07 November 2011

Parasites and Living Lungs

Golly. What a lovely place to live.

When I was in Ferrara, Italy a couple of weeks ago I was having a good chat with a colleague who works for the City. We were looking at a map of the city and he was filling me in about the various traffic and bicycle-friendly initiatives in place. For example, Ferrara doesn't have a congestion charge - it has a congestion BAN. Non-residents are not allowed to enter and goods transport must pay a fee. Eight cameras are installed around the city to photograph number plates. If you're caught in the city without a permit, you are fined €100. Ah, simplicity.

Anyway, he was telling me about a main route through the city and plans to tackle the motorists who use it. He called them parasites. I thought it was a bit out of character for him but he kept using the word. Finally, I had to ask why he was using the word and he looked at me quizzically and said that it was simply the word they used.


First attested in English 1539, the word parasite comes from the Medieval French parasite, from the Latin parasitus, the latinisation of the Greek παράσιτος (parasitos), "one who eats at the table of another" and that from παρά (para), "beside, by" + σῖτος (sitos), "wheat".
Coined in English 1611, the word parasitism comes from the Greek παρά (para) + σιτισμός (sitismos) "feeding, fattening".

What a great word. The host organism is, of course, the city off which they feed. The streets outside my flat as I write this are relatively free of parasites. The ones that plague Copenhagen aren't your traditional parasites. They aren't noctural. They desert their host organism on migratory patterns, scurrying back to their formicaries in the afternoons, only to return to feed upon their host in the morning. To continue their infestation and causing all manner of illnesses that the host organism is unable to defend itself against.

Traffic pollution with its toxic emissions and noise pollution, a lower perception of safety for pedestrians and cyclists, traffic accidents that kill and maim, reduced property prices and so on.

Parasites. It's a brilliant way to describe the motorists who roll down these streets, contributing nothing to the liveableness of my neighbourhood and others, hardly making a dent in the economic well-being of the shops, paying their taxes in other municipalities. Rumbling past, spouting the residue of their combusted fossil fuels behind them to the funky tunes on their radio while they text away on their telephones.

It's an epidemic and yet there is no Dustin Hoffman to help us. Only visionless politicians worried about getting elected for another term, organisations and NGOs who have become too politically correct to rock the boat and traffic planners who geek out over technical manuals and aerial maps instead of remembering what it is like to be a human being on the streets.

And I'm referring to Copenhagen. I know how much more infested other cities are.

On the flip side I tweeted a thought today: "Bicycle users are the transportational lungs of a city. Let's do what we can to get more of them, shall we?"

A simple sentiment. Forests and green spaces are often referred to as lungs in countries and cities. Bicycle users are much the same. I certainly don't hope my body is used to convert carbon dioxide but the 37% of my fellow citizens who choose to ride a bicycle each day are a rolling metaphor for photosynthesis - as are all bicycle users in any city. What a lovely word. From the Greek φώτο- [photo-], "light," and σύνθεσις [synthesis], "putting together", "composition". Using the energy from sunlight to do their magic.

For every kilometre we roll, we are putting money into the pockets of the state and the municipalities. 23 cents for every kilometre in Denmark. For every kilometre driven by a motorist, we as a society pay out 16 cents. Net loss. Parasitism at its finest. And that latter number is even with 180% tax on cars in this country. I shudder to think what the net loss would be in other countries.

Do I get a tax break for cycling in my city? Not that I'm aware of. Free bicycle every couple of years? Nope. A discount for not owning a car on my car share subcription? Nah. I get safe, secure infrastructure to ride around on with my children - I'm grateful for that. But I'd rather do it without the parasites in the car lane next to me. Give them tramways down the main arteries - like we had for decades and decades last century. Subsidise public transport - it's Europe's most expensive - and let the parasites evolve into useful creatures. I can live with that.

My friend Lars often dishes up great Facebook updates. Here are some recent ones:

More people ride bicycles to work and education than cars.
23% of Copenhageners have a car - 100% have a bicycle.
Nevertheless there are 2.5 times more car parking spots than bicycle rack spots.
One parking spot costs between 50 and 800 times more than a bike rack.
A parking spot takes up 12.25 times more space than a bike rack.
Society earns money for each kilometre driven by car and makes money every time someone rides one kilometre on a bicycle.
Cars kill around 1000 Copenhageners a year and make thousands more ill.
Nevertheless, the five political parties in City Hall have spent 1.2 billion kroner (€161 million) on new parking spots for cars since 2005 - but have no programme for bike racks.
What's this all about?

And then this list of nine things to do in Copenhagen:

1) Transform Hans Christian Andersen's Boulevard (busiest thoroughfare and most polluted) into a tramway and bicycle street flanked by a non-commerical tree-lined allé like Prado in Havana.
2) Transform Søgaderne into Denmark's largest playground for children and adults.
3) Car-free city centre.
4) Make Israels Plads into a square without traffic except for busses on Frederiksborggade.
5) Create drive-in bicycle parking facilities over the railway lines by Central Station, Vesterport, Østerport. Drive-in bicycle parking under Nørreport. 3000-5000 parking spots for bicycles each spot.
‎6) Bicycle express routes in and out of the city that follow the S-train net - with underpasses and overpasses so you can ride from Køge, Farum, Hillerød, Frederiksund to Copenhagen.
7) Cover the entire railway yard by the Central Station and make the countries largest sports facility.
‎8) Free choice between a resident's parking permit for 4000 kroner (€537) - instead of the current 600 kroner (€80) - a year or a free car share subscription, paid by the city.
9) All A busses (main routes) converted to tramways.

All rather simple ideas. None of them are out of reach of visionary politicians. We just need the visionary politicians.

We need the exterminator to rid us of pests.

We need people who can see the value in creating an even greater armada of living lungs and who dare to move towards that goal.