As a parent of three daughters, it was only a matter of time before I would be hauled up in front of a school classroom to give a presentation on my career. In my case, this happened last year where I was thrown to the wolves in front of 30 boys/girls aged between 11 and 13.
By Alan OBrien
When thinking about a topic to speak about, I knew that talking about my job would probably not only bore them, but would probably turn them off school itself for quite a few years. Instead I chose to talk about road safety, which is somewhat related to my own work and also has some relevance to their daily lives.
The results were startling.
I asked firstly how many of the group of 30 had been involved in a road traffic accident during their short lives – about half of the group raised their hand. When I asked how many of them personally knew somebody who had been seriously injured or killed, I had four hands raised. Although I didn’t press this any further, some of the children spoke to me after the session with some of their very personal stories.
Thinking about this afterwards, I suppose this confirms what we already know. Ask any visitor about their experience living in Bucharest. The positive aspects are plentiful – good weather, low cost of living, great social scene, wonderfully welcoming people. But on the flip side the negative experience always seems to start with “traffic”.
Drivers in Bucharest can be described in many ways, but I suppose one would never accuse the typical Bucharest driver of having an over-active Frontal Lobe. The fear about consequences doesn’t really seem to feature in the many undertaking, speeding, overtaking, parking and mobile-phone-use-whilst-holding-a-cup-of-coffee manoeuvres that become part of the overall experience.
In 2015, just under 2,000 people were killed on the roads in Romania, with another 9,000 suffering life-changing serious injuries. Since my time in front of a classroom of pre-teens, I’ve come to see that many people in fact don’t realise the scale of the problem, seeing this as something that happens to other people when they don’t “take care of themselves”.
I’ve lost count of how many times I have been scorned for using a seatbelt in the back of somebody’s car. I was once told by a taxi driver to hold a child on my lap, and he would drive “carefully” (along the DN-1 from the airport to the city!). Something that many foreigners take for granted is seen as bizarre in Romania. How disturbing this reality is.
But this safety problem is, to me, a consequence of the focus that has existed on transport in the city, where the car owner sits top the social scale, and all other road users are of lesser importance. This evolves into every available inch of road-space being given over to traffic lanes and parking, with practically all other users being brushed aside. Bowing to the needs of car drivers is an easy game for our politicians. Contrary to the opinion of the occasional elected representative, the modern city inhabitant does not always choose to travel by car but does so in many cases as a necessity. It takes real leadership to act on this.
The result is a city that leaves little space for actual living. One might draw a parallel with wartime Europe where life was spent in isolated shelters, with inhabitants scurrying between work, home and shops trying to survive the streets outside.
I had the great fortune of being witness to the development of the Urban Transport Plan for Bucharest that took place during 2015 and 2016. That process brought together many of the entities responsible for managing transport in Bucharest – Metrorex, RATB, the City of Bucharest, Ilfov County Council, the University of Bucharest, the Police and so on, with the aim of developing a single vision for the city.
As would be expected, the first meetings were fractious as each organisation battled for respect and its place at the table. But as always, the initial chest-banging developed into a valuable group which provided an excellent platform for the genesis and testing of new ideas.
The Final Report of the Transport Plan is worth a read. The document sets out an ambitious vision of metro, rail, cycling, parking and bus proposals that look to take the city in a new direction. It is the first strategy for Bucharest that brings together all different transport systems into a single investment plan. (www.pmb.ro)
Only time will tell if this represents a starting point for a real transformation of the city of Bucharest into a more liveable city, or if it is another wedge waiting for a very wobbly table. In other words, the city authorities have proved that there is “know-how”, but now there is a need to prove that there is “do-how”.
Frankly, I look forward to the day when we can live and move freely through the city.
without being hit by a car driving on the footway, driving into a collapsed manhole or an open roadworks site, being fined on the bus for not following the very complicated ticketing rules, emerging from the metro station smelling of doner kebab, be strangled by a low hanging telegraph wire when crossing the road, being carried TGV-style in a taxi without the comfort of a seatbelt, being caught in endless Friday afternoon gridlock, or being taken out by a speeding car whilst on a pedestrian crossing.
Alan OBrien is a Transport Speciaslist with the European Investment Bank in Bucharest. The views expressed here are personal views and not those of EIB.