Friday, May 22, 2009

Traffic Jams Prove Unpopular -- Doh!!

Prospects dimmed rather quickly for the recent proposal to create artificial traffic jams in Budapest as a precursor to greening the city's transport. Since the idea was leaked to the press earlier this week, a deluge of criticism has come down from politicians, the press, the Hungarian Auto Club -- even an NGO devoted to public transport.

The probable death knell came Thursday night, when the proposal's leading proponent at City Hall -- Deputy Mayor Imre Ikvai-Szabó (pictured) -- admitted "there was very little chance" of implementation this summer.

During his statement, as reported on Index.hu, Ikvai-Szabó, of the Free Democrat party, said he would still submit the idea for a proper hearing by the Budapest Cabinet. But he conceded that there was little political support or hope of getting it.

The most harsh criticism may have come from opposing party Magyar Democratic Forum, which gave Mayor Gábor Demszky the "birka díj" (dork award) for raising such an "absurd and laughable" idea.

The Hungarian Auto Club argued that it made no sense to create artificial traffic jams without providing adequate transport alternatives. The NGO VEKE (Urban and Suburban Transport Association), which has supported progressive initiatives such as the expansion of Budapest's night bus service, concurred, saying that before car lanes are taken away, the city would have to expand public transport, including the reinstallation of tram lines on Rakoczi út and Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út.

The shame of it all is that the failure of this poorly considered scheme may turn into a setback for the larger idea of improving living conditions in the city by reducing motor traffic and re-prioritising public space for people instead of vehicles.

In my first post on the matter, I criticised the utter lack of marketing savvy in the idea's promotion. By focusing on constricted road space and traffic jams, proponents are framing green transport as a kind of bitter medicine that residents must swallow in order for the city to get better. This negative approach struck me as baffling, especially considering all the positive things that green transport has to offer: healthier lifestyle, a quieter and more pleasant urban environment, cleaner air, safer streets, more inviting commercial and public spaces, etc., etc., etc.

Another thing came up during a conversation with a friend: the proposal is too sudden and drastic. The greening of a city is a long-term project. Copenhagen, to take Europe's best example, is now renowned for its invigorating streetlife and superior accomodations for cyclists. But in the 1970s, it was the same automotive mess that Budapest is today. The city managed its transformation through slow but continuous improvements over 30 years and never with an overarching plan. That city's transformation was proof that slow and steady wins the race.

2 comments:

workbike said...

In the UK, when the authorities wanted to close a bus or rail service, they would change the times to make it invonvenient or impossible to use, and then when ridership dropped, they would claim it wasn't used and close it.
I can't help feeling the same thing may be happening here. Forced with a need to improve the city, reluctant politicians announced a plan that was calculated to make everyone angry. Now it's been solidly rejected, it can be forgotten quietly and replaced by more ideas to make it easier to drive.

Greg Spencer said...

That's a possibility, one that's been suggested by a few people I know. However, one of the main proponents of the idea (maybe its originator, although I'm not certain) is the Clean Air Action Group (www.levego.hu), whose credibility is not in question. Their skill in marketing and PR is another question, though. And I have no doubt that some of Budapest's political leaders have, indeed, seen this from the beginning as an way to avoid serious work on congestion.