A Future History of Transportation in Prague

bicycles versus cars

They are being filmed for a multicast public service announcement produced by Prague’s Ministry of Sustainable Transportation, de facto ruler of the capital’s transportation infrastructure, to thank the citizens of Prague for their support of their city’s decade-old Novy Dopravni Program (New Transport Program). Linda is portrayed by a paid actress, but the others are extras volunteering for the day.

“We spent very little on casting,” says Standa Himmelsberg, the director of the project which is part of a year-long publicity campaign by the Ministry, “On a weekday afternoon there were so many kids riding circles around the National Museum that it only took about an hour to get the necessary talent.”

The PSA shows today’s streetlife, full of pedestrians, cyclists, inline skaters, babickas, and the disabled, all using the streets equally.

Cars – mostly in the form of biodiesel or solar electric taxis and autos for handicapped persons – are present, though generally in the background. “Linda” is recorded riding down Vinohradska to her school, and then from her school to Vaclavske Namesti where they plan to do a scene where she has ice cream with friends.

“Over these scenes a voice over will be added,” says Himmelsberg, “Talking about what was happening in Prague around 2004 as the city was choking itself with automobile traffic.

Linda thanks people for their efforts to influence government, the courageous and forward-thinking politicians who fought for safe streets and even mentions the old monthly Cyklo Jizda (Bike Ride) which was partly responsible for uncovering the City of Skodas incident.”

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Prague, 2004. Helped by the voluntary research efforts of cyclists he met while videotaping a news story on the monthly Cyklo Jizda (part of the worldwide “Critical Mass” urban group bikeride movement), Czech Television’s Martina Premysil uncovered a nest of corruption in the Parliament and Mayor’s Office which showed direct payments from Skoda, the Czech automobile giant owned by Volkswagen, to several influential politicians.

In documents mistakenly undestroyed by the personal assistant of a Parliamentarian were details of the payments, correspondence and dinners which were part of what is now called the “City of Skoda” scandal.

The intent of these bribes was the slowing of the restriction of cars in the city centre, the selection of building plans for government structures that included thousands of parking spaces and the minimizing of any campaigns to popularize the image of Czech Railways.

An increasing number of politicians and people are becoming addicted to cars. They believe they give them freedom, when in reality, especially in the urban context, they are a tremendous consumer of money and time.

Plans to spend billions of koruna on automobile infrastructure in Prague and the Czech Republic – or the lack of governmental ideas and practices to make sustainable transportation a priority – are also based on ignorance of or stubborn resistance to progressive policies of city councils and mayors of places as far flung as Copenhagen, Bogota and Melbourne. Indeed, cars are seen as political, a sign that Czechs are not under the yoke of communism anymore.?The ideas from other countries which curb capitalism – and its symptoms – are rejected.

To be sure, the review of policies at all levels of government in anticipation of the Prague Transportation Referendum was not initiated only because of the scandal. Some clear thinkers in government, pressured by and educated by Critical Mass participants and groups like Coalition SOS Praha, are supporting the Referendum.

Still, the “Skoda” situation has exposed what is in sum a tremendous collusion between the automobile industry, oil companies and governments here and worldwide. The most infamous example is the purchase and intentional self-destruction of public transportation networks in the United States just after World War II by auto, tire and oil companies.

The European Union’s programs that support roadbuilding as a way to move cheap and disposable products quickly around the continent is policy no doubt influenced by multinationals and the automobile industry.

It is unclear what the result of the Referendum will be, even if it passes and Prague institutes a “Sustainable Transit First” policy. Current laws and programs are either ignored or implimented slowly, and beyond the convictions of and accusations against a minority of politicians who took bribes from Skoda, a legal process might not by itself force the government to change.

bike massive

In the Czech lands making the government do things differently often requires special pressure.

Prague, Summer 2001. In Prague it is hard to miss the ubiquitous driver-training cars with the “L” on top. Everyone who thinks they can afford a car is learning to drive, Skoda sales continue to rise, and Prague is starting to sound and look more and more like the car-captured cities of Western Europe and the United States. Cars are given away on the cover of local tabloids, and even pet magazines have car reviews. Hypermarkets pride themselves on abundant parking, which only creates more traffic.

“The public transportation situation in rural areas of the Czech Republic has suffered vast cuts in service over the last ten years as passengers have fled to cars,” says Petr Kurf?rst of the Center for Transportation and Energy (CDE), ” Rural buses are almost dead now, since the buses were no longer attractive compared to cars.

Their routing is often wrong, as they go from a regional town to a deserted frontier in the middle of woods halfway to another regional town. So is their timing, as there are no buses to get people to work during commuting hours and none for the elderly to get to their doctors in the middle of the day.”

Fortunately Kurf?rst and many others are gearing up to support traditional and innovative alternatives to a Prague full of cars.

Prague-based NGOs Car Busters and CDE recently organized the exhibit “A City of Cars” at Jiriho z Podebrad on Earth Day in April. It showed how cars and their infrastructure affect the city, making it noisy, stinky, unsafe (especially for children and seniors) and how they just take up so much precious space.

Most significantly, however, the exhibit initiated a series of monthly bike rides (the Cyklo Jizda) around town during rush hour. Modeled on, and informally refered to as, the Critical Mass, which started in San Francisco in the early 1990s and has since spread worldwide, the ride meets at Jiriho z Podebrad at 5:30 pm on the third Thursday of every month.

The idea is to show that bicycles are traffic too and deserve safe space to move-and also to promote all forms of car-free transport.

The April ride had a police escort, though the organizers did not request it. The ride went to Namesti Miru and then down Zitna through Karlovo Namesti and across the river. Cyclists, about 75 of them, wore shirts that said “Taky Mate Nohy” (You have legs, too) and “O Jedno Auto Min” (One less car) Traffic of course was a joke, and it was almost faster to walk on the sidewalk.

A photographer from Dnes was in a car, maybe practicing for duty in the Tour de France. After the ride the Traffic Police told one of the organisers that they would like to see more bikes on the street, because it would make their jobs easier.

The May ride was escortless and took the same route but ended up on the right bank of the Vltava near Jana Palacha Namesti, where ride participants had a relaxed meeting on the lawn. They discussed tactics and future ride plans (such as choosing an outdoor pub or a movie theatre as a destination). The next Cyklo Jizda is on June 21st.

The ride does not need permits, because cycling is legal here, even on the autobahn-like streets which pass Hlavni Nadrazi, wrap around the National Museum, and go across the Nusle Bridge. Participants in Prague’s ride are free to make their own route, perhaps taking the gang to some scenic spot, or educating the public along the way.

It can also be thought of as an unorganized ride, as it is just cyclists riding together. For the time being it is being stewarded by Car Busters and CDE, who hope the Cyklo Jizda gradually takes on a life of its own and organizes itself. Ever notice how beautiful streets are without cars? Or how much less space they would use if not designed for them?

The next time you are on certain thoroughfares just out of the centre on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, notice the relative lack of metal, noise, screeching tires and over-revving motors. Listen to the people talking across the street. Smell the fresh summer air. Wave to the cute cyclists.

Don’t worry so much about always holding your child’s hand or if the dog will run into the street. The tram will be the loudest thing. Not too long ago it was a lot like this, and, maybe some years in the future, it can be again.