Today’s NST features an excellent opinion piece which is syndicated from the New York Times on how Europe transforms its cities to accommodate pedestrian, cyclists and transit at the expense of air-polluting and space-consuming motorists. Enjoy the article after the jump!
ZURICH – While U.S. 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.
Cities from Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs.
TRANSIT Says: Our distributor roads with low traffic throughput design and enforced low speed limit (supposedly, what say you, MIROS?) should function as ‘cycling’ intermediaries between local roads (geared for people-based access) and arterial roads (geared for fast and simplified local bus or tram rapid transit, what say you, SPAD?).
Local councils should pay heed to Selangor Exco Ronnie Liu’s demand for creativity in providing public transport service, and start taking charge of local bus, bicycle and barrier-free pedestrian plans.
We call on the authorities of Putrajaya, Subang Jaya, Bangi and Shah Alam to start simplifying the bus routes, designate bike lanes on distributor roads (to connect bus routes along Persiarans and boulevards with individual streets within each residential sections), and work with PDRM and JPJ to enforce speed limits.
One way this can be done without costing much money is to paint striking colors on the shoulder sides of these roads that visually tells motorists to yield to cyclists. Of course, car lanes will become narrower (1.5 meter for bikes, and 4-5 meters for cars), and motorists will be forced to slow down upon approaching the opposite traffic.
But this will ultimately discourage drivers from speeding (and forcing them to think twice to hit the pedal just to run simple errands), keep moms with little running kids roam around the neighbourhood care-free, and finally create a healthy and people-friendly car-free environment!
Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon-dioxide emissions may enter.
Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces. On-street parking is vanishing. In recent years, even former car capitals like Munich have evolved into “walkers’ paradises,” said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University who specializes in sustainable transportation.
“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”
To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever-expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.
Around Lovenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.TRANSIT Says: In the heart of the city, the KL City Hall fined jaywalkers for not using pedestrian bridges, and allowed road widening projects (i.e. Jln Pahang-Genting Klang) to encroach into the already narrow sidewalks. More fly-overs are in progress, which will destroy pedestrian visibility and connectivity between adjacent land lots. When will we ever learn?
As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”
While some U.S. cities, notably San Francisco, have made similar efforts, expanding bike paths and “pedestrianizing” parts of Market Street, they are still the exception in the United States, where it has been difficult to get people to imagine a life where cars are not entrenched, Schipper said.
Europe’s cities generally have stronger incentives to act. Built for the most part before the advent of cars, their narrow roads are poor at handling heavy traffic. Public transportation is generally better in Europe than in the United States, and gas often costs more than $8 a gallon, contributing to driving costs that are two to three times greater per mile than in the United States, Schipper said.
TRANSIT Says: The government should amend the National Automotive Policy and the National Energy Policy, and start to shift from ownership-based to usage-based taxes. Make using cars more expensive, and make leaving-your-high-monthly-installment-car-inside-your-garage-to-take-transit-to-work cheaper. Amsterdam already charges road taxes based on mileage. Mileage based insurance is getting more popular in Europe.
What is more, EU countries cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Treaty to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact.
Globally, emissions from transportation continue a relentless rise, with half of them coming from personal cars. Yet an important impulse behind Europe’s traffic reforms will be familiar to mayors from Los Angeles to Vienna: to make cities more inviting, with cleaner air and less traffic.
Michael Kodransky, global research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, which works with cities to reduce transport emissions, said Europe was previously “on the same trajectory as the United States, with more people wanting to own more cars.” But in the past decade, there had been “a conscious shift in thinking, and firm policy,” he said. And it is having an effect.
After two decades of car ownership, Hans Von Matt, 52, who works in the insurance industry, sold his vehicle and now gets around Zurich by tram or bicycle, using a car-sharing service for trips out of the city. Carless households have increased to 45 percent from 40 percent in the past decade, and car owners use their vehicles less, city statistics show.
“There were big fights over whether to close this road or not – but now it is closed and people got used to it,” he said, alighting from his bicycle on Limmatquai, a riverside pedestrian zone lined with cafes that used to be two lanes of gridlock. Each major road closing has to be approved in a referendum.
Today 91 percent of the delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work. Still, there is grumbling. “There are all these zones where you can only drive 20 or 30 kilometers per hour (about 12 to 18 mph), which is rather stressful,” Thomas Rickli, a consultant, said as he parked his Jaguar in a lot at the edge of town. “It’s useless.”
TRANSIT Says: We remember how Rembau MP Khairy can’t find the right bus to go to the Parliament!
Urban planners generally agree that a rise in car commuting is not desirable for cities anywhere.
Fellmann calculated that a person using a car took up 115 cubic meters (roughly 4,000 cubic feet) of urban space in Zurich while a pedestrian took three. “So it’s not really fair to everyone else if you take the car,” he said.
European cities also realized they could not meet increasingly strict World Health Organization guidelines for fine-particulate air pollution if cars continued to reign. Many U.S. cities are likewise in “nonattainment” of Clean Air Act requirements, but that fact “is just accepted here,” said Kodransky of the New York-based transportation institute.
It often takes extreme measures to get people out of their cars, and providing good public transportation is a crucial first step. One novel strategy in Europe is intentionally making it harder and more costly to park.
“Parking is everywhere in the United States, but it’s disappearing from the urban space in Europe,” said Kodransky, whose recent report “Europe’s Parking U-Turn” surveys the shift.
Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, is three times the size of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Mall but has only half the number of parking spaces, and as a result, 70 percent of visitors get there by public transport, Kodransky said.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, Jensen, at the European Environment Agency, said his office building had more than 150 spaces for bicycles and only one for a car, to accommodate a disabled person.
While many building codes in Europe cap the number of parking spaces in new buildings to discourage car ownership, U.S. codes conversely tend to stipulate a minimum number. New apartment complexes built along the light-rail line in Denver devote their bottom eight floors to parking, making it “too easy” to get in the car rather than take advantage of rail transit, Kodransky said.
TRANSIT Says: Building codes and plot ratios must be made flexible to encourage transit-oriented development. Medium rise buildings should be allowed near stops of local rapid transit lines. That’s why TRANSIT calls on local authorities and SPAD to work together on integrating Regional Klang Valley masterplan with local bus, bicycle and pedestrian plans.
Mere public displays of RT, RKK and RSN are not enough. People should be empowered on how to help the Federal, State and Local governments to decide on short-term and long-term urban gravity centers (centers of employment, commercial and institutional activities), and finally on how these centers are connected to each other (buses? trams? metros?).
While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has generated controversy in New York by “pedestrianizing” a few areas like Times Square, many European cities have progressively closed vast areas to car traffic. Store owners in Zurich had worried that the closings would mean a drop in business, but that fear has proved unfounded, Fellmann said, because pedestrian traffic increased 30 percent to 40 percent where cars were banned.
TRANSIT Says: Imagine if MPK allocated two lanes of double-looping bus services along the 4-lane ring road that encapsulates downtown Klang. MPK must get rid of parking spaces, and widen the pedestrian paths, because uninterrupted walking from the ring road to the center of downtown Klang can be less than 10 minutes!
With politicians and most citizens still largely behind them, Zurich’s planners continue their traffic-taming quest, continuing to shorten the green-light periods and lengthen the red so 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.”