Cars are obsolete in cities (9 Oct. 2021)

Dhaka Tribune

An empty autobahn, long desert highway, scenic mountain pass; I can think of few better places to be cruising along in one’s own automobile. 

Or less realistic. Since 2010, over half the world’s population has lived in cities. It will be over two thirds by 2050. Bangladesh is in the early stages of this trend with more people still living in rural areas, but already has one of the world’s most populated megacities.

The reality of private car ownership is rather different than advertised. The world over, supersized “utility” vehicles are more likely to be seen ferrying children on the school run in cities where they used to walk or take a bus, than they are to be witnessed ranching cattle. 

The fantasy of a fast car whizzing past all comers on a motorway has wide appeal but doesn’t make them immune from being stuck in city centre traffic. 

Consider the actual journeys people must make every day, not holidays and off-peak. In real life, most journeys requiring over 30 minutes’ walk involve going to and from work, shops, education, and health care. For the big, busy cities within which humanity increasingly lives, the most efficient — and fastest — ways to ferry large numbers of people around were proven over a century ago. Mass public transit is older than the privately owned motor car but has outlived it for known usefulness. 

For sure, the combination of plenty of space with mass private car ownership made cities in North America follow a different route in the last century, with sufficient success to be globally emulated. (Aided in the US after WWII by undermining existing bus/tram systems — the conspiracy at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was based on a true story.)

But the limits of what a car-centric approach can do have been obvious for decades. No quantity of dozen lane highways can curb gridlock in cities like Houston and Los Angeles. Roads always fill up beyond capacity inside and around big cities. 

Hence, some older, more densely populated cities in Europe whose lack of space made it harder to prioritize cars all the time have outpaced the briefly more glamourous 20th century Detroit model by retaining and improving their public transit systems, and why China , alongside building one of the world’s largest expressway networks over the last three decades, has also built dozens of major metro systems with many more in the pipeline.

As former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa famously encapsulated: “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.” This has certainly long been the case in and around London, which was spared the deregulation that Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed on public transport services in the mid-1980s, leading to the situation today where the richest city in the UK have the best bus services and cheapest fares, when this was not always the case.

Disclosure, many years ago I benefited from two pence (or 10 pence once you looked 16) countywide bus fares far outside London, via a scheme not only successful, but cheaper (I checked) than even the pitiful rates Dhaka’s rickshaw-pullers were getting at the time. 

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Clearly, I was brainwashed into being a car-sceptic socialist, except no, common sense doesn’t work that way: One Jeremy Clarkson had access to the exact same system.

More disclosure, while I think it illogical for climate protestors Extinction Rebellion to disrupt pedestrians in parts of central London which already have over 96% of people reaching them via public transport and taxis, this doesn’t negate their fundamental right to protest, nor should it be used as an excuse by the government to seek more authoritarian powers. But I would say this as years ago I was one of thousands of people who held a day long rave on a stretch of West London motorway.  

In a pre-smartphone age, it was a miracle of anarchist organization by Reclaim the Streets to clamber so many so quickly on to a high flyover. Footage survives online in the British Film Institute archive under the title M41 protest. The titular motorway is no more — its status was downgraded (there is a website called Pathetic Motorways for those who follow such matters) but, and this is a coda you may not be expecting, the road and area around it is now better known and busier than ever as Westfield, one of Europe’s biggest shopping centres. So much for the protest then, consumption conquers all, so don’t bother caring … 

Not much hope for Dhaka then with slash and burn city planners pinning their pipedreams on new neighbourhoods to escape from it all, rather than improving basics like sewage and green space in the city that already exists and draws millions by the decade.  

Maybe governments enthused by megaprojects could complete all six Metro Rail lines and make a start on a subway system/commuter railroad in the next two decades. Dhaka’s survival probably depends on it. I am certain the single first slice of Metro Rail will be wildly popular when open, but when it comes to tackling Dhaka’s traffic congestion and pollution problems, bear in mind it is like bringing a sticking plaster to a heart transplant. 

Much more building work and expense will have to come before Dhaka’s residents can complain about public transport like Londoners. This will take many years and much disruption. 

In the interim and beyond, Dhaka’s car-owners need to accept some basic truths. Cities depend on citizens congregating in civic spaces, the objective of planners should be to maximize the numbers that can speedily get in and out or around/under — but not through — city centres. Their ideal speed is the civilized walking pace of ancient not modern Athens.

It sounds counterintuitive, but limiting road space for private cars and improving public transport is proven to help those remaining who will still insist or need private transport.  Bus lanes work well when properly policed, building and running decent, safe buses for all in Dhaka will not require time-consuming infrastructure projects to be implemented so ought to be prioritized immediately alongside the planned BRT routes. 

The disgrace of being a city where ambulances are routinely stuck in deadly traffic jams can be ended quickly if people dial down the fantasy and face the reality of cars in cities.