Car-Free Days? No Thank You: Hanasz Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Europe

Published in the Wall Street Journal Europe

September 20, 2000

We are all by now accustomed to the many campaigns to "free" us from the deadly sins of civilization: junk food, pollution, mass media, and so forth. But few of these campaigns compare in their ubiquity or vehemence as the effort to drive cars off the road, as witnessed by the high fuel taxes that now bedevil Europe. Recently, too, the campaign has blessed us with the notion of "car-free days."

Bogota, Colombia, had one last February. In Italy, several cities organized "Ecological Sundays" earlier this year to reduce pollution and introduce us to the concept of "sustainable mobility." Cars were usually banned from city centers and people were encouraged to walk, skate and ride bicycles and electric scooters. Public transport was boosted and often made free, as were museums and other tourist attractions.

Following such experiments, the European Union has declared this Friday to be the EU Car-Free Day. But not all activists are satisfied with that. Car Busters, headquartered in Prague, has gone a step further and proclaimed today to be World Car-Free Day. The Czech activists hope to launch an "international car-free movement" with the help of other groups and individuals dedicated to "fighting against the car’s dominance and destructiveness." Ultimately, their goal is not merely less pollution or cleaner vehicles but "a world without cars." In their view, this would be a world of far greater freedom than our own.

As an East European myself, I can understand some of their concerns. Some of the most beautiful towns in Europe, including Prague, Budapest and Krakow, have been badly polluted by the growing number of cars. But while this pollution may be a physical threat, it does not follow that cars are a danger to our liberty or well being. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as the answers to the following questions show.

Are cars as disposable as their enemies claim? Certainly not. In all the anticar projects, be they in Colombia or Italy, opposition from car owners has usually been strong. As Car Busters admits, fewer than 6% of Italians would like to see Ecological Sundays happen midweek. Car Busters also acknowledges that most people will ignore tomorrow’s EU Car-Free Day.

This holds even more true in Eastern Europe, where automobiles have been nothing if not a popular and liberating force. In the 1990s, the decade of freedom, East Europeans’ previously suppressed demand for cars was simply staggering. The number of cars in Prague, Warsaw and Moscow quadrupled. This unleashed demand filled up production lines in both Eastern and Western Europe. Cars brought billions of dollars in foreign investment, thousands of good jobs, and a better (and cleaner) standard of living.

Is public transport a viable alternative to private vehicles? Ask any East European, or most people for that matter, and the answer you’ll get is a resounding no. As one critic of the Bogota project put it, the Car-Free Day was "a banner day for the robbers." Theft and muggings plague public transport in Colombia, as they do commuters in Moscow, Kiev and Sofia. Those who experienced the joys of mass transit in Eastern Europe under communism knew that their privacy, safety, health and even lives were in danger there.

In fact, if any form of transport is disposable in Europe, it is public transport. Several years ago, in my native city of Poznan, Poland, the public bus drivers union went on strike for higher salaries. The drivers expected that the resulting traffic paralysis among the city’s 600,000 inhabitants would force the authorities to give in. But surprisingly, after some initial chaos, the city returned to its regular life. Substitute transport, small private firms, and civic self-organization effectively replaced public transport, without much in the way of ill effects.

But what about the argument that public transport encourages "trust" in society? This is the theory of Karin Sandqvist of the Stockholm Institute of Education. But nice as the idea is in theory, anyone who has been pickpocketed in a subway or on a crowded bus knows how laughable it is in practice.

Finally, are we really freer when we are free of cars? Under the old communist regime, I lived in a world of very few private cars. Today, in America, I live in a world with an abundance of cars. And I can speak from personal experience that automobiles have dramatically increased and extended my liberty in countless ways. My car gives me the opportunity to travel, to learn, to meet other people, to enjoy life. It expands my choice of where to live, where to work, where to dine, where to shop. The privacy of car ownership is a major part of this automotive liberty. People buy cars not only to travel from one place to another, but also to enjoy many things while they travel: music, conversations with friends, landscapes and sunsets. In a sense, it is not only my home that is my castle; my Toyota is my castle too. Underlying all this is the freedom to choose where to go, when to go, and whom to go with. Westerners take these liberties for granted; survivors of communism do not.

I am proud to be a Pole and an East European. East Europeans are courageous, liberty-driven and often revolutionary. But not all revolutionaries are equal, and would-be revolutionaries such as the Car Busters are simply wrong. Like any other good thing in life, cars are not without their problems. But the opportunities they offer far outweigh their costs.

One thing is for sure. This Friday I will get in my car and drive — whether I need to or not. I will do so just for the fun of it. I will do so to celebrate my happiness, my life and my freedom.

Mr. Hanasz is a Visiting Scholar at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. He is the author of Engines of Liberty — Cars and the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (CEI, 1999).

 ©2000 The Wall Street Journal