. Companies are ripping
the profits, consumers are carrying the consequences.

Hybrid cars present a technological
opportunity that is gaining popularity in western countries. Hybrid electric
cars operate by complementing the traditional internal combustion engine with
an electric motor, thus consuming less fuel and reducing pollution. Toyota and
Honda, pioneers in these cars have had sales close to a million units, as
estimated from data of the WorldWatch Institute.

New opportunities though represent the
creative abilities of societies to take issues into their own hands. In the
England, Holland, Germany, car-sharing is the star at moment. Instead of one
person (under)using a car and bearing the costs alone, people are organising
themselves into brilliantly effective car-sharing social networks. In places
like Los Angeles, carpooling – where cars having more than one occupant are
allowed to use priority (usually faster) lanes – is being used to encourage
maximisation. Quite often, using a taxi
frequently is cheaper that the total costs of owning a car.

Bicycling remains a viable yet
underexploited opportunity for short distances, particularly suitable for
navigating the city as well as out in the countryside. This is partly because
of the health benefits, but also because it has been measured to be
considerably faster, and less dangerous to the environment. In countries such
as Denmark and Holland, the bosses and the rich no longer seek to differentiate
themselves by the size of their cars; everyone rides about. In the EU where 50
million of journeys everyday are done by bike, the Netherlands claims 27% of
that figure, closely followed by Denmark with 18%.

The low figures for bicycles in Hungary (1%
of everyday journeys) are because of low awareness. Another reason is lack of
infrastructure – there’re only 1500 km of bicycle roads (160km in Budapest),
compared to 30,300 km of main roads.

In the case of train use, in the EU Hungary
holds a positively impressive comparison of rails to main roads. However, this
potential is under-utilised, and both public transport authorities and the
government have failed to invest in them. Perhaps this would be a good place
for Hungary to start – optimising the use of its already available railway
infrastructure – assuming that political interest is genuinely in solving the
transportation issue and less about pleasing the automobile and road
construction industries.

Many countries facing similar problems have
implemented or are considering measures that would have been very unpopular
just a decade back, but which are now accepted, given a combination of public
knowledge of the exigent problem and strong leadership of authorities.

Build fewer roads. Of course, rather
unpopular but efficient, and also democratic. Roads do not only take up space
that could have otherwise been used for other public purposes. Because they are
also very expensive to construct, roads drain state resources as well into
infrastructure that serves the minority car owners – or force others to own
cars when they could have preferred to go otherwise. Research has exposed the
paradox that the more roads are built, the more unnecessary vehicles are bought
and the heavier the congestion in the city.

Place higher taxes on every second or third
family car. This would encourage planned transportation within families, reduce
number of unnecessary new vehicles, and promote fairer access to infrastructure
by less spendthrift families whose share of cars is otherwise used up by
others. Staying firm on (the unpopular subject of) taxes, increase fuel taxes
to represent the real cost of oil. No reason why fuel prices should be
indirectly subsidised by citizens, even those who do not own cars.

Policy-wise and at individual level, we’ve
tried all the quick fixes by the book – new technology for cars, medication for
new illnesses, insurance, lawsuits, new roads prior to elections – but only as
far as it circumvents our illusion of comfort. Nothing to touch our car-use or
fuel prices. But sometimes we need to give – a little now, or much more in

We’ve become conditioned to accept the
rustle, hum and buzz of the modern city running on mechanical engines, but for
just an instance try to imagine walking in a city without the silent pressure of
the red lamp or neither the subconscious fear of the car honk nor the
psychological terror of screeching wheels. Not that there should be no cars,
but just enough for us to roll on healthily and still have space for other
facilities and infrastructures.

In 1977, the architect, builder, professor
and environmentalist Christopher Alexander came up with the Nine Percent Rule
of Parking for sustainable communities. In the book A Pattern Language, he and
fellow researchers argue that beyond a certain limit of space given to cars
people tend to loose a sense of belonging, “subconsciously they feel that the
cars are overwhelming the environment, that the environment is no longer
‘theirs,’ that they have no right to be there, that it is not a place for
people.” Looking at interactions in communities, and the dysfunction of
unhealthy towns, they concluded that “it is not possible to make an environment
fit for human use when more than nine percent of it is given to parking.” At
first it might seem a rather simple statement, but the implications are huge
when we think of our relationship to the place where we live. The chaos in
urban areas is proof of validity of the rule.

As I write, Sixth District citizens of
Budapest are involved in a dispute which raises the question of whether
development is in the interest of citizens or is a whimsical exercise dictated
by cash flow. At the end of last year residents of Nagymezo utca, the so-called
Hungarian Broadway, found out that a five-floor underground parking facility was
soon to undergo construction beneath the street – these they learnt of
literally weeks before work was to begin on the site, when construction
equipment was already driving in.

This would not be the first of such cases
in Budapest. Like the case of Jokai ter just blocks away, several have been
challenged before to an eventual restoration of citizens’ rights. Such cases
bring to public the dirtiest of laundries; in this particular case the
accusations and counteraccusations bear the hallmarks of unthought-of and
unaccountable development: annual income figures have been quoted to the
billion, and rents of millions; conflict of interest (officials acting
indifferent to the constitution); ecological ignorance (dispute over adequacy
of measures to protect residents from the concentration of harmful car
emissions that will certainly increase); anti-democracy (failure to respect the
public consultation procedure in deciding the project).

At a demonstration, one of the protestors
expressed to me that what the residents grapple with even more is that
apparently authorities who’re supposed to represent citizens’ interests have
been going to bed with the investors for some five years before the affair
exploded in their faces. In the heat to justify positions, no one is asking
primary questions: is the construction needed? (Will it proportionally solve
the traffic problem; is there a better way to approach the issue?) From the
perspective of traffic management, the project is all the more a puzzle. The
street falls within an area with about the highest transportation network
density in town: within a few hundred metres there is pedestrian zone, a
four-lane road, bicycle track, trolley-bus stops, bus stops, metro stops, tram
stops. It would seem that once financial figures are expressed in millions and
billions even the better ones of us suddenly loose our ability to think clearly
and the anchor of our values starts to wobble.

Despite the attachment of Londoners to the
perceived freedom and comfort of their cars, the operational success of the
congestion charge is less out of willingness than out of pragmatism – the
realisation that they would have to slow down now or face a stop sign tomorrow.
Sweden has followed suit, also adopting a traffic congestion and environmental tax.
First it had a six-months trial period, conducted a referendum after that and
decided to fully implement the congestion tax. There’re many more cities
charging, including Durham, Trodheim and Singapore, and many more proposing tax
schemes to bring order to the traffic situation and quality of life in their

Maybe we’re not (yet) paying the congestion
charge per se in Hungarian cities, but we’re paying a much bigger price. We’ve
given up parks and public spaces, cut down trees in order to build underground
parking lots, converted walking zones to give cars access. Following data of
Budapest’s own Vice Mayor, 90% of Budapest cars are parked in public places.
These are little things that count big in the liveability of a city; we’re
running out of spaces to give up just so we don’t have to make our cars’ lives
uncomfortable. Still the honking madness is up, the vibrations and noise levels
keep rising, smog has blackened both our buildings and our lungs – streets of
dark concrete lined up by shiny cars – our hospitals are seeing more people
with infected lungs, polluted blood and weakened hearts. Clearly, we’re driving
in the wrong direction.

I’ve met a few people who expressed they
are not quite sure about the agenda of environmentalists. But I’ve never met
anyone whose sense of psychological freedom, mental and physical health, or
aesthetics has been so drained that they think it makes life better to replace
the trees on the streets with concrete and steel, and public parks with parking
lots. We’re accelerating on the highway of vanity. Budapest is a beautiful
city; however that sentence is discounted each time an unneeded car makes a
stop at the gas pump – which is every second.


Photo [cc] Jemsweb

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