Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mayor's retreat not alarming

I'm tired. Got back from a work trip last night about 11:30 p.m., and went straight to bed. Problem was, though, that it was warm and muggy and we had to leave our bedroom window wide open for air. Ours being a downtown flat, there's noise to deal with. For myself, I can put up with the traffic noise, but last night there was a car alarm going off, and it seemed to be within a block or two of our flat. It would go off and chirp like a psychotic cuckoo clock for 30-40 seconds, then go quiet for 5 minutes and then go off again. After awhile my wife got up without a word and shuffled off to a quieter corner of the flat where the windows are closed. I was inclined to suffer the car alarm for the sake of cool air, but I just wasn't tired enough to get to sleep, and the intrusiveness of this car alarm started to grate.

At around 1:30 a.m., I got up, got dressed and went down to find the source of this noise. Walked down the street about two blocks and I spotted the offending car just as its alarm burst to life in a blast of noise and flashing yellow lights. Of course, no criminal activity was taking place, and no one but me had taken interest in the matter. It was just a stupid car alarm, afterall.

But I was determined to do something about it. A loose cobblestone next to the curb beckoned me to take justice into my own hands, but I was afraid breaking the car's windshield might just aggravate the problem.

So I did the civilised thing and went to the local police precinct. To shorten the story, some patrol officers were summoned and they accompanied me to the car, took down the plate number, phoned it in to dispatch, and said they would contact the owner. I went home, the alarm went off twice more, but it cut short the second time and did not go off again. I eventually got to sleep around 2:30 a.m.

I'm just relating the story as an example of why I am so zealously against car culture, particularly in the city. You could say it's a case of one irresponsible car owner, but I can imagine many reasons why that person didn't come to turn off his or her alarm. The fact is, car alarms are just one of many chronic, noisome, anti-social, seemingly intractable aspects of our car-based transport system, and Budapest needs desperately to work on more humane alternatives.


Speaking of which, Budapest's Mayor Istvan Tarlos demonstrated yet again his zeal for regressive, backwards-looking transport policy. On May 30, a new priority bus lane was implemented on the Budaörs city entrance from the M1 and M7 motorways. The bus-way, which displaced one of two car-traffic lanes, was seen as a means of reducing the number of cars entering the city by offering a stick (restricting car traffic flow) and carrot (introducing prioritised buses that present regular car drivers with a faster means of commuting).

However, four days after the lanes were put into use, Tarlos discontinued them in the wake of car-driver protests. He cited "technical problems" but it was clearly just a lack of political spine.

Bus priority is a simple idea that has worked wonderfully in cities throughout the world. In Dublin, for instance, bus prioritisation on major radial routes into the city has sped up average commuting times, increased the overall carrying capacity of roads during rush hour, and reduced car modal share. Car commuters griped at first, but over time, the effectiveness of the idea became evident, and its popularity has paved the way for bus prioritisation throughout the Irish capital's metro area.

It takes some political grit, though, and unfortunately this is missing in Budapest.