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No-car day creates traffic jams
Updated: 2004-09-24 08:59

Hundreds of European cities closed streets or entire districts for the year's car-free day, but some capitals saw the scheme backfire causing large traffic jams while others took the soft option of moving the day to the weekend.

In Paris, which set the trend by declaring the first car-free day in 1998, police reported that traffic was moving more smoothly at noon than in previous years.

But they noted Wednesday that the eight central districts closed to all except public transport, taxis and emergency service vehicles covered a smaller area than in the past, and that an extra 250 traffic cops were on duty.

Athens, in contrast, was clogged by larger-than-usual early morning jams, despite a belated decision to offer free public transport for the day.

Authorities had scrapped a plan to close the city center for the day after it caused massive gridlock and a surge in pollution two years ago, but the failure of several traffic lights created new problems.

Large snarl-ups were reported also in Vienna, where the ring-road around the city center was closed.

A spokesman for Austria's opposition Social Democrat party described car-free day as "a superficial gesture which will do nothing" to solve traffic problems in the capital.

The Danish capital Copenhagen technically closed off its historic center to cars and free bicycles were made availabe in the city center for the day.

But cyclists complained that traffic was nearly as dense as usual since police were allowing business vehicles and local residents into the banned zone.

A total of 1,125 towns and cities across Europe as far apart as London, Helsinki and Zagreb announced that they would take part in car-free day, but the figure belied a significant degree of skepticism.

Berlin was one of several capitals which ignored the scheme altogether. Another was Budapest, where the director of traffic services, Pal Vajda, said the 1.1 million motorists who drive into the city each day "would not tolerate such an initiative."

Amsterdam also dropped out, after city councillors failed to agree on how to finance the scheme.

The sole Russian city to observe the day was Belgorod in the south, while traffic-clogged Moscow, with its three million cars for nine million residents, ignored the car-free operation for the sixth year running.

"The situation in Moscow could become so bad that it will be impossible to drive in the city at all," said ecologist Alexei Charykov who heads the Russia without Cars movement.

Dmitri Kokorev of the militant cyclist movement Critical Mass said hundreds of cyclists were planning to coverge on Moscow on Saturday to protest the absence of bike paths in the capital.

Other cities ducked a confrontation by moving car-free day to Sunday, when traffic is lightest.

Rome's authorities said on their Website that the move would "enable everyone to take part in a popular movement" and that it might prove "a test for eventually transferring the scheme to a weekday."

The Hague, in line with about 30 other cities in The Netherlands, had already held its car-free day last weekend.

Twenty-five Czech cities took part in the no-car day, four of them even banning traffic in the city center though the capital Prague was not among them. Several cities made public transport free for the day.

Spain, unlike some of its EU partners, reported a surge in interest, with a record 203 towns and cities taking part this year. But greens complained that the environment ministry had failed to coordinate activities.

In Paris, car-free day is seen as part of the assault by the city's left-wing council on private four-wheeled transport.

The authorities have restricted motorists' movement by laying down bus lanes and cycle paths, expanding plans for a tramway and paving over thousands of parking spaces.

But the conservative national government under President Jacques Chirac has provided little support, and as a result, the day introduced by its Socialist predecessor is in decline.

Two years ago, 98 French cities and towns took part. Last year, it was 72. This year, only 50.

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