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Car free day takes its toll on Swiss roads

The effects of a car-free day in Zurich Keystone

A number of Swiss towns and cities have been taking part in Friday's Europe-wide car-free day. The effects were clearly visible in Switzerland's main cities, including Geneva, Zurich and Berne.

It was only the third time the event – the brainchild of the French environment minister, Dominique Voynet – has been staged. Nearly 800 towns and cities throughout Europe took part.

In Geneva, for example, the issued caused no little controversy.

Geneva closed a large number of roads and squares to cars and motorcycles, but all public transport was free. The city also provided its citizens with bicycles, scooters and electric cars, and information on mobility schemes whereby people could combine car hire and rail travel.

Christian Ferrazino, head of urban planning in Geneva,said: “Too often people get in their car without thinking. They use their car regardless of how far they have to travel. We want people to question whether it’s really necessary to drive, or if it might be better to take the tram or the bus, or to go by bike or on foot,” Ferrazino says.

It is estimated that 50 per cent of all car trips made in Europe are less than two kilometres. The aim of the “In town without my car” day was to show people that there are many alternatives to the private car in cities.

Recent figures show that the number of cars registered in Geneva is on the increase: “We’re still going in the wrong direction. What we want is less traffic and more mobility,” Ferrazino says.

The plans drawn up by the Geneva authorities met with fierce criticism from motorists’ organisations and the city’s business community, who feared that people will not be able to get to work, and that trade would be affected.

“This is not a day in favour of public transport. It is directed against users of private vehicles. It’s a question of civil liberties,” said René Zwahlen, head of the Geneva branch of the Touring Club of Switzerland.

Raoul Quaglia, president of the city’s transport and economy group, agreed. “The city has invested hundreds of thousands of francs in this operation. We think it would have been better spent on drawing up plans for a complementary transport system, where both public and private transport can play a role.”

Quaglia told swissinfo that business leaders in the city were also concerned about suggestions that, instead of holding car-free days just once a year, they could take place every week.

“We’d end up having a four-day working week, because it would be very difficult to do without your car in the week,” he says, adding that the decision to stage it on a normal working day is a mistake.

“Holding it on a Friday penalises those who work,” Quaglia said. “Holding it on a Sunday would have been a much more instructive.”

But Ferrazino says that is to miss the point: “We want to show that it is possible for people to carry out their normal everyday activities and at the same time reduce traffic flows.”

“We’re not imposing a ban. Everyone has the right to drive their car 365 days a year. But I would argue that there is a collective responsibility. We’re appealing to the people to work together to find a solution to this problem which affects us all,” he said.

The challenge facing cities like Geneva is to convince enough motorists that they would be better off using alternative forms of transport when they enter urban areas.

“You don’t change people’s habits overnight, especially when those habits are bad, and there will always be people who refuse to change,” Ferrazino says. “This process is going to take some time.”

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR