| Environmental limits to motorisation |
Anything with an engine is a symbol of progress and anything without is considered a symbol of backwardness. We could see the disapproval on the face of our interpreter in Hanoi, when we insisted that we see the city riding on a bicycle. He could not understand why we had refused his offer of a car. "Foreigners are strange, aren’t they?" he seemed to say, while escorting us on his brand new Japanese motorbike through the streets of Hanoi. We thoroughly enjoyed the calm traffic, which was mostly comprised of bikes and motorbikes.
Yet even in Vietnam, times are changing fast. Around 20% of the bicycles have already been replaced by motorcycles, and it seems that the other 80% will be before long. Most people dream of having a motorcycle, and if they can afford it, they purchase one at the earliest opportunity.
Why is it that everybody seems to dream of a motorised vehicle, when cycling in a flat city like Hanoi is so convenient? Is it the longing for comfort? Or is it mostly prestige, since a motorcycle gives more status and provides a "touch of middle class"?
Cars or motorbikes are much more than rational means of transport: like perfumes and other prestigious goods, they are material symbols of status, luxury, comfort, prosperity and happiness, as Wolfgang Sachs shows in his book "Love for the Automobile" 1. Especially after the years of the second world war, the car was a symbol of freedom and of newly regained wealth. But Sachs also shows how this dream is now becoming a nightmare, as we see the negative sides of cars: increasing pollution and congestion, and average speeds declining everywhere. The more roads are built, the more traffic is generated.
Many cities in Europe have adopted traffic-calming policies and they try increasingly to restrict the use of cars, at least in inner cities. It appears more and more evident that private motorised transport is not compatible with a dense city life. All efforts to make the city "autogerecht" (suited to motor cars) have failed: they have destroyed the cities. The cities which have the highest quality of life are those which have created pedestrian zones and banned cars from the inner city. In Amsterdam, for example, a majority of voters opted for a car-free inner city, in a recent referendum.2
The trends of urbanisation and the even faster increase in motorisation will create severe pollution problems in most cities of the Third World. By the year 2000, there will be more than 40 cities with more than 5 million inhabitants. In most of these cities, the motor vehicle fleet is growing very fast: for example, between 1984 and 1988, the annual growth in the motor vehicles in the Republic of Korea was 30%, in Kenya 26%, in China 14%, Brazil 11%, and Pakistan and Thailand 9% each, compared to about 2% in the United States and 3% in the United Kingdom.3
Traffic in most Third World cities is chaotic, noisy and highly polluting. Cities like Bangkok and Mexico City are frightening examples of traffic congestion with a high degree of noise and pollution. Mexico City had to close down in March 1992 when its ozone concentration reached unbearable limits (the accepted limits are already 3.5 times higher than in the USA). Due to notorious congestion, the average speed during rush hours is often less than walking speed.
Even if this traffic is characterised by millions of private cars and motorbikes, private motorisation is still a privilege for only the happy few. Only some high-income developing countries like Venezuela and Malaysia have motorisation rates higher than 10%. It is obvious that the dream of owning a car will remain just a dream for the majority. It is simply a matter of fact that most people in developing countries will never be able to afford one. In fact, the majority of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America have no vehicle at all: their main means of transport is their own feet. Walking accounts for 40 to 50% of all daily trips in many countries and for many, non-motorised vehicles (bicycles, tricycles, ox-carts, donkey-carts, country-boats) are still the predominant modes.
Transportation planning, however, is mainly geared towards motorised transport. Most planners have studied in Northern metropoli and they know how to build roads for trucks, buses and cars. But as there are no statistical data about non-motorised transport (NMT), planners do not know about the importance of NMT. In Dhaka, around 200’000 rickshaws perform daily more passenger kilometres than the London underground. Because of the "backward character" of NMT, the attitude of planners is mostly hostile. Most policies are focused on the explicit elimination of NMT (such as the bans of rickshaws in Jakarta and other cities).
Consequently, many cities are giving the bulk of their scarce road space to private cars for a minority, while public transport, pedestrians and cyclists have to share the remaining part. Due to pollution and aggressive driving, the "vulnerable road users" are more and more threatened and cycling and walking become less and less popular. These vulnerable road users require a "bicycle-friendly environment", as in some cities in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
There is no doubt that transport policies are political choices: whether heavy motorisation is favoured or non-motorised and public transport is given preference is a political decision. Nobody can prohibit dreams: if people in developing countries want to dream of a motorbike or a car, that is their right. But whether this dream can become reality for a majority and not only for an elite is the first question. Secondly, if it becomes reality, it may well become a nightmare, as some cities in the Third World have already found out. However, many smaller and middle-sized cities (up to one million population) still have a choice to make.
The temptation to opt for heavy motorisation is great, but, if certain macro-conditions were to be fulfilled, people in developing countries might well have to adopt a new thinking, as has been the case in Europe and Japan: The new paradigm is to build cities with less cars and a high participation of bicycles in urban traffic. This is a modern dream, not an old-fashioned approach: cities like Delft and Groningen in the Netherlands, Erlangen and Nuernberg in Germany, Basel and Bern in Switzerland are modern because they have adopted a bicycle-friendly policy. They have created a new urban quality of life. A similar change in attitude might be required as regards smoking: it took a long time to shift from the ideal of the "Gauloise type" (or Camel or Marlboro) to the acceptance of the norm "intelligent people don’t smoke".