This discreet experiment, which today enters its fourth day in Prague, would not be worth talking about under normal circumstances. After long-lasting disputes, the municipal authority of Prague 2 decided to narrow the number of lanes on the city’s north-south artery from four to three.
But this is not what we call “normal”. The narrowing is a desperate reaction to problems emerging in the vicinity the main city’s artery with daily traffic of 100,000 cars. The section of the road shows what it takes when a large group of people desires to go everywhere by car. Noise and dust pollution exceeding all limits is bothering some 1,200 local residents. Doctors say in addition to enormous stress, residents are facing an increased risk of cancer, heart diseases and all kinds of respiratory problems.
City Hall relentlessly ignores the current state of what used to be a famous example of the communist traffic engineering (including a court’s ruling to reduce noise based on the locals’ complaint). The Prague 2 district has decided to deal with the situation on its own. But it could be an aimless effort. The district has limited powers within the city structure, has no plans to solve the traffic situation and is currently under pressure from the neighbouring districts, which are annoyed that their “selfish neighbour” is redirecting tonnes of unbearable cars closer to their windows and playgrounds.
The other side may start shooting as well and a few concrete blocks will not prevent it. Everyone knows that the highest authority, Prague City Hall, is strictly against reducing car traffic. Unlike some cities, which have been aiming for years to reduce cars with varying success, City Hall sticks to only one plan: making it faster and easier for drivers to get across the city at all costs. Despite its uncertainty and tameness, the brave resistance of a single Prague’s district could bring big changes.
But nobody knows what to expect. The first three days were not dramatic. Thousands of people who came to Prague used the Park and Ride facilities in the outskirts and took the metro. Regardless of what Mayor Bém and his team say, assumptions may prove right that a lot of people do not need a car when traffic complications occur (as was a reaction to traffic restriction during the 2002 floods). If the situation surrounding the closing down of one lane, it will be a good opportunity to recall that it is not necessary to build so many new houses with large parking areas (as was the case in Pankrác, Karlín and other places), which bring thousands of cars to the streets of Prague every day.
The experiment, however, makes us believe that the Czech capital is changing. Prague authorities have been getting emails with proposals aiming to protect the city’s green locations from Dívčí Hrady to the Klánovice forest and Suchdol. Prague citizens are trying to better understand the zoning plan, thinking of renewing the tradition of street vegetable markets, planning to start an online discussion platform for supporters and opponents of the Blanka tunnel. Another such activity includes persuading drivers not to leave the engine on while making a few-minute stops downtown.
It would be sad to think the city hall considers the temporary “narrowing” of the artery in Prague 2 unacceptable because it believes that an easy traffic flow throughout the city is the main priority. The upcoming months may show that many people – not only in Prague – share a different opinion.