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Homo Mobilis

| Lewis Akenji

To a large part, the failure of traffic in cities is due to the
irresponsibility of municipal authorities to implement policies that
take into account long term consequences. The four-year election term
is too scary for politicians to dare look beyond the next election
campaign. Or is it?

 

If there was one unanimous wish by
municipal authorities and residents for the New Year, it must have had to do
with urban traffic. Pretty much no one is left unaffected, neither car users,
nor cyclists, nor pedestrians, nor public transit users. If you live in a major
city, such as Pecs, Debrecen, Budapest, you are shrouded.

Cardiovascular and pulmonary illnesses,
such as bronchitis, heart attacks are on the rise (asthma by 50% in the last
decade) in Hungary; 60,000 accidents occurred in the years 2004 and 2005
combined, of which 20,000 persons died or sustained grave casualties; average
journey times increased, and cities lost more public spaces to parking lots.
The number of cars using the streets of Budapest (1.2 million) is close to
rivalling the resident population of the city. The carrying capacity of the
city is already exceeded. That is, if Budapest was a bridge, it would either be
sinking by now, or it would have collapsed.

But Budapest is not a bridge, and you won’t
see the cracks on its pillars. What you’ll see is an increase in the number of
people going to the hospital, or not going to the hospital but complaining of many
“small” headaches. You’ll see a thick haze of smog constantly frowning over the
city, blocking sunlight and limiting visibility. Or, if you’re locked in the
office all day anyway, you’ll notice deterioration in work efficiency and
economic output. You’ll also spend more time in your car alone, talking to
yourself, on the way to work, or back home.

But what to do; we must go to work, we must
shop, we must take little Kati to school. To a large part, the failure of
traffic in cities is due to the irresponsibility of municipal authorities to
implement policies that take into account long term consequences. The four-year
election term is too scary for politicians to dare look beyond the next
election campaign. Or is it? Ken Livingston, mayor of London has proven
otherwise. He introduced the congestion charge to regulate the exigent situation
of traffic in London. As the debate sparked on towards elections, he didn’t
relent; instead he promised more stringent measures. The city needed them, and
someone had to be strong. Voters are not stupid. At the end, they saw the light
and rewarded him with a second term. The debate rages on. Stockholm, Durham, Singapore,
and many more cities now have similar charges in place.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger first became
governor of California, some laughed out that he will be acting Mr Terminator
to an already faltering economy. Indeed, he has been acting. One consistent
line through his actions has been to show Californians that they can use their
cars, what they cannot do is let their cars use them. He signed radical bills
towards reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, introduced green taxes that
affected car use. No other people love their cars more than Californians.
Almost everyone complained. Almost everyone voted him again into a second term
as governor. If you think the US is a laggard in the environment, here’s one
for you: In defiance of the President, over 100 mayors across the country have agreed
to abide by the terms of the Kyoto Protocol that President Bush rejected.

Transportation though is mostly an
individual decision. Blaming it all on politicians would be lying to ourselves.
We must take individual responsibility. That’s what this issue of our magazine
is about. If you’re a car user, hold your brakes for a while; this issue is not
against you. If you’re a pedestrian, user of public transit or cyclist, don’t
start getting self-righteous.

Budapest can easily rub shoulders with
London and Paris when it comes to access to public transit. Other than walking
and cycling, using public transit is the most sustainable option we have. It’s
a wonder then to learn that less and less people are using public transit here.
Not too much of a wonder however when you consider the negligence by BKV that
results in irregularity, and lack of cleanliness. Attitude matters, too. While for
human, social and environmental health reasons we wholly encourage the use of public
transit as an alternative to driving all the time, the company must also get
its act together, not least in how it behaves with customers. If you’ve ever
been manhandled by a BKV ticket controller then you know the feeling of being
suddenly confronted by a bulldog on its territory. It has a limited vocabulary
and one trained, inflexible course of action; it barks, it doesn’t listen, and
it’s poised to pounce. But then again, I wouldn’t have had this experience if
I’d bought a ticket before my trip.

The demise of public transit is its lack of
capital – or the management thereof. The more we use (and pay for) public
transit, the better it can get, partly because we fund it and also because mass
usage urges government to allocate more resources for development of
infrastructure. It becomes cheaper, cleaner, more regular and, hopefully, more
friendly. Fair enough, BKV is beginning to come around. Perhaps you’ve seen the
new Combinos and buses, or seen the on-going construction of the new metro
line, or heard of other planned infrastructural renovation for the coming few
years.

In addition, get out your bike and do some
sport while travelling short distances to work or to the shop. Walk around and
relax your body, while enjoying the city – believe me, like Pecs and Gyor, Budapest
is even more spectacular when combed through on two feet. What to do with your
car? Look at all those empty seats behind you when you’re driving alone. How
about getting someone travelling the same way with you to fill them up – you
both arrive your destinations and you’d have shared some laughs during the slow
traffic hours and warmed up to a human presence. Car sharing is now common in
the UK, US, Japan, Denmark, Germany, Holland. Transportation is one issue that
can be managed, and we have the knowledge, technology and capacity to do so.
What we need is a collective will.

Some of the findings in this issue might
surprise or even shock you. But do not be discouraged, the solutions we propose
are entirely possible. However, do not take them as a prescription. What we
ask, as usual, is for readers to take a minute and think about this issue for
themselves, to use our suggestions as a springboard for their own creative
approaches. Read on, and safe journey.

 

 

This article first appeared in the Conscious Consumer magazine, issue 11.

Lewis Akenji is Editor-in-Chief of
Conscious Consumer magazine, and a consultant on Sustainable Consumption.

 

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