In Europe's Car-Laden Cities, Appeals for Residents to Bike, Walk or Take the Train
STOCKHOLM, Sweden Hundreds of European cities and towns restricted auto traffic Wednesday, part of the continent's annual campaign to lower air pollution by encouraging commuters to use public transportation, bicycles, or their feet instead of their cars.
More than 1,500 municipalities, chiefly in Europe, participated in the seventh annual car-free day campaign by setting up roadblocks to prevent nonessential automobile traffic from entering city centers. The campaign also spread to cities in Japan and South America.
"Listen how quiet it is here in the middle of the city," said Winnie Berndtson, mayor for environmental affairs in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. "We had 1,700 children playing and learning about traffic today in streets that are normally packed with cars."
In Stockholm, a busy thoroughfare in the southern part of the capital was closed to all vehicle traffic. People were encouraged to walk or ride bikes to browse shops, and a local group offered historical walking tours of the Soedermalm neighborhood.
The Austrian capital, Vienna, closed segments of the expansive boulevard encircling downtown for four hours, giving pedestrians and cyclists a chance to take over the Ring Street, normally clogged by cars, trucks, buses, trams, and horse-drawn carriages.
"The European Car Free Day initiative should be a motivator to reshape Austria's traffic policy," said Gabriella Moser, the Green Party's spokeswoman for traffic issues.
But the closure irked the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, which complained of delays in business deliveries and traffic in surrounding streets.
"The Environmental Ministry should be more interested in keeping traffic flowing than in causing increased noise and pollution by creating artificial traffic jams," said Heinz Havelka of the group's department for vehicle trade.
Elsewhere in Europe, commuters pedaled or walked.
Copenhagen kept open two bus lines and allowed emergency vehicles and local resident traffic. But other cars, cabs, and tourist buses were forced to stop at eight manned gates, beyond which bicycles filled the streets.
Passengers in those vehicles had to either walk or bike beyond the gates.
About 30 percent of the Danish capital's 1.8 million people bike to work, Berndtson said.
In the Finnish capital, Helsinki, where commuters make about 700,000 journeys daily on public transportation, customers were offered all-day tickets good on buses, trams, commuter trains, and subways for US$1.20. They normally cost $6.50.
Morning rush-hour traffic moved at a snail's pace after central boulevards and main streets were closed to cars.
"What we are trying to do is make people aware of the alternatives," Environment Ministry official Leena Silfverberg said. "Maybe they will get a spark from the campaign and realize they could go to work in a more environment-friendly way."
However, some European cities kept streets open. In most Italian cities, including Rome, traffic was as bad as usual, and residents remained unaware of the environmental campaign.
"I wouldn't have used public transport, because one initiative a year would not change the state of things," said Marcello Ramoni, a 26-year-old construction worker driving to work in Rome.
Latvia has seen traffic in its capital rise rapidly since the country regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It will hold its car-free day Sunday and is considering imposing a toll on drivers entering its capital city Riga, similar to one imposed in London.
"The security and health of our children is the main problem, which is why all drivers should think at least on the Car-Free Day whether they always have to use their cars," Latvian Prime Minister Indulis Emsi said.
In Athens, Greece, the government decided not to ban cars because of the Paralympic Games. The government, which has banned cars in previous years, said residents should decide how to travel, but it made public transportation free.
In downtown Zagreb, Croatia's capital, drivers tried to navigate jammed streets near the city center, which was closed to traffic.
"I'll definitely be late for work," said Jan Jurcic, who was stuck in traffic.
Others, however, were delighted by the empty streets.
"That's how it should be," said a cyclist who gave only her first name, Mirjana. "Without cars, you can really enjoy this city."
Source: Associated Press