Guest Post by Justin Hyatt: Who said cars can't be curbed?

Cars have to stop being everywhere they feel like being. We need to reduce their level of ubiquity by a notch or two. While the time might not yet be ripe for their full-scale removal from towns and cities (the European Commission is sounding out such a long-term goal with an eye to 2050) but we need to do something about their universal access. Now.

At some point in the human history it was deemed the right move to place cars on a high pedestal, one where we bestow on them the space they demanded of us and then some. Where previously people walked in the middle of the road or children played with their companions, today those very same places are the scene of high speeds and a never-ending flow of metal boxes spewing unhealthy fumes. To venture in their midst would be a death wish.

I am perhaps lucky that in my home turf Budapest, Hungary most of the sidewalks can be traversed by foot, albeit with the occasional inconvenience of not being able to walk hand-in-hand with my girlfriend - some streets require you to be sufficiently skinny to be able to squeeze between house and car. However, elsewhere even skinny people aren't so lucky: In Istanbul, Turkey I have seen cars take up 100% of the available sidewalk space, while in Bucharest, Romania I was surprised to find a car actually parked on a pedestrian crossing (not just idling), and in Bakersfield, California I was honked at for just being out on my two feet.

Apart from the noble cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the air quality for those living in urban areas (a cause which is winning ever greater public acceptance), we simply need to recover some of that territory that was taken away from us and given over to cars, either stationary or in motion. Kids need places to play. The usual parental excuse for a childhood limited to television, Nintendo or the mall is: "I just can't let you out there son, the traffic is too dangerous". People need places to recreate and all of us need to be given the choice of either commingling with vehicles or with pedestrians.

As one of my favorite Andy Singer Cartoon goes: "We've appeased the non-smokers, now let's appease non-drivers... !! Divide cities into two sections, Driving and Non-Driving"* What I like about that is the simplicity of the message, leaning on superb logic. Just consider, no one who abstains from smoking or wretches from fumes is very happy when forced to sit in a smoke-filled bar. So why is it that there are so many cities where a large percentage of the population does not drive cars (in European cities, you find many neighborhoods where the carless constitute the majority), yet day after day we have to put up with walking around cars, being hit by cars, having our public space dominated by cars, all the time breathing in the horrendous, carcinogenic fumes that cars release into the air? It certainly appears that non-smokers carved out the better deal.

I would then suggest that the act of driving has been awarded a free ride for too long, barreling down the 20th century like an unstoppable force, with nary a soul taking issue with this red carpet treatment. I am cautiously optimistic that the story of the 21st Century will be one of undoing some of the damage of yesteryear. If enough people feel strong enough about it, that is. A plan for action accompanied by firm resolve is the order of the day.

Passionate and informed activism might indeed be the only thing to extricate us from the stranglehold we are currently tied up in. Some dreamily hope for the day that the oil runs out, believing that this will magically send all those vehicles to CARmaggedon.

Wrong. As we sit here, pondering the end of the automobile, the car and oil industry are busy preparing us for the next stage: alternative fuels, biofuels, green cars, electric cars, solar cars, and all that hogwash.

Let me make my position clear. Biofuels and electric cars are the wrong answer to the problem of how to restructure our mobility. Oops, the celebrated first car ever to be fuelled on genetically modified rat poop just ran over someone's grandmother. Given the choice of redesigning the motor vehicle or redesigning our mobility and neighborhoods, I'll go with the neighborhoods.

And it's not all rocket science. The compact format of a mixed-use neighborhood is one where taking care of all your needs is a breeze - shopping, the dentist, a game of bocce ball in the park - all a short walk from your front doorstep.

Going back to my first paragraph, where I mentioned reducing the level of the car's ubiquity, here is one very concrete example: Parking. It is sheer nonsense that parking must be made available on every inch of ground with never more than a six second dash from a house entrance. I have heard it said that getting a motorist to give up their cherished parking space is more difficult than dragging him or her to the dentist.

Yet once we properly limit the availability of downtown parking places, people will begin to see things in a new light: Maintaining ubiquitous, universal access to parking (or lanes for driving) is not a fundamental human right, and should not be treated as such. The right to park does not figure in the UN Charter of Human rights and is not given as a charge in any holy books of world religions. Rather - preserving human life, access to free movement as well as happiness and health are loftier goals. Let's work in our communities and cities to herald in the change, one reclaimed sidewalk, parking space, or public square at a time.

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I take comfort in groups like New-York based Project for Public Spaces, who are doing their level best to help put community back into neighborhoods and the public arena. People at the World Carfree Network have been saying it for a long time: There is a whole world out there beyond the ignition switch. Giving this all a visual boost is Street films, whose poignant street-smart view to the transformation of our city streets helps us all to see it.

*cartoon referred to:

Justin Hyatt makes his home in Budapest, Hungary, where he coordinates the Social Bike Business Budapest and partakes in other mobility mending initiatives. He is the proud owner of a biomega Copenhagen, the prize bicycle awarded through the "Paul Goodman changed my life" contest. He also edits the World Carfree Monthly News (available via the World Carfree Network's website).