Cheaper cars pose planning problems

Comprehensive long-term planning on the basis of land capacity, rather than on simplistic demand projections, holds the key to a better future.

July 8, 2013 22:22
3 minute read.
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It was in the framework of the government’s plan to implement economic reforms in many fields that Transportation Minister Israel Katz announced in late April of this year his intention to break up the automobile and spare parts import monopolies. Katz promised to open the market to competition, thereby reducing the price of new cars, spare parts and servicing by up to 20 percent.

Given the exorbitant prices paid for new cars in Israel, there is little doubt Katz’s stated goal is commendable.

Yet even if he succeeds in overcoming the vested interests and Histadrut labor federation the negative implications of that success will be many and diverse.

Consider the following: The immediate result of cheaper vehicles will be far more of them, both new and used, on the roads. As affordable and efficient electric cars are still some years away, air and noise pollution will increase significantly. There are also the social implications: mechanical mobility inhibits social intercourse.

And cars require, in addition to roads, land-consuming parking, as well as servicing stations.

Transportation and road planners will be exhilarated.

The much increased demand projections for new vehicles will be instantly converted by them into new transportation master plans, followed, needless to say, by more and more new roads, not to mention the accompanying utilities – water, sanitation, electrical and communication lines. The fact that roads already take up some 30 percent of the land has never especially concerned them.

From their short-term point of view the equation is a simple one: the greater the demand for cars, the greater the need for roads. The absurdity is apparent. With no end in sight to this cycle, the land of milk and honey will eventually be transformed into one enormous asphalt expanse.

So that having succeeded in reducing the price of automobiles against all odds, our transportation minister will have succeeded only in solving one problem at the cost of creating a thousand others, many of them far worse.

Isn’t there a more sensible option? An inclusive and balanced approach to the problem must obviously be adopted, one which is related to the long term. The following would be some of its main elements:

• Assign first priority to improvement of the public transport system.

• Reduce travel distances and times and number of car trips, thereby lowering pollution levels and offering people more time for living and working, by planning compact, mixed-use, live-andwork environments.

• Insure the continuity of all movement systems. In town, provide a variety of street types that serve pedestrians as well, and not just vehicles, and increase the use of nonmotorized transit. In this way, land consumption and infrastructure costs will be significantly reduced and the transportation system as a whole made far more energy efficient.

• Finally, demonstrate far greater respect for the existing natural and built environment, protecting public open space and rural and agricultural land where appropriate.

Few would question the need for reforms in the automobile sector here. But vehicle prices are just a single factor in a much larger, far more complex picture. Such reforms must be considered in the light of a well thought out regional and city planning policy, one which, inter alia, takes into account the capacity of the land available to absorb and contain not only automobiles and other vehicles, but an entire array of closely interrelated physical planning elements that need to be planned in harmony with real concern for coming generations.

Comprehensive long-term planning on the basis of land capacity, rather than on the basis of simplistic demand projections, holds the key to a better future.

The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.

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