Czech steering towards increased car dependence


Nowadays more and more Czechs are jumping into their cars instead of taking public transport, walking or cycling. A study conducted by the Environmental Research Centre at Charles University warns that the Czech Republic could move from being a moderately car dependent society to a high car dependent society by 2012 if current trends continue. So, why are Czechs so eager to be behind the steering wheel these days?

Photo: Jana Šustová
One of my favourite things about the city of Prague is the public transport system. I have never seen anything like it in North America. Here, I can get anywhere, anytime- the trams, the buses and the underground are all connected- it's almost too simple. When I heard that the Czech Republic was becoming increasingly car dependent I wanted to know what exactly this meant. I spoke to Hana Foltynova from Charles University's Environmental Research Centre about what car dependency is:

"Car dependency concept says that the increase of automobile dependency brings negative impacts on the environment and the health of people and at the same time it eliminates alternatives to cars."

"During the last ten years there was a huge increase of automobile transport which took place together with a decrease of public transport. First less people use public transport and some connections, especially in rural places were cancelled."

The increase in auto use has been so significant that Prague now has the most cars per inhabitant of any city in Europe. I was curious to know if increased car dependency was simply inevitable- that becoming more developed and more westernized also means becoming more car dependent. I spoke to Randall Ghent from the World Carfree Network about this issue:

"Many Western countries have gone very far in developing bicycle infrastructure, many people know about the Netherlands, in the city of Kernigan fifty percent of all trips are made by bicycle, that's a western country but if you build your city structure only around automobiles, people are going to be very dependent on them."

I asked Mr.Ghent if perhaps it was easier to convince people in this part of the world to use public transport since there already is such an efficient system in place:

"Well it is and it isn't, in Central and Eastern Europe, a lot of people want to follow the Western model, it's a status issue to be seen driving around in a car means that you are someone important, your somebody with money and that's valued. At the same time, a lot of the pre-automobile infrastructure is still in place and people can really see the value of it, for example old town Prague, people appreciate such places because they are built on a human scale, they have high quality of life- your destinations are reachable very quickly on foot, you have architectural detail, narrow streets that provide a sense of charm, mystery and tranquillity."

Hana Foltynova from the Environmental Research Centre also spoke about the psychological aspects of car dependency:

"Automobile dependency also has social and psychological dimensions, we guess that a car can be a status symbol, some people don't want to use public transport anymore because it can be a sign of a low social position in society. After 1989 there was a boom of small business' so one of the groups of people who use cars are small businessmen."

I met up with a Jaroslav Sicha, a young business student and asked him how he would feel taking public transport to a business meeting:

"Preferably if I go to a meeting and there is a chance that the guy I have a meeting with will see my car, or he will see if I come by car of by public transport, I would use my car to show that I have a car. People like to do business with you if you look successful, because they feel that they will be successful also and the better car you get, the better for you, the better image you have."

Although public transport is very good in the old town- the situation in the newer parts of the city are quite different- Randall Ghent from World Carfree Network:

"On the other hand, in Prague for example, you see suburbs that are very auto dependent, and are strung along the motorway and are lined by big stores like Hornbach and Ikea, people spend their time getting back and forth and they live surrounded by giant parking lots."

I asked Mr.Ghent what he thought were workable solutions to our increasing dependence on cars:

"It's takes a lot of leadership from the city, it's takes a lot of gradual change, where you bring in public space architects who know how to make pleasant environments that people want to live in, it's takes the will to gradually reduce the amount of space devoted to the automobile so that over time you can reduce the dependence. If you just want to add public transport, walking and cycling paths on the side, you are really not going to see a decrease in car dependence."

Stepan Bohac, an architect working for Greenways, a Czech non-profit organization aimed at developing alternative transport in the Czech Republic, pointed to the Danish capital as a city which had found a workable way of reducing traffic in the centre:

"If you try to reduce traffic in the centre by prohibiting it, it doesn't work, it makes a lot of protest and so on. But there are many successful ways to do it, one example would be the Danish capital, Coppenhagen, they started simply by reducing parking capacities, every year they took reduced parking capacities by two percent, it was just a small change, they opened some new pedestrian areas and reduced parking. And in twenty years the city has changed in a way you wouldn't guess, people are walking and cycling and they enjoy their town much more than before."

Mr Bohac calls for better urban planning and notes that the local political climate is also an important factor:

"It means to start with urban planning, to place new structures and activities on places that have good access by public transportation or reduce distances, you can observe in Western European and in Czechia most of the new structure are behind the town, close to motorways, very often the access with public transport is bad. The urban planning of Prague doesn't have some strategy to make a sustainable transport system, it just lets the investors build where they want. Politicians prefer investing in big roads and motorways and when you improve conditions for cars and the public transportation remains the same, it's good motivation for people to get into cars."

I was also curious to know whether economic incentives were a realistic way of reducing traffic in the city centre:

"As concerns the charging, there are already discussions but the thinking about it is wrong, because in London they introduced the charge to get rid of congestion and improve public transportation but for Prague politicians it means more income to build more roads."

With all the challenges to reducing car dependence, I asked Mr.Bohac what one could do:

"Everyone can and I think this is very important- to start with your own behaviour, its quite funny that people are complaining about car traffic and use the car themselves to go shopping for a distance of eight hundred meters. That's the point, people should start thinking about their own mobility and to do it in a sustainable way."