October 02, 2005

Unjamming the future

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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. It’s a blazing hot spring morning—a preview of global warming, I wonder? 

I felt vaguely guilty about hailing a cab to research a story on innovative ideas in transportation, especially when I knew that a new train connection from the airport had recently opened, but I didn’t want to be late for my appointment. Yet now here I am stuck in traffic, and it isn’t even rush hour.

My taxi driver,  recently arrived from India,  knows a few tricks.  He edges the cab toward an exit ramp and then barrels along city streets for a few blocks before heading back onto a slightly less congested stretch of the expressway.  His radio is tuned to traffic reports—a long litany of pile-ups, closed lanes, construction delays, or inexplicable slowdowns on most major roads.

“It’s one big parking lot out there,”  the announcer says, and I suddenly feel an exhaust-induced burning at the back of my throat.

“How’s that new Air Train to the airport?” I casually ask the driver just after he’d swerved off the expressway again and nearly sideswiped a hapless pedestrian who dared to cross the street. “People don’t want to take trains,” he declares in a voice that clearly indicates this portion of our conversation is over. We fight endless tides of traffic all the way to Manhattan.

Sixty minutes and forty-five dollars later, I arrive at the offices of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) thirty-eight minutes late.

I sometimes find it hard to believe there could be any more cars in the world than there are today. 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.

People everywhere are enraptured by the idea of 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 British journalist: “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.”

“Of course everybody is fascinated by cars,” says Walter Hook,  executive director of (ITDP), which promotes sustainable transportation projects throughout the developing world. “I am too. I just love those Cooper Minis. They’re beautiful.

“But I don’t buy this business that car culture is unstoppable,” he adds. “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.”

Hook knows quite a lot about both suburban America—where he grew up outside Washington, D.C., and at age 16 abandoned his bicycle for a speedy car—and the developing world, where he fell back in love with biking when working for an import-export firm in China. He now cycles through New York’s heavy traffic most days, except when he’s in Asia, Africa or Latin America advocating the idea of balanced transportation policies—which means that governments invest in transit, sidewalks and bikeways, rather than pouring all their money into more roads.

Working with branch offices in Ghana and Senegal, an affiliate group in Berlin, and field staff in India, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and Colombia, ITDP undertakes practical projects like equipping African health workers and tsunami relief volunteers with bicycles, promoting the rickshaw as a sustainable alternative to cars in Asian cities,  and advising municipal officials everywhere on building 21st Century bus systems.

Hook emphasizes that sustainable transportation is not only an environmental concern, but a question of justice. “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 notes.

And when automobiles come to dominate a nation’s streets, non-motorists—even if they comprise a large majority of the population—suffer in terms of both mobility and safety. Walking and biking become too dangerous.  Hook notes more than 50 percent of road fatalities in some developing nations are pedestrians.

“You can’t just force people not to drive,” Steven Logan, editor of Car Busters magazine,  tells me as we sprint across a street in Prague where motorists actually seem to speed up when seeing us in the crosswalk.  We are walking to the office of the World Carfree Network—a collective of young Europeans and North Americans who publish Car Busters magazine and enthusiastically promote visions of a world with fewer automobiles.

“If someone in India wants a car, sure, I can tell them it’s better to take a train,” he adds, “But they can say, ‘Yeah, you grew up with cars and now you don’t want me to have one.’”

Logan, 30, concedes he had his own car as a teenager in suburban Toronto and drove it to high school every day even though the school was only a short bike ride from home.  But spending a semester abroad in Amsterdam, he discovered he could live a modern, fulfilling life without a car. “It was great. I biked everywhere,” he recalls. “Then I went home to the suburbs of Toronto, and found I was really depressed.”

After several more harrowing encounters with Prague’s burgeoning car culture, we arrive at the World Carfree Network office—a cramped apartment in a modest neighborhood far from the picturesque center of the city that serves as the newsroom for Car Busters and world headquarters for a coalition of more than 50 sustainable-transportation groups in 27 countries on six continents.

“Our overall principle is that the automobile should not determine how we build our communities,” says Network co-founder Randy Ghent, 32, a refugee from the auto-dominated suburbs of California. He detects signs of a post-car culture emerging from what’s happening in Bogotá , in the new virtually car-free neighborhoods created in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Edinburgh, and Vienna as well as a car-free community being discussed for the San Francisco Bay area, not far from his hometown.

The Internet, he muses, might easily replace the automobile as humanity’s dream of unlimited mobility.

“We don’t have to go back to the past and re-create the medieval city,” Ghent explains. “ If we can get more examples of car-free places, maybe by converting an old military base into a new town, then people can see a car-free community side by side with an auto-dependent neighborhood. That could lead to big change.”

But what about Prague? I ask. It’s got a world-class subway, trams going all over town and a breathtakingly beautiful car-free city center which draws visitors from all over the world. Yet it also sports one of the highest car-ownership rates in Europe. Lutra Lebrova, 27, World Carfree Nework’s co-director, who grew up in the Czech Republic,  steps in to explain.

“It was really hard to get a car under Communism. People had to wait 10 or 12 years, and everyone now is so proud of their cars. People here see it as their special right to drive cars.”

This helps me understand the scary habits of Prague drivers, and also sheds light on a broader truth about the powerful appeal of automobiles.  In most cultures around the world cars offer a potent symbol of privilege and progress.  Motorists in these places think of themselves as the future, and anyone who gets in the way of the future had better watch out.

The truth is that humans have an innate urge to increase their personal mobility, which cannot be deterred no matter how alarming the statistics about traffic fatalities or global warming seem. A world offering more car-free places, will only happen when people come to realize automobiles actually stand in the way of greater mobility and a better life.

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 ’60s, car culture was a mark of Italy’s arrival as a prosperous nation; in Madrid of the ’70s, a badge of the modern consumer society that replaced Franco’s dictatorship; and in London of the ’80s,  the supreme symbol of free-market freedom as defined by Margaret Thatcher.

But look at them now. London shocked the world with the huge success of its congestion pricing policy, which charges drivers a hefty fee to enter the city centre.  Madrid has 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, has reduced traffic by 25 percent in its centre—an initiative that has become the model for Paris, a city usually looked to as the urban ideal.

Hazarding a guess about the future is always risky, especially when the outcome of your prediction directly affects powerful interests like the auto and oil industries, but I believe the feisty sustainable transportation movement is on to something big. “People say cars represent freedom but how free are you when you have to drive everywhere?” asks Steven Logan of Car Busters, answering his own question. “Gas is expensive. The roads are congested. I find it very liberating to be out somewhere and know I can easily walk home.”

Following in the footsteps (rather than the tire tracks) of Rome and Madrid and London, I believe people in Eastern Europe and Asia and someday even North America—where car culture was born and remains stubbornly embedded—will eventually discover an important truth: The auto is at its best and its most useful as just one of many ways to get around.

This revelation hit home for me the day I was stuck in the back seat of a New York taxi. I vowed then and there to try the new Air Train when returning to the airport.  My train ride back to JFK, which cost a total of seven bucks, was smooth and simple, even at rush hour, and I arrived quite early for my flight.  Car culture, I decided while relaxing over a meal and glass of wine in the airport lounge, no longer represents either privilege or progress.


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