Carfree Days: A Glimpse of the Future

Dhaka

Dhaka by Debra Efroymson

While sitting in a van with colleagues from the more lucrative part of my job (the part that doesn’t involve urban planning or transport), stuck in typical Dhaka traffic one day, a man who to my knowledge has never worked on urban issues explained to a visiting American how wonderful the city is when there are hartals, or political strikes. “It’s great,” he gushed, “there are almost no cars. It takes far less time to get around by (cycle) rickshaw than it does on other days by car. Other than the tear gas and violence, it’s perfect.”

He could have added that the streets are quieter, and if the hartal lasts two or three days, the air becomes surprisingly clean and fresh, despite a population of about 12 million people. He could have added how sociable the city becomes, with groups of children cycling down the middle of the streets, and groups of adults walking together to work or to a shop.

In some ways hartals are not a fair example of what the city could be like carfree. After all, many offices and shops stay closed, so there are far fewer people moving about. And of course the violence, and the suffering of those who live day-to-day and who cannot earn money during hartals adds a grim aspect. On the other hand, how many other opportunities does one have to experience one’s city car-lite or carfree? And if rickshaws can be faster than cars, why are they attacked as slow-moving transport while cars are not just allowed but encouraged?

When moving about Dhaka, I can’t help but notice how small the city seems when traveling by rickshaw or bicycle as opposed to car. Sitting in a car stuck in traffic, the city seems huge and unfriendly, destinations widely spaced, and no form of transport viable except the car. But when there is a hartal, or early in the morning when traffic is light, the city magically shrinks in size; faraway destinations become readily accessible without the use of an engine. This is only partly because the trip can be faster when non-motorized. Realisation slowly dawns on me: if traveling were pleasurable it wouldn’t matter if it did sometimes require more time, as one could then mix leisure and recreation with transport, rather than travel being solely for the sake of arriving somewhere else.

But if I mentioned to the colleague who waxed rhapsodic about hartals that one could achieve a similar, but more peaceful, effect by getting rid of the cars, he would react with disbelief. On a hartal, sure, rickshaws are great, but for day-to-day life cars are essential, despite only a tiny minority of the population having access to them. Cars are inevitable, as much so or more than political unrest; one can’t ban them, any more than governments have succeeded in banning hartals.

Children playing soccer in the streets of Dhaka

In the streets of Dhaka by Debra Efroymson

I have often tried to argue that what is unimaginable is not a city without cars, but the existing cities that we live in, cities where the most dangerous daily activity for most residents is crossing the streets, where it is commonly accepted that dogs, children and others will be killed on a regular basis in the streets, where movement and parking of cars is considered a priority over the active play and independent movement of children and the socialising and mobility of the elderly.

How odd!

I was recently in New York City, where having walked about 40 blocks, my feet needed a rest just as I reached Times Square. I found an empty lounge chair and took a seat. Tourists were asking each other what was going on: “I just asked, they said nothing, they’re just sitting here.” No, not a staged event, just a piece of the street given over to a public use other than being stuck in traffic.

NYC June09 (32)

Time Square by Debra Efroymson

It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I sat for a long time, enjoying the lively yet quiet scene. It was a bit like a hartal in Dhaka, where the few cars are relegated to the margins and people reclaim the centre stage.

That big sign with the word “hope” on it might have said it all, but I would have chosen a different verb. We aren’t going to get there only by hoping…though those glimpses into the future may well give us the hope and courage to do what is necessary to make these extraordinary occasions into the blissfully mundane.

–Debra Efroymson

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