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NY Times: In Europe they "make car use expensive and just plain miserable"

Sunday Parkways North 2011-14-13
Cars on the Sunday Parkways route
yesterday irked some. Was it another
sign of catering to car use convenience?
(Photo © J. Maus)

An article published in the New York Times Science/Environment section Sunday points out something that many U.S. bike insiders and advocates have known for a long time: The reason European cities (and in the case of the article, Zurich) succeed in transportation policy and outcomes is because they're not afraid to challenge car dominance head on.

Or, in the parlance of Mr. Copenhagenize Mikael Colville-Andersen, while we're busy "ignoring the bull," in Europe they simply grab it by the horns and wrestle it into submission.

The opening paragraph says it all (emphasis mine):

While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

As do the final two:

"With politicians and most citizens still largely behind them, Zurich’s planners continue their traffic-taming quest, shortening the green-light periods and lengthening the red with the goal that pedestrians wait no more than 20 seconds to cross.

“We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy,” said Pio Marzolini, a city official. “When I’m in other cities, I feel like I’m always waiting to cross a street. I can’t get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car."

It's a fascinating article that shows very clearly that in the U.S. we let politics and fear of unsettling the status quo rule our policies — even in cities like Portland where our leaders are well aware of how they do things in Europe.

Here in the states, to even suggest a plan or project that will inconvenience automobile traffic is considered heresy.

Consider some recent examples:

This isn't to suggest that PBOT lets automobiles run amok in their policies and plans. For an American city, we are doing O.K.. But the Times article makes it clear that we only taking baby steps on an issue that deserves great strides.

And in case you're wondering, this NY Times article is old news to our local civic leaders and bike policy insiders. They've been studying Europe's approach for many years. In October 2009, Portland hosted a panel of Europeans transportation policy experts who made these points crystal clear.

At that panel discussion (which boasted a who's-who crowd of U.S. bike advocates and planners), someone asked Hans Voerknecht, the International Coordinator for Fietsberaad what wish for from Congress. Here's Voerknecht's reply:

"Change dramatically the way of parking. Allow no more parking in the streets 1/2 mile from homes and businesses so you remove all the short trips and people will know they don't have the car in front of their door... I don't know if it's true but I've heard Americans even use a car to post a letter around the corner. If you had to walk a 1/2 mile to get your car you wouldn't do that anymore."

In perhaps the most telling (and relevant) exchange from that panel, Portland's City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield asked the panelists about making car use expensive and inconvenient.

"There's very little political will to disincentivize the use of the automobile," said Burchfield, "We're concerned that our goals for reaching higher mode split will be difficult to reach because of our inability to put price disincentives on car use. Is that a valid concern? How is it that you've come to have that political will?"

Geert-Pieter Wagenmakers, the senior advisor for the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce replied,

"While in Beaverton I saw all of these enormous rooms for all these cars... even a parking garage for cars! I asked, are you subsidizing this? If so, it's socialism. You're subsidizing a parking lot... and that's out of the mouth of somebody from the business community."

And Mr. Voerknecht added this,

"If you would ask the Dutch public, 'Would you rather pay less tax on your cars and pay less tax on your fuel,' everybody would say 'Oh yes!' But the thing is we don't ask them! You shouldn't ask all the time, 'Do you want to spend money?' Of course they say no. The thing is, if people are so narrow-minded, you need politicians... Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it's about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions."

What works in Europe doesn't always work in the U.S.. Our cultural differences must be taken into account. However the fact remains; American leaders know the right things to do to re-make our transportation systems and they often don't do them because of fears (unfounded or not) of upsetting the car-centric status quo.

The question is, should we grab the bull's horns and wrestle it to the ground? Or approach it timidly, try to befriend it, and then hope it doesn't trample us?

— Read the NY Times article here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

Editorial Notes: A contact in Switzerland told me that some Swiss are very upset with the NY Times article. It seems to me that the article is okay, if not very sympathetic. The headline, however, is rather disgusting: "Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy." Editors rather than reporters typically write headlines, which would explain the discrepancy. Swiss Info has a mild-mannered response to the NY Times article: http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Zurich_streets_among_Europe_s_most_congested.html?cid=30634398 -BA

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