Letter from Prague

Prague, like many of the other capital or large cities in Central Europe, has an amazing local public transport system. This is one of the things the communists got right. In many other countries, tram lines were torn up decades ago, from London to Paris to Washington DC, as the authorities did not believe that this was a viable form of public transport. Other than many capital cities and a few large ones, few places possess an underground, metro or subway. Prague has both a metro service and trams, plus a multitude of buses that serve all outlying areas of the city. I am constantly amazed and delighted at how cheap and efficient the service is. The tram service in particular is worthy of note, and it is my favourite, as I prefer to travel above ground. There are even trams that run through the night, at forty-minute intervals, so that people can get home cheaply all the way through the night. It is an admirable service, and used by a great many people every day.

It is therefore somewhat of a mystery to me why so many people in Prague choose not to use the public transport system, which is, as I have already mentioned, cheap and efficient. Instead, they opt to drive by car, which causes many problems within the city. When you take into account the fact that Prague does not have much in the way of wide roads or highways, that many of its streets are narrow and not really built for heavy traffic, then you may begin to see where the problem lies. The windy lanes and small streets of the beautiful parts of Prague can be jam packed full of cars from morning till night all the way through the week, with backlogs and traffic jams leaving drivers frustrated and angry. The time it takes to cross Prague by car is increasing steadily. And considering the fact that the number of cars on the streets of Prague is increasing at a rate of twenty percent a year, it can only get worse.

Old roads that were not built to take this heavy traffic have to be dug up frequently for repairs, and the pollution from the cars doesn't even bear thinking about. Twice in the past few years the centre of Prague has been shut down for the day to traffic because of heavy smog caused by cars, trucks, buses and the like. The city's administration has repeatedly asked drivers not to use their cars too much, but all these pleas have fallen on deaf ears. People continue to drive, and traffic continues to build up.

I often used to wonder as I travelled past lines of waiting cars with their frustrated drivers, why anyone would choose to drive when they could be like me, sitting in a tram with a book in my lap, not having to wait in line for twenty minutes before reaching the green light that would inevitably soon lead to another red. The main reason why people in Prague will put up with this discomfort is actually fairly simple.

Cars are a status symbol in the Czech Republic. Not for everyone, but the vast majority of Czechs want to have a nice car, just like millions of other people round the world. During the communist regime, people had to put a large deposit down for a car, and then wait up to ten years, or sometimes even longer, for a vehicle to materialise. Since the fall of communism in the region, there has been an explosion in the number of cars on the roads, with both new and used cars flooding into the Czech Republic, plus hundreds of thousands produced by the country's own car brand, Skoda, which is now owned by Volkswagen. And because cars were not available before, everyone wants to get one now. If you own a car, you have a certain status. You can drive anywhere you want. Including through the crowded streets of Prague.

When one bears in mind the cost of fuel for cars, which is approximately three dollars per gallon at this point, and the cost of a monthly public transport pass is about twenty-five dollars, then it is obvious that not only is driving in Prague frustrating, but it is also expensive. I have spoken to many drivers who admit that they hate driving in Prague during the week, that it is costly and stressful, but they do not want to give up their cars for public transport.

Eventually, I hope, the power of the car as a status symbol will wear off in Prague, and people will start using the public transport system more. With less stress, less traffic, and less pollution, it would be better for everyone.