Editorial: Europe’s cities take different view of cars
Europe’s big cities have declared war on the car. The goal is to make car use increasingly expensive and driving in the city so frustrating that car owners will gladly leave their vehicles at home and take the train to work, to shop or to have a night on the town.
While U.S. cities synchronize traffic lights to let drivers go faster, European centers such as Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen have closed swaths of street to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have cut the number of car lanes to make room for bike lanes. Those cities also have bike-sharing programs that allow people to take a tram to town, jump on a “shared” bike, go to their inner-city destination and park the bike at a shared bike rack.
Drivers in London and Stockholm pay a “congestion” fee just to enter the city center in a car.
And, a New York Times reporter discovered, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.
Cities have lengthened red light signals to make cars stop more frequently and allow pedestrians to cross streets at a more leisurely pace.
Andy Fellman, chief traffic planner for Zurich, capital of Switzerland, watched a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians and smiled. “Driving is a stop and go experience,” he told a reporter. “That’s what we like. Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”
Today, 91 percent of the delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work. Car ownership has dropped from 60 percent of households to 55 percent. The trend is expected to grow. Mr. Fellman likes to point out that a person using a car takes up about 4,000 cubic feet of urban space while a pedestrian only occupies 3 cubit feet.
European cities have strong incentives to build efficient public transportation systems and discourage car use. Most of their major cities were built before the automobile came into use, have narrow, winding streets that can’t handle heavy traffic. Because of high taxes, gasoline often costs $8 a gallon. And most of the countries of Europe signed onto the Kyoto Protocol and are pledged to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions — a pledge they can’t honor without curbing car use.
Europe, moreover, is much more densely populated than the U.S., which makes public transportation more economical and lessens the need for individual transportation.
Today’s city scene in Europe is not a prediction of American’s future. Still, the answers Europe is finding to inner-city congestion and air pollution should bring smiles and an occasional “aha!” to U.S. city planners.
Bike lanes, shared-bike programs and pedestrian-friendly traffic control combined with light rail, buses and trams would probably become popular in major U.S. cities if given half a chance. And the popularity would grow as those who got out of their cars and onto bikes learned to like their new bodies and the sunnier outlook on life that exercise promotes.
The turnaround in Europe is practical proof that dramatic lifestyle changes can be made in rich, democratic societies and win acceptance by a large majority of the citizens.
That’s today’s comforting thought.
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