Streets for people, not for cars

December 1, 1999

By Natalie Zirngast

"The car has made the big city uninhabitable ... Thus, since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars." — Andre Gorz, Le Sauvage, 1973 (from Reclaim the Streets UK's web site)

Cars are now a modern necessity, but their destructive force is clear: on our environment, our health and our way of life. Originally they were a privilege for the rich, but the decreasing price of motor vehicles, through the introduction of production line technology, has made the car ever more accessible to larger numbers of people, especially in the First World.

The automobile and related industries — building and upkeep of roads, tyres, spare parts, fuel, repairs, insurance and so on — account for 20% of the gross national product of the US.

Some of those that gain the most from the motor industry are the big oil companies: they make up seven of the 11 richest corporations in the world. Fossil fuels like oil are being depleted at an alarming rate. The estimated initial amount of recoverable oil reserves lies between 1800 and 2200 billion barrels. We had used up approximately 765 billion barrels of this total by 1995.

Of all the money spent on developing energy sources, 90% is spent on non-renewable forms such as oil, gas, coal and nuclear power. Less than 1% is spent on developing alternative, environmentally friendly forms of energy such as solar and wind power.

The technology does exist to produce viable alternative forms of transport and energy. But, until current energy sources run dry, the big companies will protect their investments and refuse to fund such new technologies.


Car exhausts are the second largest contributor to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, road transport overall accounting for 33% of national carbon dioxide production. Australia produces more car pollution per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

This contributes to global warming, which will cause (and may already have caused) rises in sea levels and dramatic changes in weather and climate, affecting agriculture and other essential production.

Cars are responsible for 40-90% of all air pollutants, depending on their type. The problem-causing chemicals include carbon monoxide, lead, benzine, dichloromethane, formaldehyde, styrene, toluene and xylene. Some of the effects of these different pollutants are: asthma, lung cancer, heart and lung disease, decreased lung function and eye irritation. Lead affects the central nervous system, especially of young children, and even unleaded petrol contains toxic additives.

A study in 1997, funded by the California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, found that levels of pollutants inside cars could be two to 10 times higher than outside. There was little difference between cars with airconditioning and those without. Up to half the pollutants were emitted by the vehicle ahead.

Over the last 30-40 years, improvements in technology have made cars less polluting. But this has not led to any overall reduction in pollution levels. Increased numbers of cars and greater distances to travel, decreasing public transport and engines required to work harder to run car stereos and airconditioners have undermined advances in anti-polluting technology.

Public transport

Public transport is cleaner, cheaper, less noisy and more efficient: each passenger takes up 30 times less space than a car passenger. Australia is a signatory to an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, and public transport would have to be part of any attempt to achieve this. However, over the last decade, state and federal governments have been slashing budgets and privatising public transport at an alarming rate.

For example, in the last NSW state budget on June 2, the Carr Labor government cut public transport by $122 million. Eight hundred railway jobs were cut, on top of the 20% of railway jobs already cut over the previous three years.

The Carr government is also close to completing two new motorways, the Eastern Distributor and the M5 East. The construction of these 22 kilometres of freeway will cost around $1.5 billion <195> 150 kilometres of modern light rail could be built for the same price.

Residents of Sydney's western suburbs have been hit hardest by public transport cuts. At the same time, massive road projects are being undertaken. A thousand extra taxis will soon be licensed to "solve" Sydney's transport problem, but this won't help those on a low income, nor will it solve any pollution problems.

Opponents of greater public transport argue that it is underutilised. However, a study comparing Melbourne and Toronto, in Canada, in the early 1990s showed that while Melbourne initially had a better public transport system, the money invested in Toronto increased public usage by 20% to one-fifth of travel overall. In contrast, Melbourne's public transport use declined by 50%, to less than one-tenth of all travel.

Better, more regular services attract passengers, while irregular and limited services, unsurprisingly, do not.

The NRMA Clean Air Taskforce states that surveys indicate travel time is a main concern. With more regular, better funded services, this would not be a problem. In the 1920s Victorian railway services achieved 100% reliability. According to the railway union, train cancellations and delays are the result of understaffing.

From a social standpoint, a public transport system funded sufficiently to attract more users would have a range of positive outcomes: it would lead to a massive saving on the amount of money spent on motor vehicle upkeep; it would reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; and it would make costly road developments unnecessary.

Reclaiming the streets

Public concern about the environmental and human costs of the transport industry has led to numerous protests against pollution, freeway developments and public transport cuts. Two movements which have gained momentum in recent years are "Critical Mass" and "Reclaim the Streets".

Critical Mass involves cyclists, skateboarders and roller bladers taking over city streets during evening peak hour on the last Friday of every month. The aims of Critical Mass are various, and include rejecting the monopolisation of transport by corporations and protesting against the lack of government pollution controls. It is also seen as a celebration of "bicycle culture".

According to Chris Carlsson, writing on its San Francisco web site, since 1992, when Critical Mass was first initiated, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of people riding to work in the city. There has also been increasing involvement in "local transit politics ... through demonstrations, organising, lobbying and letter writing".

In Australia, Critical Mass rides occur in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other cities.

Reclaim the Streets began in 1991 in London. Its stated aim was "to organise direct action in favour of walking, cycling and cheap or free public transport, and against cars, roads and the capitalist system that supports them". This originally involved such actions as painting cycle lanes overnight, painting over car advertisements and disrupting the 1993 Earls Court Motor Show.

It developed into a series of anti-freeway mobilisations and street parties. In July 1996, a street party involving 8000 people was held for nine hours on the M41.

Reclaim the Streets in Britain has also formed alliances with other groups, such as striking Liverpool dockers and railway workers, in acknowledgment of their common aims. Local groups have been formed in many countries and a number of global street parties have been held, with up to 20 countries participating.

A lasting solution

Job cuts, downsizing and privatisation of public transport have also led to union struggles. Many public transport workers have stood up for their rights. For example, the Public Transport Union in Adelaide protested in May against deterioration of wages and conditions resulting from privatisation.

The solidarity between Reclaim the Streets and the striking workers in Britain shows a useful way that these campaigns could be brought together. Also, the regular mobilisations of Critical Mass show the effects of visibility and public campaigning.

With so much public feeling in support of public transport, health and the environment, workers and concerned individuals need to work with one another in an ongoing way. Since governments of all stripes have been reluctant to make any serious changes to pollution laws or revive public transport, it's time people themselves took them and their corporate masters on.

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