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October 28, 2004

Speaker Touts Public Transit Strategies Adopted in W. Europe

Europe and America share many cultural and societal aspects, but when it comes to public transit strategies, they might as well be different planets, an international expert said here last week.

“Europe, and by that I refer to Western Europe – Germany, England, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands – is completely different in public transportation from the United States,” said Carmen Hass-Klau, professor of public transport systems and European urban transport planning on the faculty of the University of Wuppertal, Germany, and author of 12 books, including “The Pedestrian and the City.”

When Europe was re-building after World War II, city planners looked to the expanding and baby-booming America for models of transportation systems, said Hass-Klau at a forum titled “Enhancing Public Transportation and Pedestrianisation: A Transatlantic Dialogue,” held here Oct. 15. A reaction panel, featuring two local transportation experts, followed her presentation.

“We looked to the United States, where there were these wonderful highways and a massive [proliferation] of cars, and originally took a similar approach: We started building massive roads,” Hass-Klau said. “But a few people said: ‘Wait a minute. Europe is not the United States because we have completely different cities.'”

Planners learned in the German city of Hamburg, for example, that building more and bigger roadways meant the death knell of the city’s center. Moreover, the commonly held traffic engineering theory that more highways means less vehicular congestion proved false: Ironically, building more highways actually increases traffic congestion, said Hass-Klau, who also runs a United Kingdom-based environmental and transportation planning consultancy, through which she has studied more than 35 cities.

“In practice, if you build a new road space, a new motorway or new thruway, it will only take so long until the roadway is filled up,” she said. “The more road space you create, the more traffic you get. There seems to be no limit. So we said, if that is true for roadway traffic, what about the opposite? What if we reduce road space, will that reduce traffic?” But when drivers have limited road options, where does the traffic go?

“People expect total chaos. The model was that ‘what comes in the one side, has to come out on the other side,’ so if you have traffic prohibited from certain roads, the traffic has to appear on parallel or neighboring streets, there will be traffic jams,” she said.

But because of human adaptability, chaos is not the result. “The human race in some ways is pretty stupid, but there are a few things we’re quite clever at, and one is changing our behavior,” Hass-Klau said. “If we can’t go there then, we go there earlier, or later; we may change our mode of travel; we may walk; we may use a bicycle.”

Or, cities might build workable, efficient, integrated, pleasant public transit systems, which is what happened in much of Europe. “That doesn’t mean smelly, noisy, polluting buses like you have here,” Hass-Klau said.

When her native city Munich hosted the 1972 Olympic Games, streets in a two-kilometer radius were closed to cars, Hass-Klau said. “People thought it would never work, that it would be a disaster. Instead, it worked perfectly,” Hass-Klau maintained.

“By the 1970s, you started to see community resistance against these massive roads,” cueing a change in transportation philosophy that caused Europe to diverge from the United States, she said. “By the 1970s, the community realized they can’t go by car to the city center, because there wasn’t enough parking. So cities started to develop public transit plans with the idea to accommodate commuters from outside the city, not to accommodate their cars.”

Then, as if a light bulb went on, “Planners decided, ‘No, that’s not enough. We want no cars in the town center, we want them traffic-free, we want them pedestrianized, and first large and then small cities across Europe adopted this idea.”

Now there is empirical evidence that public transit gains support as driver options are limited, she said.

“We know empirically that people are changing their behavior,” she said. “There was an experiment in London in May 2003 that affected all parts of the center of London. If you come by car, that’s fine, but you have to pay about $8 a day (unless you live there), and the money raised would support public transit and road repair.”

The upshot was that people changed their behavior travel patterns so rapidly from cars to public transit that the city raised far less money than expected. “The fear that all the traffic would go to the surrounding roads and create congestion there, well, it’s not true.

It did not happen in London, and it did not happen in other places.”

A related idea emerged in the late 1970s in The Netherlands, which legislated that traffic in designated residential areas would have to proceed at a “walker’s pace.” “Traffic was adjusted to the pedestrian’s speed,” Hass-Klau said. “The main priorities became pedestrians first, then bicycles, then cars. So cars had to behave on a residential street by going at walking pace. To ensure that, they redesigned residential streets limiting the number of lanes for automobiles and increasing the number designated lanes for bikes and for pedestrians.

“Parking also was limited to residents, and traffic lights were [programmed to] favor pedestrians; the car has to wait for the pedestrians and the bicycles to pass,” she noted.

This, coupled with expanding emphasis on buses and light-rail vehicles, led to a proliferation of dedicated bus lanes where formerly there was auto traffic. “These are not separate busways like you have here in Pittsburgh, but bus lanes operating in traffic as part of the center city. Creating light-rail lines always increases the number of pedestrians.”

When public transit becomes integral to a city’s character, the benefits are enormous, Hass-Klau said. “There are economic effects: new investment comes with light rail. You get new shoppers in the center of the city. Property values go up.”

Efficient public transit also is environmentally friendly. The spaces between bus or light-rail stops can be better “greened” than a concrete roadway. Well-designed and decorated vehicles can contribute to the esthetic look of a city.

There are some pitfalls to avoid in building public transportation systems. “Don’t build transit systems underground. First, it’s much more expensive, and people don’t like riding in tunnels,” and the system does not become part of a city’s visual character, she said.

“Don’t automatically build a light rail system on an unused train track just because it is cheaper in the short run. In the long run, it’s more expensive because no investment is realized in areas surrounding the system,” Hass-Klau said. “There’s a reason that track is unused.”

Americans’ famous love affair with automobiles is not insurmountable, she said. “We have the same thing in Europe. People would park their cars in their living room if they could.” Moreover, just as it is in the United States, the automobile industry is tied inexorably to the economies of Germany, France and Sweden, in particular.

What Europeans are experiencing is reduced need for a second and third car, Hass-Klau said.

“Better marketing is required to make people think they want to ride because it is fun or because using a car is stupid,” she said.

“But just think: In the United States, the car driver is more protected than the pedestrian, and then you have ramifications for health. Why? We don’t walk, there’s an obesity epidemic. Just like most people smoked 50 years ago, and now they don’t, I think in the next century, people will look back and say, ‘How did people stand the traffic and the pollution?’ It has to change.”


“I’m trying to find a way to translate this information, to take these lessons from Europe,” said Patrick Hassett, director of transportation and design in Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, who was one of two local respondents to Hass-Klau’s presentation. “They need translation because of the different contexts in our situation here.”

According to Hassett, those contexts include Pittsburgh’s unusual if not unique topography; infrastructure and property rights; the development of ethnic neighborhoods over the city’s 200-plus year history; differences between the American and European legal systems, and the issue of personal freedoms.

“And we have the context of our overall values, that is, the extent to which you value economic jobs, value your residential population,” Hassett said. “Transportation planning is a lot about the assignment of real estate. Defining roadways and deciding who gets to use them, what real estate goes to a transportation system, what to pedestrians and what to land use for development. To measure how important public transit is to [a particular] area, the bottom line is how many people go there, and what the economic climate is,” he said.

Hassett compared the Waterfront development in Homestead with the South Side development on the old LTV Works, something he called a dichotomy of approaches.

“These are both [former] industrial parks, both have mixed use. including commercial restaurants, movie theatres and housing, and both are about the same area size-wise. But they’re completely different when it comes to transportation policies. The development in Homestead has acres of parking. Transit was an afterthought; the bus company had to scramble to figure out how to get a route there and for access there. It’s difficult to service transit-wise.

” In contrast, the South Side project “is much more high-density development; much more intense, more residential, more high-end technology components, in addition to a movie theatre. How important the transit is to this area again depends on how many people go there, on the economic climate,” Hassett said.

A third example, Squirrel Hill, “is an congestion magnet, but I have no problem with that,” he said. “The congestion slows down the traffic. When we talk about evaluating these systems you have to be clear how to define your successes.”

Hassett acknowledged that recent efforts to revitalize East Liberty have been buoyed by having a major busway stop there, which alleviates traffic congestion while allowing patrons and workers access to the area.

“The main force among the powers-that-be making decisions is the market place, which relies heavily on the auto and oil industries to carry the economy,” Hassett concluded. “Here in the United States you have to get to the bottom line of economic success, however you do it.”

Mavis Rainey, executive director of the Oakland Transportation and Management Association (OTMA), said her primary concern with transportation systems is safety. “At OTMA we try to come up with ideas that will make it safer to actually navigate the main Forbes/Fifth arteries,” where pedestrians, bicycles, delivery trucks, buses – including contra-traffic flow buses – and cars are all in competition for the same space.

“From our perspective working with University police as well as the city, we’re trying to figure out how to get as many vehicles off the road as possible, but that means promoting public transit; promoting park and ride: for example parking on Second Avenue and taking a shuttle into Oakland. We’re also trying to make the safety of pedestrians a higher priority.

“I find it very interesting to look at how the European cities are dedicating areas to cars, buses, pedestrians in their center cities,” to eliminated the competition among these modes of travel. “I think in Allegheny County as a whole, this is a problem,” Rainey said.


The public transportation forum was co-sponsored by the European Union Center of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies; Pitt’s Community Outreach Partnership Center; the University Senate’s community relations committee; the Regional Coalition of Community Builders; Pitt’s School of Social Work and Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 5

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