Once a year, Tel Aviv offers a glimpse of the future. Once a year, vehicles are banished from the streets, and the asphalt is alive with people. Children play in the middle of the road, scooting about on bicycles or chasing each other round the roundabouts. Groups of neighbors or families bring out chairs and sit with coffee in major intersections, laughing at the traffic lights that continue to change forlornly. The air is clean and sweet. The silence is unimaginable – a baby’s laugh travels miles. Ah, I love Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur.
Which got me thinking. Why can’t we have that every day? Which got me thinking even more. We can – almost.
After all, at any given moment, thousands of vehicles are not in use, even in rush hour. This means thousands of parking spaces, millions of square meters of concrete and all the associated environmental implications. And of the vehicles on the roads, many contain only one person – the driver. What we need to do is find a way of removing all cars that are not in use during the heaviest, most fume-spewing rush-hour of the year. Already we’ve freed up parking space and we can widen sidewalks and create more public gardens. Then, of the cars being used, we cut down each one to the size required for the number of passengers.
The greatly reduced traffic volume means we can make roads narrower, leaving more space for gardens, pedestrians and cyclists, in turn encouraging more pedestrians and cyclists. Fewer cars and more gardens mean cleaner air and reduced noise pollution. Reduced stress. Healthier residents. More culture in city centers.
How can we do it? In a word: taxis. Instead of all these private, under-used vehicles, we have a city-wide or even nation-wide pool of vehicles of various sizes, driven by professional drivers.
Compare a working day now with a working day in the future. You leave home an hour before work starts. If you’re lucky, you go to your own private parking and start the engine. All around, neighbors are doing something similar. The morning air takes on the pale blue tinge of exhaust fumes. If you’re less fortunate, you go looking for your car, trying to remember where you left it.
Half an hour later you’re in a traffic jam at some intersection or crawling along the Ayalon freeway, glancing at your watch and cursing. Finally, you park in a concrete multilevel car park that exudes the odor of millions of exhausts, and arrive at work a little late, grumpy from the drive and coughing up little black particles. At the end of the day, you reverse the process: another hour cursing the traffic, breathing the fumes of your fellow travelers, plus – if you don’t have your own parking space – another fifteen minutes looking for parking.
Or else you leave home 10 minutes before work, pressing the call button on your phone a minute before you wish to leave. You get into the taxi – a sleek machine with space for you and the driver only. More like a two-person Vespa than a car as we know it (preferably not running on fossil fuels.) You join the flow of traffic on the narrow roads, enjoying the abundance of public gardens as you go, or reading a great book, and arrive at work fresh and relaxed.
Quietly radical planWhat we need, in short, is a fleet of taxis large enough to cover demand at peak times, comprised of a wide range of vehicle sizes. And it must be cheap and subsidized. Transport is subsidized anyway – all that is required is a redirection of funds rather than additional subsidies, and at least this way everyone can benefit from the subsidies rather than just car owners. The plan might also reduce unemployment – after all, someone has to drive these taxis.
Once we’ve gained some experience and understood demand fluctuations, the transport system should settle down so that most family-sized vehicles are not even cruising the streets during the week. In the weekend, many two-seaters can be put away and the family taxis taken out. Vehicles not in use can be stored in discreet, multilevel car parks on the edges of town, perhaps underground.
In addition, vehicles could still be rented for those longer journeys, though preferably a range of vehicles, so you can choose a nifty one-seater or a heavy-duty seven-seater, according to requirements.
All this with no revolution. We haven’t challenged anything fundamental in the way we live, travel to work, or consume. We’ve retained freedom of movement, if not improved it. We’ve created a more attractive city. And best of all, the plan can be implemented gradually, without coercion. Obviously, we can’t “take away” a third of all vehicles in one go. Instead, a fleet of redesigned taxis is built up, car by car.
As city centers become almost exclusively served by the new taxis, streets can be progressively closed to private vehicles, while road repairs can include road narrowing (a reversal of a notorious trend!). Taxis-only zones spread to encompass ever-larger areas, until residents are persuaded by the comfort of the new system to sell their private cars, and demand for parking goes down. Private vehicles will become as obsolete as ribbon typewriters. When the system is running smoothly in a city, it can be expanded for intercity travel, and you’ll ring for a five-seater as you leave the house on a weekend family trip.
Another advantage of this plan is that it does not favor the wealthier, unlike congestion charges. The same high level of convenience is offered to all at the same affordable price. Possibilities are limited only by imagination. Think about it – companies cancel vehicle perks and subsidize employee transport in the new system. Cycling becomes so easy and fun that employers include bikes in salary deals – and build shower blocks where the company parking space once was.
But I’m getting carried away. It won’t be like Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv. There’ll still be traffic and fumes, and the noise of buses, and children won’t be able to build playhouses in the middle of major intersections. Also, it requires a brave town council to get the wheels in motion. Those with interests vested in the current setup need to be sensitively redirected to new investments and given a piece of the pie. Nonetheless, the difference will be huge. And one thing’s certain: I’ll be moving to the first city that implements this quietly radical plan.
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