The liberty of not having a car

Opinion

The extraordinary measures that Madrid has taken to tackle a peak in air polluten has encourages some debate about everyday mobility in the media. These are issues that aren’t commonly discussed, and when they do the results can be depressing. Once again we’ve had to suffer through some ignorant pundits making utter fools of themselves, or so they woud if most of their audience actually knew enough about the subject to notice it.

The classic TV-tier opinion has consisted in recognizing that there’s a problem, but complaining that the measures taken have been improvised and should be done with a long-term vision (yes, the opinions are that generic). I’m still waiting for someone to explain how one applies an emergency protocol with no hurries, I wonder if those same people would also take a comfy stroll out of a burning building. Cities generally have their protocols on how to react in these situations, just like they usually have some master plan for mobility or infrastructure, it’s just that politicians don’t usually care for them. It’s interesting to note that in regards to mobility, an issue that closely affect the pundits’ personal lives, they will conveniently ignore those plans, so that instead of deploring how those plans are systematically ignored they can focus on peddling their own personal viewpoint on mobility, with their interest generally being set on the ease of automobile travel.

Your truly has always considered that mobility exposes various elements that are part of a certain culture. In this case classism present in society is brought into the spotlight through some upper-middle class journalists of utter mediocrity trying unsuccessfully to talk on the level of the working classes. I’ve never ever heard any journalist or pundit talk about public transportation, especially commuter trains or interurban buses, like an everyday issue. Instead, they talk from an ivory tower about public transit like it’s something that only affects the others, not themselves. In contrast they talk about high-speed trains or highways with utmost familiarity.

This classism in the perception of public transit in the media promotes the idea that public transit is a sort of charitable element for the lower classes, and that those lower classes should aspire to free themselves of those shackles. A gulf between other countries where it’s perfectly common for middle and upper classes to use public transit. The common mentalities here have not yet overcome the idea of the automobile as a status symbol, nor is it on the path to accepting public transportation as a universally useful utility.

At BCN Movilidad we believe that the ideal one should aspire to, and which to some extent is true already, is that true freedom ought to be found in not having a car, in the freedom of being able to move unrestrictedly thanks to public transportation services which should cover the territory like a big spider’s web. Public transit can offer the possibility of moving freely without the need of spending the money that a private automobile requires, and without the physical prowess required to operate it. It allows one to move by knowing routes and not just roadways, or something as simple to allow people to enjoy alcoholic beverages without having to bother about driving afterwards.

Many people can’t conceive public transit being seriously convenient outside urban areas. But they’re wrong. In Europe there’s already loads of examples of regions with low population density getting reasonably good public transit coverage. Here we often find a lack of coordination between different trasnports, and an excessive overlapping of routes. This means that a reasonable investment yeilds only a very basic service. As a basis, no public transport service should have a frequency of more than 2 hours. A service with a worse frequency is so inconvenient that it means faltering to the private automobile, and assuming a function of only serving the captive demand. At the same time those captive users are gravely penalized by the time wasted just to adapt to those schedules.

In many cases, cutting back bus lines which run all the way to Barcelona or another capital to just reaching the next train station would be a useful step for a better take advantage of available resources. Often we’re talking about bus routes overlapping with rail lines for the best part of their trip. Of course a measure of this sort requires also a good train service, something that our commuter network barely does, and the regional network not at all. Nowadays many bus lines which run parallel to railways are necessary to supplement the awful train service, the improvement of which is obstructed by the central government, which is more focused on financing white elephant high-speed lines.

The city of Barcelona is closer to the ideals previously explained. Auto convenience has been progressively reduced, but public transit service has barely improved. The main focus ought to be on improving interchanges which are often in sorry shape, and strengthening the survace network which, unlike the Metro, has vast margins for improvement in coverage and service quality.

Especially in the metropolitan area public transit requires improvement. The smaller size of the cities in this areas has traditionally halted any significant improvement in urban transit, itnoring the importance of those services as a connecting service to interurban transport (mainly trains). Instead of that, there have been aberrations like the “Metro of Terrassa” and “Metro of Sabadell”, extremely expensive projects which have offered comparatively little benefits to their respective cities, mainly improving the mobility to and from Barcelona for the areas covered by these extensions (in both cases we’re talking just three new stations for what is being sold as a “metro” for those cities), instead of using that same investment to vastly improve urban transit. This would have covered two functions, working as a feeder to interurban transports with a better coverage than the mentioned railway extensions, as well as serving as regular urban public transit. If one looks at the urban transports of many small european cities the pattern is usually a radial network with the train station at its center, with some lines complementing this radial scheme. The irony of the “Metro of Terrassa” and “Metro of Sabadell” is that they’re neither a Metro because their function is mainly interurban and they’re too short to be a proper urban subway, and that the main beneficiary aren’t those cities but rather Barcelona. Case in point, demand has risen very noticeably in Barcelona, more so than in Terrassa itself.

One of the main defects in public transit planning and projection is possibly the lack of a clear ideal to aspire to. Work is done bit by bit, without observing the big picture of one continuous public transit system. Public transit should be projected thinking of the benefit of those who will use them, thinking of how to make their life easier, with good interchanges, coordination between services and a convenient offer, not just thinking about big infrastructures, tunnels or high-speed trains.

This problem reflects once again the incapacity of accepting small steps for what they are in themselves, and pretending to solve all problems at once with some big construction project or other magical solution. This is the idea being transmited by pundits and journalists, when again and again they complain about a certain measure not being “THE measure” to solve the problem, as if there were just one big measure to take that will solve everything. Only a childish mind pretends to solve a complex problem with an easy solution. Mobility problems are solved by by bit, and every little step must be seen like one more cog in a big machinery.

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