The ancient historian Herodotus had some useful advice for the travellers and writers of his day: in order to understand a situation you must ask lots of people the same question. I have been following Herodotus’s advice for some years now by asking people I meet in Bucharest — taxi drivers, policemen, old ladies, shopkeepers – “Why are people allowed to park their cars on the pavements?”
The answer is very revealing — and, nota bene, I say “answer” and not “answers” as there is only ever one answer — and it is this: “there are not enough parking places”.
Almost every Romanian I have asked seems to accept the fact that drivers can block pavements whenever they feel like it; and the guilty party is not the drivers but the local government who don’t provide enough parking places. You could not find this attitude anywhere in western Europe and if you parked on a pavement in England you would be arrested; in Holland they would confiscate your car.
Bucharest is probably the only capital of an EU Member State which does not fine drivers for parking in the wrong place. If you try and park in the centre of my home city, Edinburgh, you can expect to pay a fortune in parking tickets and there is a small army of “parking wardens” who are waiting to fine you 50 Euro. Most people don’t even try and park in the centre as they know it’s too risky, too tramatic and too expensive. Nobody would dream of parking on the pavement.
Surely the Bucharest city council could use a massive cash injection that parking fines bring? Surely someone has said “Hey! We can’t walk on the pavements any more!”. Why is nobody protesting? Surely this would be a great issue for a local politician to get elected on; imagine the campaign: “Reclaim the Pavements!”; “Power to the Pedestrians!”; “Down with the Drivers!”
In fact, the “parking-on-the-pavement” issue gets completely ignored compared to the ongoing drama of “Bucharest’s Traffic Crisis”. The more this city gets blocked with cars the more interesting it becomes for the media, and the more “experts” get asked “what is to be done”. Meanwhile, walking down the road is a risky business for a young mother with a babe in arms, for old people, for kids, for everyone.
My impression is that cars have more rights than people. But how can a car have rights? There is no rational answer, but when a car can occupy a public space that has been specifically built for people, and people must walk on the space that has been specifically built for cars, it is clear that there is something seriously wrong.
I have my own theory on the matter. My view is that Romanians grossly over inflate the importance of the car.
As with many things in Romania, it can be blamed on Communism. Under the Soviet system those who had cars — ministerial officials, managers, military and security types — were also the ones who commanded fear and respect. The car obviously became associated in people’s minds with power.
But it is surprising that this attitude has not changed over time. When will Romanians realise that cars are not the object of worship but a dangerous machine and a major contributing factor to local pollution and global warming?
And it’s not only “the man on the street” who has this overblown sense of respect for the car; the politicians have this problem too. I have never heard a politician or media commentator speaking out against car ownership, or in favour of the train as a viable alternative to the motorway. Transport policy in this country consists of plans for new roads.
But the lessons learned from Western Europe and the USA show that building more roads does not solve the problem. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence to show that the more roads you build, the more cars are sold and the more blocked the roads become. Los Angeles is an example: a city of motorways, all of which are blocked. The only solutions are public transport, trains and bicycles – but first of all a change of attitude.