For Release Sunday, September 23, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
Cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles mix and move with seemingly zero regard to lanes, signals or signs. Mopeds weave among moving vehicles, often against traffic. Pedestrians risk life and limb as drivers pay little attention to painted pedestrian crossings. A cacophony of horns fills the air, even into early morning hours.
And sidewalks? They’re jagged, narrow and regularly violated by illegally (but unticketed) parked cars and cycles.
Stepping into this chaos following his election a year ago, Mayor Luigi de Magistris took a fascinating first step. With yachting’s America’s World Cup Series visit upcoming, he removed all vehicle traffic from Via Caracciolo, Naples’ dramatic oceanfront boulevard commanding grand views of Mount Vesuvius and the city’s historic harbor.
“For years,” he explains, “the citizens of Naples could not hear the sea – as they walked along they could only hear the cars. Today you can walk, bicycle the roadway, paint, skateboard. And it’s not just beautiful. It’s a place to socialize.”
De Magistris boasted of his breakthrough – and his intent to keep Via Caracciolo open to people, not vehicles – as he welcomed thousands of global delegates attending the UN-HABITAT-sponsored World Urban Forum, which met in Naples earlier this month. The forum focused on multiple issues key to today’s cities – economy, basic services, relieving poverty, expanding housing and slum upgrading. Rapid urbanization of the developing world, and concerns about rational expansion of cities’ physical footprint, were major topics.
But rising concern about the coexistence of motor vehicles and Homo sapiens was clear in a major forum on the topic. “The car has been a positive for decades. But now it’s showing its cost to the environment and congestion,” said a Venezuelan delegate, adding: “We need to reach a settlement with the car.”
The deputy mayor of Suwon, South Korea, a city of more than 1 million, noted that Asia’s cities “are now dominated by personal cars. We need to turn around and create car-free cities – people-centered towns.”
An official from Mexico City confessed his city is “a most painful place to travel – people are spending years of their lives in cars. Four thousand people a year are dying from poor air quality. There are high rates of accidents. We know we’re not winning the battle today.” But, he added: “Young people are searching for other solutions, choosing accessible neighborhoods.”
In fact, a Youth Declaration at the conference called on leaders to develop sustainable transport for future generations. And optimism was expressed about new information technology to optimize bus routes and timing and provide commuters with real-time, cell phone-based travel information.
Observers from China – a nation flooded by new automobiles as its middle class population expands – praised the effort in Shanghai and Beijing to reduce car congestion by auctioning off limited numbers of new license plate permits.
A skeptic can say none of this matches the desire of the global middle class desire to own a personal automobile – an urge fed by mass media and the auto industry’s massive worldwide advertising budgets.
Today’s trends – rising auto deaths, congestion and worldwide pollution – are reasons for pessimism. But, driving is losing its panache among youth, in the U.S. and elsewhere. As a World Urban Forum participant noted, “Experts, corporations, governments are saying ‘Yes, we need mobility, affordability and livability in cities.’ ”
Plus, just as bicycle use and the use of protected biking lanes expand rapidly in the U.S. and Europe, a new global appetite for alternatives is forming. Look for this as an indicator: Cities dramatically increasing auto-free pedestrian zones.
On that score, Mayor de Magistris recently went beyond his waterfront boulevard pedestrianization to close the historical city center to all auto traffic (except for residents of the area) from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. His avowed purposes: to preserve the area’s heritage, reduce carbon emissions, improve traffic flows, reduce noise, eliminate illegal parking and free bus lanes from illegal incursion.
But this is southern Italy. Organized crime circles – the so-called Comorro, a powerful international crime syndicate that had previously tangled with the mayor – led demonstrations against the closure. Riding in a cab nearby, I heard the driver repeatedly throw up his hands and declare, “Mafiosa, Mafiosa!!”
By contrast, I keep recalling the words of Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota: “For 5,000 years, all streets in all cities were for pedestrians. The issue’s equity – that all citizens are equal before the law. Millions have died for that principle. Yet tens of thousands of children are killed by cars every year. Has anyone voted to give roadways to cars, or to take over sidewalks?”
For a sane and livable 21st century, city leaders across the world will have to be asking that question – and acting on it. And letting Naples, of all unlikely spots, help show the way.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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