Who should be happier: people or cars?


By URBACT, on December 16th, 2011

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As Slovenia’s capital and regional centre, Ljubljana has the typical problems of a large and attractive city. Predictably, it is constantly overcrowded with cars and therefore just getting around town, is a constant problem, especially during the rush hours,when, given the extreme congestion, using either a car or public transport is nearly impossible. Cycling, on the other hand, is not as time consuming, but unfortunately it’s not as safe either since so many of the traffic and bicycle lanes are not well organised or delineated. But all is not lost, as for some years now the municipal department has been looking for a solution to this problem, and this “experts’” debate has, along with popular public opinion, devolved into two camps, each with their own demands and arguments.

On the one side there are the advocates of the mobility for cars, pushing for widened avenues as well as more underground parking places in the city centre. They speak in favour of a car friendly city, a city adapted to cars, reflecting the American model. But theirs is not the only vision for a more mobile Ljubljana.

On the other side, there are those who claim there is a more sustainable model, with better conditions and more “human” means of transport, pushing to improve the efficiency of and ultimately for a broader use of public transportation.

Stuck in the middle is the municipal department, which has already started planning broader avenues, calling for the demolition of many buildings, but because of the heated debate they have postponed these plans for the time being. In the meantime the short-term plan to introduce a yellow lane to replace two of the current lanes for cars along the main arterial road through the city, has also been postponed and is still a subject of discussion between experts from both groups.

While analysing this present discourse we came to the conclusion that there is still an essential aspect missing, for representatives of both groups never fully address the social perspective. For example, the arguments of the “green” camp are mainly concentrated on sustainability linked to a healthy lifestyle, the concept of a liveable, eco-friendly city.

A “liveable city” is usually understood as the Danish urban architect Jan Gehl understands it, building on the ideas brought forward 50 years ago by Jane Jacobs. The aim is to create a lively, attractive, healthy, sustainable and safe urban space. As Gehl puts it, the main mistake urban planners have been making for years is attempting to make the cars “happy” rather than the people.

We agree. It is time to focus on the people and make them happy. We believe that the so often overlooked social perspective has to be brought forward in this discussion. If the social and spatial factors of an urban way of life  function properly, they stimulate the inclusion of the otherwise socially

Effective and simple accessibility for different people, services and places creating such a wide variety of possibilities, are the basic characteristics and advantages of the urban way of life, particularly when compared to failed urban models as well as the rural model.

The very complexity of a city, emphasized by Jacobs, and the wide range of choices it can bring to the table can be crucially important means for overcoming social inequality. However, this is only possible when every individual has access to express and hopefully incorporate his or her own wishes, regardless of one’s geographical or social position.

So, what do we do with the people who cannot own a car or don’t know how to drive a car – meaning the very young, the old and the handicapped, for instance? This question never appears in the debate we are analysing either.

Thus a city and transportation programs organised in favour of cars means excluding those people. Currently, the system of traffic regulation in Ljubljana privileges cars compared to other means of transportation and consequently excludes a part of the urban population.

If we promote the car as the king of the street it prevents many underprivileged individuals access to their desired destinations as efficiently as the car owners and drivers.

In such a car dominant Ljubljana it becomes an incredible challenge for those not using cars to even get around the city let alone arrive at their destinations in a timely fashion.

Improving but still underdeveloped: public transport in Ljubljana. Source of photo: Vanja Brkič.


Also, it is important to point out that every citizen could find oneself in a position in which he or she is not capable of driving or owning a car. Not only luck can change for any of us at any time, but we will also all be old sooner or later and many of us have small children, so all of us could sooner or later find ourselves in an underprivileged situation.

Nevertheless, those who already are in such a position, feel the consequences of ineffective urban mobility right here and right now. Clearly, the use of public space and public transport on a daily basis is of crucial importance also for sociability, for on the one hand it allows for meeting people we know and on the other hand it enables contacts with total strangers. Meeting strangers on a daily basis is essential for maintenance of tolerance and accepting of social and ethnic differences in any urban setting where peaceful cohabitation is the goal. Individual mobility only by car hinders those contacts. Children and young people are being prevented from gaining these social skills in daily interactions, if they are being constantly transported by car. Their gradual emancipation from their parents or carers is hindered, if they cannot go to school by themselves. Old people find themselves in a similar situation to children. If public transportation of sufficient quality enables them to plan their daily life independently they have a freedom of choice. Similarly to the young ones, this gives them a feeling of power over their own life.

By considering the social perspective new factors are being revealed that can have strong positive influences on the lives of people. As we highlighted, it is not just about nicely arranged public places and efficient public transport. It is the lively, safe and healthy environment that makes the difference. It is not for those who can choose either to use alternative means of transportation or not, it is for those, who cannot choose – to leave them a wide range of choices that a city has to offer.

So if we include the social perspective in the current public discussion on transportation solutions in Ljubljana, it becomes obvious that one of the two opposing views has more to offer to more people, especially the unprivileged ones, than the other. If the city of Ljubljana wants to ensure equal choices and increased possibilities for everyone, it has to stimulate sustainable transportation. It not only anticipates social mobility, but also awakes other processes and phenomena that create a liveable, loveable city.

By Petra Očkerl, IPoP, National Dissemination Point in Slovenia

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