Educate. Connect. Inspire

Educate. Connect. Inspire

Oct 18, 2011

Greener cities? Not yet, but we are trying.

by Livia Minca

Moving away from fossil fuels is one of the biggest current challenges and for the cities who are trying to achieve this, the road is certainly not easy. One obvious sector where changes can and have to be made is transportation. However, good intentions sometimes do not pay off.

Here are two examples of cities where things are starting to move, although quite slowly.

In Zagreb, Croatia, the main slice of public transport infrastructure goes to trams, that cover most of the city centre, while buses are mainly used for suburban areas. This is certainly a great advantage, as trams use electricity instead of fuel and do not exhaust any nasty gases, so they are more environmentally friendly. However, the ride fares are not very cheap if you are not using a monthly subscription and the tickets represent one-way rides of maximum one hour in time.

A few years ago, a measure that was introduced by the city council certainly put a smile on citizens' faces. It was decided that a city belt would be created in the centre, inside of which travelling by tram would be free. Yes, it might have been just a political decision to gain votes in the upcoming elections and no one actually promoted the environmental benefits of this measure, but it does not mean they were not felt. Free travelling in the centre encouraged people to leave their cars outside and take the tram, less emissions were in the air, everyone was happy.

So what could have generated then the adoption of a new measure this year that annihilates the old one? It may have to do with the economic crisis, but the city council just argued that it is not fair to not pay for a service that is offered to you. But what about the taxes people pay? What about how it worked all these years, when there was still economic crisis? Anyway, the unfortunate thing is that again the environmental considerations were left aside. People just accepted the situation and moved on, in the honks of cars that crowded up again in the centre.

A pity, yes, but not all is lost. Short as it may have been, the tram-dominated car-free centre of Zagreb will remain a testimony of good practice, creating a precedent for environmental argumentation when the time comes again for a change.

Moving to another part of Europe, in Bucharest, Romania, the picture is completely different. A large, noisy, polluted city with over 2 million people moving around, Bucharest is not as lucky as Zagreb with its nice tram system. Sure, Bucharest has all forms of public transport: buses, trolleys, trams and metro. Still, the amount of mostly single-passenger cars is huge, even if parking spaces are scarce. The above-ground public transport is simply overwhelmed by the traffic, people are annoyed with the travel times, a general discontent floats in the air.

A few years ago some “fanatics” started using bicycles to move around the city easier, squeezing themselves among cars. This generated a whole debate about Bucharest lacking biking lanes and in a desperate attempt to escape the angry citizens, the City Hall decided to draw some paths. Just a hasty solution, as all of them were placed on the already thin side walks (that became thin because an extra lane was added for the cars in the years before), where people and parked cars together made it impossible for bikers to have a smooth ride.

Still, the number of bikers increased every year. Some gave up the idea of travelling through the city by bike, but were just enthusiastic about  riding it, so they started to crowd the parks. Bicycle renting centres appeared and were a success. NGOs promoting biking did not loose momentum and, together with appropriate sponsors, came up with a great idea: rent a bike in the park for free. It's quite easy and fun actually. You just need to leave your ID there and you can have a bicycle for free for one hour. Practical, too: if you damage the bike or do not bring it back, they know where to find you.

So, this is how the bikers community is growing every year and how the parks are getting packed with riders. Eventually something good will come out of this: either the authorities will design proper bicycle lanes or they will have to build more parks (and Bucharest desperately needs them as well).