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Choose or loose?

October 18, 2013 in Dutch reflections, Reflections & views, Visioning

Salzburg_disneyfication

It was in the mid 1990s. On our way to a family holiday in the Alps we made a stopover in Salzburg. Salzburg, the city of Mozart, of the fortress and, of course, of The Sound of Music. Parking signs guided us to a parking house, which happened to be built in a massive rock, right near the city centre. We entered with the car on one side and left as pedestrians on the other side. At once the whole environment had changed. It was like a jump in time. The old Burgerstadt of Salzburg was stripped of all modern artifacts. In its place caleches, young men with wigs and in livery, violin music. In actual fact the city was readied for touristic consumption to the full. And the flocks of visitors clearly liked it. It made me exclaim: Salzburg is Europe’s answer to Disneyland.

Where is Amsterdam in all of this? Nothing as radical as the Salzburg remodeling could take place in the canal zone, fortunately. Even if the authorities would wish so. The canal zone comprises many layers. It has the touristy side to it, the local neighbourhoods, it functions as beloved area for small scale businesses in the service sector. That layering is also its quality. No single sphere is dominant. That is why the canal zone, with its many different spheres, locations and places, really feels like a public domain: an area which people from many different social backgrounds rejoice to be part of. Of course it has a hang towards the elites, old and new. But the vibrant debates that accompany the developments within its vicinity buffer against iconoclasms.

But somehow I also feel unease. Is it not time to choose? Time to disentangle some of the many flows in the canal zone? Why do we tolerate so much car traffic in this UNESCO heritage site? Who benefits? What quality of living could we generate by freeing the canal zone from motorized traffic, with its inherent unrest, bizar spatial footprint and negative health effects?

I know, Amsterdam is not a city of big decisions. So why not smuggle the quality of the city back into it? Start with car free canals in certain zones of the centre during the weekend. See what happens. Allow for pop up shops at parking lots during the day. Celebrate the freedom. Everybody will rejoice, citizens and tourists alike. Accident rates will go down, sales will go up. Conviviality will dominate. Let’s celebrate Amsterdam as the true European answer to Disneyland.


Shifting Gear – The Politics of Sustainable Mobility

October 12, 2012 in Reflections & views, Research, Visioning

 

Mobility is the elixir of modern society. Man has been a travelling species for longer, of course. The quest not only for food, power and wealth, but also for ideas has inspired people to travel for ages. But during the modern era, we have perfected the mobility system. We now have a global economy that is not only functionally highly integrated, but celebrates this interconnectivity as well. This cultural celebration of the sheer endless opportunities is symbolized by the intercontinental holidays of middle class families. Sending images and story lines from faraway places and bringing insights and paraphernalia have become an indicator of social success. Less discussed but increasingly significant: Modern society thrives on the fuels, food and other resources (from rare earth to phosphates) that we extract or grow at faraway places and ship between different continents.

This era of ‘hypermobility’ has long been known to be unsustainable.The metabolistic dimension, the flows of resources and environmental effects, from oil drilling to CO2 to spillage of phosphates into the seas, are the flip side of our progress and are something we now urgently have got to come to grips with. The knowledge of ‘limits’ dates back to the 1960s but is now finally giving way to knowledge that focuses on potentials, on transformations and on transition. Interesting is what this shift in emphasis could also mean for the debate on (car) mobility. After all, it was in the 1960 that the initial idea of allowing as many people into the world of car mobility (a car for everyone) started to arouse feelings of discomfort, something Phillip Larkin describes so well in his bleak 1972 poem ‘Going, Going’ (Larkin, 1972).The new post-war generations grew to matu- rity holding ‘post-material’ values (Abramson & Inglehart, 1995) and eloquently stated to raise question about the price of progress and growth.

While the occasional faraway holiday is a symbolic marker of success, it is the everyday reality of ‘auto mobility’, which has become the comfortable basis of Western day-to-day life.1 This article focuses on this cornerstone of the system: the car. Cars are no longer a luxury belonging to the middle classes but are within reach of nearly everybody. What is more, the car can no longer be regarded as an individual technological artefact but has evolved into a ‘large technological system’ (Summerton, 1994) that has been perfected to include multilane motorways with giant petrol stations, parking houses in the inner cities, out of town shopping malls and also much of our urban fabric and form, from the cul-de-sac to the very idea of a suburban life styles as a blend between city and country living. This large technological system also comprises a powerful ‘car industrial complex’, that is crucial component of the economy, for instance, in terms of jobs, knowhow and innovation.

Car-based mobility is our default option, well embedded into our routines. It is our ‘normalcy’. It is a cultural cornerstone that we cannot simply remove. Organizing mobility on a sustainable footing is a tremendous challenge. But it is one that, somehow, needs to be met. The ‘small’ agenda is one of direct environmental impacts, of health-related effects, of noise, particles and spatial impacts. There we at least know where to find solutions. The ‘big’ agenda is that of climate change and natural resources. Here many options to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport have been identified. But strategic decision makers stare the scientific facts and predictions in the face like a rabbit looks at the headlights of a car approaching.There is a scientific consensus that achieving the 2°C target is technically feasible, for rich countries this would require a stunning effort to reduce emissions with a factor 5 (Rogner et al., 2007). Unfortunately, little progress towards the ultimate goal has been made over the last 15 years. In fact, current policy scenarios predict that the share of transport (which of course is more than merely cars) in greenhouse gas emissions may rise from the current 25 to 50% in the year 2050 (European Commission, 2011a). Hence we simply have to rethink the mobility strategies in a fundamental sense.

Hence the question is not if this legitimizes government intervention but what sort of intervention can be envisaged in the first place that may be promising to bring this transition about. Here serious ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking is required, or, in this context perhaps appropriate, ‘gearbox’ thinking, as we need to urgently shift gears.

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