Thursday, 29 May 2008

Cars Are Driving Us Nuts

We drive ever longer distances in order to satisfy the same needs

An interview with Hermann Knoflacher

Martin Hablesreiter and Sonja Stummerer recently interviewed one of the leading traffic scientists, Professor Hermann Knoflacher. He has taught at the Institut fuer Verkehrsplanung und Verkehrstechnik at the Technische Universitaet in Vienna for more than 30 years. The 67-year-old professor became well known in Vienna for his innovative thinking on traffic issues. He developed pedestrian areas, put trams on separate roadways, and advocated a separate network of bicycle paths.
Translated by Ulrich Nehls with help from Sarah Whelan in Galway, Ireland.
Q: Are you opposed to the car?

HK: I am not opposed to the car. But I am aware of its impact on our society.

Q: Do you drive?

HK: I don't own a car, but I drive occasionally.

Q: So, what impact does motorization have on our society?

HK: An incredible one. The car is like a virus that beds in your brain and totally subverts behaviour, values, and perception. A normal person would call our present living space completely insane. We move into sealed houses more or less voluntarily, with noise-protected windows and leave the outside to the noise, dust, and exhaust of the cars. That is a full reversal of values, and we don't even notice it any more.

Q: In your opinion how did it come this far ?

HK: Our problem is upright walking. We consume a considerable amount of muscle and navigation energy in order to stabilize our body. Just think of the coordination problems when under the influence of alcohol. When driving we use only one sixth of our energy and feel incredibly fast and powerful. That is one part. The other one is urban planning that requires cars to be as close as possible to all of our social activities. That's how you destroy the natural habitat, public transit, local supply, and eventually the social network that humans have established in millennia.

Q: So the car destroys evolution?

HK: No, but the human accomplishments of past generations have been degraded by the car.

Q: Does the car era mean our cultural doom?

HK: I wouldn't say that, since a cultural doom is not the real problem in my eyes. It's only the latest layer of evolution to get lost. The permanent structural devastation caused by the car is much worse.

Q: Is driving addictive?

HK: Definitely! The car takes possession of people. The driver is more distinguished from a human than any insect.

Q: What do you mean by that?

HK: Mobility with the own body is something common between humans and insects. However, a driver does not need this. And no insects destroy the living space of their successors for their own convenience, or move so fast that it could kill themselves.

Q: In your opinion what should mobility in our society look like then?

HK: Every society needs mobility to satisfy its needs. If we could meet our needs locally we would be plants, not humans. Human mobility always emerges from local shortcomings.

Q: Why are we so proud of our mobility?

HK: You are talking about technical mobility. In historic terms we never were especially proud of mobility. On the contrary: mobility has always been a ballast. Settling down means getting rid of enforced mobility. Our mental mobility was enough to allow us to cultivate plants or domesticate animals.

Q: Is this why words such as gypsy or tramp are offensive?

HK: It's clear: The settled community have claimed their territory and refuse access to anybody else. Settled residences are seen as exclusive. Travellers challenge the ownership of the land of the settled people and are thus hated for doing so.

Q: You are both a critic of our traffic system and a planner. How does that work?

HK: At the start of my career I discovered that traditional traffic planning is merely based on assumptions. For a long time there was no consideration for the consequences for the society or the environment. Nobody cared about noise or pollution, about fatalities, about the economy being altered or unemployment being created. My goal is traffic planning on a scientific basis. Under this aspect it is my opinion that transportation is one of the most fascinating scientific areas.

Q: You criticize the lack of networking traffic planning with other scientific fields.

HK: Yes. Core statements in transportation are completely wrong from my point of view! The idea of mobility growth depends on an inchoate reflection of the system. There was the assumption of rising mobility by rising motorization. Today we know that only the number of car trips rises, while the overall amount of trips remains the same, because the use of public transportation and walking decrease at the same time. The other false assumption is that of saving time by higher speed. There are many evaluations of economic efficiency in traffic planning based on this assumption. In fact there is no such thing as saving time by higher speed. You only travel longer distances in the same period of time.

Q: How do you provide evidence for that?

HK: By critically watching the human time budget. It's interesting how the period of time for daily mobility is almost the same around the globe. But distances travelled are different. In the Sixties the philosopher Ivan Illich showed that the amount of energy invested into cars and road infrastructure would be sufficient to cover the distance by foot - and in a considerably more beautiful and peaceful environment.

Q: Doesn't social mobility increase when travelled distances increase?

HK: No. Quite the contrary. The additional distance is useless. Man covers greater distances for the same purposes as before. He does what he has always done, but travels farther.

Q: But we broaden our mind.

HK: How can I broaden my mind when I rush through the environment at 100 km/hr? You are really constricting your mind due to the speed.

Q: One experiences different things when travelling to India than to Bavaria.

HK: It does not depend on where you travel, but what you discover there. You won't experience more on a worn-out tourist trail in India than in Bavaria. Quite the contrary, with watchfulness and curiosity you may discover things in Bavaria you won't find in India. Speeds that exceed our evolutionary grown capabilities also exceed our perception. Mentally we cannot cope with the distances we have learnt to cover using technology.

Q: But we feel powerful.

HK: Of course. Mobility always equals power. By the way, studies have revealed that parents don't even consider their own children when it comes to opting for a parking space close to their front door or a low traffic zone. Restricted mobility, even at the risk of ones own offspring are accepted in favour of a convenient parking space.

Q: Is driving entirely insane?

HK: Considering the prerequisites man has created for his car driving, it is clearly the most convenient form of travelling, and thus quite rational. Look at the pedestrian infrastructure in comparison. Footpaths in their present shape are a joke! In earlier days the pedestrian was allowed to use the entire expanse of a street - for more than 7.000 years! We have pushed the pedestrians aside on the edge in last 50 years and now ask ourselves why this kind of mobility vanishes. The structures we have created forces people to drive!

Q: Are we living in a dictatorship of automobiles?

HK: Absolutely!

Q: Can this be changed?

HK: Certainly. Changing the way of organizing parking space would be sufficient. If you would pass a public transport stop, or a store - which would establish by itself - on your way to a parking lot, the demand for driving would decrease. Now a days people are taunted by fiddling with symptoms. They tack on a little parking fee here and a little congestion charge there. That is completely unfair. At first they establish conditions requiring people to use a car, and then they make them pay for it. As a traffic planner you ought to create arrangements that unburden people from the necessity to drive!

Q: That sounds like a conflict-laden job.

HK: At that time, my proposal of turning the Viennese Kartnerstrasse into a pedestrian zone was predicted to lead to its economical death. Later I was told that cycling was totally unwanted by the Viennese and that speeding up public transit by laying cobblestones near the stops would cause motorist uproar. All that was allegedly unpopular. Yet the Viennese have embraced these ideas and the city's living standard rose in international rankings. You can't only satisfy voters wishes. You don't give drug addicts tax-free drugs, even though the desire certainly exists.

Q: Could this problem, in your opinion, be solved with the gas price?

HK: No! Every gas price rise is a purely symbolic action and automatically leads into a social trap. When only the wealthy can afford filling up and the poor don't, there is still an unsolved traffic problem, with a social injustice added to it. The approach must be parking and the way to it. When you organise parking space properly, carfree spaces with a high value of living will be created. Who wants to sleep quietly must accept a longer walk to his car. And who prefers the car must live in noisy and stinky environment. Parking lots should be organised the same way as transit stops.

Q: Do you advocate more parking restriction?

HK: Look how auto-centric you think! When a pedestrian is interdicted to cross a street where he likes that's seen as pretty normal. Rearranging traffic in motor streets and pedestrian streets is demonised as anti-car, without considering that dividing the streets offers the best solution.

Q: What about the often-quoted freedom of the driver?

HK: This freedom is purely virtual, merchandised by advertisement. They show an empty road in a beautiful landscape, with one single car running on it. Would they show the reality with gridlock, nobody would be dumb enough to buy a car.

Q: Cars still sell very well.

HK: Yes, because drivers enjoy yet another form of freedom, a freedom of lawlessness. Unlike other people, they are allowed to be noisy, pollute the environment, and jeopardise public safety unpunished. A rampaging drunk may be arrested due to disturbance; motorists annoying us with noise day and night are accepted. If I as a pedestrian would spray cancerous substances from a can that would be against the law. Motorists are doing just that, unresisted every day, shortening our life span on average by 12 months.

Q: The car driver is a killer?

HK: Yes, in good faith. The car shifts us into a space-time arrangement of irresponsibility that we cannot comprehend nor handle. And there is strong lobbying: the auto industry, the construction industry, and banks that give credits for purchasing cars, who at all costs take care that studies, like the one mentioned by the WHO, are not published.

Q: Even teenagers are dreaming of cars.

HK: Because they experienced bondage in cars for years. In a car a child is radically restricted in its mobility. He is forbidden to walk to or cross a street, he must not play everywhere, he is caged for hours in the rear of a car and is even belted. That's clearly why teenagers are looking forward to regain their freedom with a licence and a car of their own.

Q: Do you think that cars are the cause of wars?

HK: Absolutely! And you don't have to look at Iraq. There is a permanent war on our streets. Every single day two people are killed on Austrian streets. Traffic physically injures 40.000 people a year. And those dying from the exhausts, as reported by the WHO, aren't even counted in this figure.

Q: What do you feel when you pass by suburban shopping centres, big box retailers, and the like?

HK: These are parasites! I feel sorry for any city with such structures. The traffic problem is in part a child of these shopping malls and outlet stores on the edge of cities. The main problem is free parking. This ought to be taxed so massively that parking there would cost as much as in the city centre. Everybody should be allowed to build where they like, but in-town businesses struggling with parking fees while everything is free in the suburbs is unacceptable.

Q: Do you expect European cities to look like those much ridiculed US cities, with sprawling suburban homes, giant shopping centres, and poor public transit?

HK: No, since there is a re-urbanisation taking place in many European cities. That is related to an ageing society. Elderly people just cannot get the needed services on the edge of a city. They simply have to move back into the city. Apart from that it's the energy issue that will make people move back into the cities.

Q: You mean gas prices?

HK: No, I mean energy prices in general. They will definitely rise and affect all areas of life. This means heating, electricity, transport - and all that carries more weight in the isolation of a suburban home than in a city centre. And elderly people need a lot of energy-rich services that become very expensive at price hikes. I don't just think of "meals-on-wheels" and the like. The more scattered people live, the more energy is needed. And we won't be able to afford that any more within a short period of time. This means we will have to create sustainable urban structures in order to be able to pay for them in the future. The actual cities with their suburbs aren't like this.

Q: Is it true that societal expenses of mobility are higher than the revenues, including employment in the car industry?

HK: That's absolutely correct. And the bill for consumers will become worse, since at the moment mobility is more or less free, and that is soon going to change drastically.

Q: Why is air travel so strongly criticized these days, in regards to climate protection and mobility, and not motorists?

HK: First of all, the damaging impact of air travel is serious and criticism is justified. No-frills airlines are activating groups of passengers that would not fly otherwise. Flying basically is the most degrading mode of travelling. Flying always reminds me of mass animal farming: Like chickens, fed like in battery farming. But unlike the humans in an aircraft chickens are not belted.

No comments: