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IS A CAR-FREE CITY ACTUALLY CONCEIVABLE?

On the next 23rd of April, Barcelona will initiate its first "car-free" day. This is an experience which aims at making citizens more aware of the role private motor vehicles are currently playing in large cities and at encouraging them to conduct a public debate on the place this device inseparably linked to modern society and which has become much more than a mere means of transportation, should occupy in the future. B.MM. has asked two experts -Carme Miralles, a lecturer from Barcelona's Autonomous University, specializing in issues related to urban transport, and Alfons Perona, executive secretary of Catalonia's leading drivers' association, the RACC- whether a "car-free" city is actually conceivable. (...)

 

The agora, a meeting and interacting place
by Carme Miralles.
lecturer from barcelona's autonomous university

What is actually a city? Which characteristics render a place worthy of being called a city? Even though it proves increasingly difficult for us to give a clear definition of what is - and of what is not - a city, everybody agrees on one point: the term "urban" basically refers to a man-built environment in which a number of people live (and therefore work, learn, buy and use goods, spend their leisure time, etc...). In Mumford's words, the city is a place "intended to provide people with the greatest opportunities to get into meaningful conversations". And, according to the same author, the most evident sign of the failure of the city as such, of its substancial nonexistence as a social personality, is the absence of dialogue between city dwellers. The city is therefore conceived as being not only a place in which many different activities take place, but also as a meeting place and hence a space intended for interacting and conversing. And such a place is identified with the public or collective space which can be found inside as well as outside people's houses, within closed, indoor spaces as well as in open-air areas, depending on the climate and on the urban culture peculiar to each city: yards, streets, parks, cafÚs, etc... The real essence of the city is to be found in such meeting places. (...)

The alleged individual freedom usually attributed to private car ownership has turned into an accumulation of negative external conditions which appear more palpable and alarming in the city than anywhere else as it affects not only the built up areas, but also social interaction patterns and the city's atmosphere. The whole city and all the city-dwellers suffer the side-effects of that alleged individual freedom of movement, a concept that confuses individual mobility with accessibility.

The "right to a city", to quote Lefebvre's famous expression, is a wellknown slogan that implies, among other things, the people's right to have access to places so that they might have a real chance to enjoy everything the city put at their disposal. Which amounts to the right to have access to the different urban activities and services. A right which ought to be vindicated as a universal right of all city-dwellers, regardless of their age, level of income or education, and which has much to do with the promotion and availability of public means of transport and with the city-planning patterns we are to opt for. An accessible city is one that is designed bearing in mind its inhabitants' interests. And this means a compact and multifuntional city in which accessibility is achieved through the use of more reasonably priced, less polluting and more universal public transportation: city residents should be encouraged to go on foot or by bicycle and, whenever necessary or convenient, to use public means of transport. (...)

And this should not be deemed a hardly realistic and unwonted view of the city. On the contrary. Suffice it to observe how we can live nowadays in the neighbourhoods inherited from the Barcelona of the nineteenth century, i.e. in the formerly independent villages of the "Pla" that were gradually annexed by Barcelona (GrÓcia, Sants, Sant Andreu, etc...). (...)

The fact tht it is possible to live in a car-free city has been fully evidenced by more than five thousand years of urban history - compared with the relatively short period of time that has elapsed since the introduction of the internal combustion engine - and the model of mobility that prevailed in neighbouring towns but until a few decades ago. But this is not the only reason worth considering. The city has to be able to function without cars. And it really has to if we want the city to belong to its inhabitants (women and men, children and old people, every single resident) again and to become anew a living space in which dialogue, interaction and participation are possible. And this means first of all that we ought to rethink the design of those collective spaces which, in our cities, are mainly public squares and streets, preserving their multi-functional purpose and respecting the different human rhythms that are to coexist in such places. But, furthermore, this change must take place so that our overall environment might not be further damaged.

We ought to re-invent the city, as many of the generations that preceded us have repeatedly done. We ought to make it a car-free, noise-free, pollution-free city. A city inhabited by people fully disposed to live, work, participate and enjoy themselves in the city. A city that would not be a mere place of passage, but a real meeting and interacting space.

 

The real problem is not the car itself.
by Alfons Perona Gˇmez.
executive secretary of the racc foundation.

The adjective "-free", added to the end of a word, has an excluding, negative ring about it. And in our society, which is on the verge of entering a new century, we should approach all matters of opinion and socio-cultural issues from a more positive, integration-orientated perspective, without any exclusion.

A "car-free" city, like a "shop-free" city or, in short, any "x-free" city would no longer be a city, considering that such an approach based on an attack on motor vehicles somehow sounds like a trendy attitude fueled by a negative ideology.

The development of our society is a fact we would be hard put to renounce and the situation in our cities is part of that evolutionary process, with its advantages and disadvantages. It is therefore convenient to start out by taking stock of the current situation from a historical perspective.

Motorization and the development of motorized transport have always run parallel with the evolution of our modern cities. The process of industrialization undergone by Barcelona in the nineteen sixties caused the transfer of industrial nuclei to new sites, outside what we know as the centre of the city.

Transportation of goods or people became a major contributing factor to the generation of wealth. The population's need for mobility experienced a change as movements started covering longer distances.

Economic growth also made it easier for many people to own a private vehicle. Such massive motorization was paralleled by the appearance of a whole set of habits or practices - some of them positive, others negative - which have left their imprint on today's road traffic situation, in terms of both assimilable virtues and acquired vices.

Over the last decade, the socio-economic situation has been producing further mutations in people's mobility and related requirements. Different kinds of routes criss-cross the city and there is often a confluence of inner city traffic and passing-through transit.

We should not forget that the car is a mechanical device and that, throughout this century, society has introduced it as an element that favours our adaptability and freedom in terms of overall mobility and territorial accessibility. The car is the modern replacement for those horse-drawn coaches which have been the exponent of human mobility during several past centuries.

The people of Imperial Rome already had town-planning and traffic problems as the city's design did not allow for a rational communications system, but the solution they worked out was not to stop using vehicles, but rather to divide the space available into "itenerae" - lanes used exclusively by pedestrians -, "actus" - narrow streets along which only one cart could travel at a time -, and "viae" - two-lane streets in which two carts could move together either side by side or in two opposite directions -. Imperial Rome thus succeeded in harmonizing the most contradictory aspects of city transit and worked out a way to adjust in a natural manner to the requirements of both past and present.

We cannot deny motor vehicles access to the cities without further ado, and it is absurd to launch an attack against a mechanical device when we should rather be questioning the use people and society are making of that device which is a useful instrument of leisure, work and, generally speaking, mobility.

But, what is the matter with the way we use cars?

The utilization of motor vehicles and, more particularly in the last years, the excessive and often irrational use of private cars, creates real problems in the cities where the compatibility between the different means of transportation used by the citizens ought to be debated and regulated.

The cities in our environment, including Barcelona, have not been either planned out or designed to be inhabited by cars, but rather as places in which people might move around, using different means of transportation discriminatingly, according to their suitability.

The car is one of the means of transportation available for use in the city, but it is not the only one. This is the starting point of one of the reflexions we'd like to arouse: the rejection of private cars is not the solution to the problem in hand. Current practices have generally negative repercussions on the city residents' standard of living and the present model of urban mobility, in which people give priority to using their private cars, should be seriously questioned and restated, appealing to the city residents' individual and collective sense of responsibility so as to minimize the negative consequences of:

a) people's inadequate choices of a means of transport in relation to their actual needs.

b) an insufficient network of transport facilities that might be viewed as alternatives to the use of private cars.

c) widespread patterns of unsupportive social behaviour.

We can demand that the citizens give proof of that individual sense of responsibility only insofar as they are provided with sufficient and truthful information that might enable them to decide on a means of transportion at any given time, taking into consideration the individual and social costs involved in such decisions, as well as the consequences of the nonobservance of the highway code and other regulations in force, some of which might be irreparable. But we cannot fail to mention collective responsibility, expressed and materialized through the different actions and measures the Administrations, i.e. the public authorities directly concerned, must take so that urban mobility might achieve a state of natural equilibrium between the different means of transportation, including private cars. (...)