Choked by Cars, Europe Looks for Alternatives

Rise in traffic is most drastic in East Europe. Officials gather to find ways to slow growth.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In Paris last summer, you couldn't see the city of lights for the smog. The air quality became so dangerous that at one point, the number of cars entering the city was restricted.

"It was a matter of an extreme disaster situation," says Kaj Barlund, an official with the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). "From one day to another we had to restrict half of the private cars and traffic in Paris.

Traffic congestion in Europe, he says, "is a trend that is becoming worse."

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Despite a reputation for bike paths and public transport, many countries in Europe are scrambling for ways to keep more cars off the roads.

Take the Baltic state of Latvia, for instance. In 1990, when it was in the Soviet Union, its capital, Riga, had 120 cars per 1,000 people. Today, there are 200 cars per 1,000 people, and the growth shows no sign of slowing.

"We have been behind the Iron Curtain so long," says Andis Zilans, Riga's director of planning. "We watched [on TV] all the beautiful things in the West, fashionable ladies stepping in and out of cars. It became a goal for us to own a car."

Mr. Zilans adds, "In Riga, we expect the number of car owners to increase close to the rest of Europe. There will be 300 to 400 per 1,000. I think that we can learn from experiences in Western Europe and minimize the damage. It is not just limiting cars, it is providing alternatives."

At a workshop earlier this month sponsored by Austria and the ECE, officials from all over Europe discussed a wide range of transportation- and energy-related proposals that would benefit the environment.

Delegates from across Europe expressed concern about the impact of the growing number of autos in the former East bloc. In Krakow, Poland, for example, 53,000 new cars were registered in 1996.

"What is needed is dialogue and making new options available," Mr. Barlund of the ECE says. "Unhappily, change comes slowly. What is needed is to disseminate new proposals, ideas, and initiatives for use on a local level."

"We have to look at what makes life pleasant, worth living, and enjoyable and what also gives the environment a fair chance," says Gabriella Langschwert of the Austrian Ministry of Environment, Youth, and Family Affairs. "We should not restrict people in their desire to move. But can their desire to move be only fulfilled by using cars?

"Can we do better with car sharing?" she suggests. "Is it wise to have one person in a car jamming the road...? Right now in Austria there is a combination of rail and taxi service for people who want to go skiing."

Delegates noted that countries in transition had good public transport systems in place, with a high level of service. But experts warned that some of that system is breaking down under the financial pressures of a transition to a free-market economy.

In Riga, no money is budgeted for public transportation. "We have gone from one extreme to another. The whole city is fighting over the budget, and now we have a transport system that is not a moneymaker, so there is a great tendency for service to decrease," says planning director Zilans.

"Yes, we will make some mistakes. But we hope that it will not be as bad as ... in the West," he adds.

"You cannot tell citizens that they cannot use a car. The whole world uses a car."

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