Relief for congested city centre emerging?


Around 700,000 cars pass through the streets of Prague every day and many of them through its historic centre. This fact makes life difficult for the residents and also increases air-pollution which in Prague is the worst in the whole of the Czech Republic. Last year's floods closed the city centre to car traffic and people realised there were other ways to move around the city than in their car. Todd Edelman works for the NGO Cyklistika a energie budoucnosti.

"Obviously there were the floods which our organisation tried to capitalise on. Because the streets were closed to cars, we saw immediately that the number of cyclists increased. Actually we did a counting in 2001 at Palackeho namesti and did the same thing in 2002 and the number of cyclists increased and we found there was a 500-percent increase in cyclists during the workday. Not sportsmen or sportswomen but people going to school, people going to their job. Once the roads opened, the cyclists were off the streets. There is a tremendous desire to cycle. It was evident in a poll on commuting traffic the city did (and which they are ignoring), and we saw that it actually really happened. Because of the floods there was always pressure for funding and now we'll get a little bit more money than we thought we were going to get before. It's still really unclear. I think what's happening now as the days warm up is I'm seeing a lot of cyclists on the streets. It seems there are more of them than a year ago in the same time. And I think it's a lag effect. Right after the floods people thought "well, maybe a bicycle is possible" and then it started to get cold and people said "OK, I don't have the money, I'll wait till after the ski holidays and then maybe I'll get my bike working or I'll get a new bike" and I think that's what's happening. It seems that it's maybe increasing a little bit, the problem is still the city is not listening."

But back to the situation right after the floods. Many supporters of non-motorised transport hoped at that time that nature provided the city representatives with a good opportunity to keep the restrictions on traffic in the centre even after all repair work has been finished. That did not materialise, so activists have come up with other ideas how to curb traffic in the city centre. I spoke to Daniel Mourek from the Partnership Foundation.

"I can add to the problem of the closure of the city centre is that some political parties have already thought about implementing a similar model to London and they have proved that it would be feasible to close the centre of Prague and open is only after paying a certain toll. It could be done for example electronically by reading the licence plates - it can be done. There is a lack of will to do it and there is not enough pressure still from the citizens for such a policy which would be beneficial for all Prague citizens."

The Deputy Mayor of Prague Jiri Paroubek recently came up with a suggestion that a congestion charge in the centre of Prague, similar to that effective in London, could be implemented in four to five years' time.

"I think it will be necessary. I think we need to start discussing the topic. The debate will start within a few weeks because I will submit to the city councillors documents on possibilities of financing the construction of the northwest part of the city ring road. And the introduction of tolls is one potential way to finance the project."

So the money collected from drivers entering the city centre would go to the construction of even more roads. Opponents of new road construction say that more roads only induce more traffic. They say that while some cars would stay away from the centre and use the ring road, others would take the advantage of the relatively empty streets in the city centre and fill them up again.

"I don't think so. On the contrary, once the northwest stretch of the city ring road, that means the whole ring road is finished, it will protect the city centre, the historical monuments and it could also improve the environment. Also the tolls might put drivers off entering the centre. It is possible that tolls will be paid on the ring road as well but I would prefer a congestion charge to be introduced in the centre of the city."

Air-pollution, noise and traffic congestion are not the only problems caused by increasing car dependence. The Czech Republic has a bad traffic-accident record and a sad reputation of having reckless drivers. Todd Edelman from Cyklistika a energie budoucnosti again.

"I'd say it's not just driving habits, it's the number of cars, it's the amount of metal on the streets that makes it harder. I think the reason why people started to get hit more in zebras was partly because people were asserting their rights to the streets. People should have a priority even over bicycles, of course, and the cars weren't accepting that and were still behaving as before. If I can say something about Czechs - since I'm not Czech - I think people still don't feel that the politicians will listen to them and there is desire there but it's like a two-way street. The politicians have to give and tell people that they are listening and that they are actually making changes based on that, and then people will see that as a teaser or appetiser and that they will push more. A lot of people I talk to say that's a great idea but they either don't know exactly how. There is still this kind of schism between "experts" and the "normal people" that is still perpetuated and when they do try to change something, the politicians still don't listen enough."

Daniel Mourek agrees that there should be more grass-roots activity and that people should have more access to information. Also the Czech Republic could look for inspiration in other cities where they have managed to improve relations between drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

"What is really important and we can learn from other cities is that if you communicate with the drivers, if you educate them, they would be willing not to use cars, especially in the centre but because there is no strategy, no one is explaining to people why it is bad to drive a car when we have such a good public transportation system. We all know that the NGOs and other organisations are involved but this has to be communicated to people who don't have access to this kind of information and we have to activate the drivers, raise their awareness. Like in Bogotá. When they explained it to people, they voluntarily refused to use the car in the city centre, in certain parts on maybe on certain days. For that you have campaigns, such as car-free days when people are learning and being taught to not use a car for good reasons. Because the streets can be reclaimed by kids, by shops, by entrepreneurs. There is also a direct economic link to not using cars in the city centres. It's not that people would go by car to the city centre and do their shopping. These are the arguments of small villages. If we don't allow the cars to go to the shops, no one will shop. But in the centre, no one really uses cars for shopping."

Since the fall of the communist regime, the number of cars on Czech roads increased manifold but believe it or not the average age of all motor vehicles is 17.5 years, also due to the fact that laws banning the import of old cars to the Czech Republic are not enforced properly. But even if all those highly polluting cars eventually disappear from Czech roads, only a part of the problem would be solved.

"Even if air pollution goes down with all these so-called "green cars", even if their individual tailpipe exhaust goes down, the fact that there is more cars cancels that out sometimes and the fact that there is more cars make the things more dangerous, makes the streets even less of a social space. And as I say if a "green" car or a hydrogen cell car hits you it hurts just as much as a big old stinky Skoda."