Asking the mayor of Freedonia to walk the talk
Freedonia City Hall, 20 June 2015.09:00. The mayor is comfortably seated at his imposing desk, looking fondly at an unlit cigar. After a lengthy wait and a nod from the imposing receptionist, the editor of World Streets knocks lightly and waits timidly at the door, entirely drenched and more than a bit disheveled. Not a pretty sight.
The Mayor: Well sir, you are a fine mess. Careful there, you are dripping on my favorite chair.
Editor (a bit hassled, remaining standing): Sorry about that Mr. Mayor, but I came by bike and it started to rain just as I got underway. Worse yet I was unable to find a safe parking space for my bicycle near your city hall so I got caught in the teeth of the storm. Sorry about that. I will try not to drip.
Mayor: Enough wasted time, Sir, let’s get on with this interview and your article. The media are very important to me and I have other appointments waiting.
Editor: Mr. Mayor, thank you for receiving me. Do you have an opening statement to share with our readers, many of whom live and work in your city?
Mayor: Certainly! Fellow Citizens. You have just elected me mayor of your city. Thank you. Now, down to business.
Editor: What is going to be your transport improvement strategy for the city. in terms of the basics over the course of your four-year mandate?
Mayor: I have assembled a strong and entirely new team to deal with the mobility problems of people in our city. They are a fine group and they are very loyal to me. All of the top people from the old team have been let go. We decided to take a fresh start with new ideas.
Editor: Interesting, but what’s the strategy? At least the main points?
Mayor: I recognize that we need to make major improvements to our transportation system. We have to deal with the problems of increasing traffic congestion, insufficient parking, slow downs of traffic, the obvious need for more roads and bridges, and unnecessary harassment of drivers by radar controls and excessive policing. That’s the main line of action. We are ready to pay for these improvements, expensive though they may be.
Editor: All cars? Hmm. Have you given any thought to looking into Congestion Charging as a way to limit car use in the center? As they have done in London and Stockholm. And decades ago in Singapore.
Mayor: Absolutely not Sir. You know what we say in Freedonia: “Free rides for free men”.
Editor: But what abou tall the people who do not have or cannot really afford cars.
Mayor: Yes of course, on the public transport side we are going to need some more buses and maybe we should be thinking about getting government support for some new rail systems to help all those of my fellow citizens who do not yet have their own cars. We are looking into a network of monorails to improve pubic transport. Fortunately some of those bus lines can be closed down since they are not really carrying that many people. Economy is the word in Freedonia. And yes, we need more traffic lights and policing of the dangerous cyclists and jaywalkers. These people need to be dealt with firmly.
Editor: Hmm, interesting. But can you tell me Mr. Mayor, how do YOU get to work each day?
Mayor: Well, as you can well imagine I am a very busy man, so to save time I am picked up by my driver every morning in front of my home, who then drives me to the office and during the day to my many important appointments. And when I am out there in the traffic stream I can see for myself what is going on and what we need. I am my own transportation consultant and my team understands that and linesup to support my every new idea. And I have plenty of them. I don’t need to have some busybody from some foreign group of so-called experts to tell me what we should be doing with our money. I’m the mayor and I’m the expert — and my team is going to be sure that we get what I tell them to do, including our consultants. That works every time.
Editor (with trembling voice and still dripping): Please forgive me Mr Mayor but have you heard about this? There is a new group of mayors from many different parts of the world who have signed something called the World Streets Real Mayor Mobility Pledge. They pledge to use either public transport or walking or cycling to get to work every day of the week. To improve the classic forms of public transport, put carshare services in front of their city halls, open up the taxi industry to competition, and make adequate provision for safe bike travel and parking all over the city. And in parallel with this, they pledge to refuse all new road construction or widening, to lower tops speeds on their streets, to convert road lanes from cars to public transport, and to develop and implement a real parking strategy.
Do you consider that you are ready to sign the World Streets Real Mayor pledge and then respect it?
Mayor: I really do not understand you, Mister Britton. I thought you wanted to hear my transportation strategy. Instead you are asking me why I do not take public transportation or even bicycle or walk to work? That is not a realistic question. First of all, I would lose a lot of time. Th people of our city expect their mayor to be dignified and not get around like a common day laborer. Then there is the weather. Look, there may be mayors on that list of yours who live in nicer climates, who are close to city hall. But I live quite far out in the country and even by car it takes me more than half an hour just to get to work each day. I see no reason to even consider this sort of wild impractical idea. Pleas Professor, let’s be serious.
Editor: I understand Sir, but I have been told by several of your local residents and user groups (public transport users, cyclists, pedestrians, school groups) whom I have interviewed in the last days in your city that they are already organizing an all-comers civil society group — The Citizen’s Mobility Forum — for your city that will ask all future candidates for mayor to sign a binding pledge to use public transport, if not walking or cycling, to get to work each day. Not just on an annual Car Free Day or once or twice a month. But every working day of every week. And anyone who does not agree to sign it, simply will not get their vote. And they look quite serious to me.
Mayor: Mr. Britton you clearly do not understand the importance of my function. I cannot allow myself to be influenced by a few probably left-leaning voters. I am afraid you are wasting my time.
Editor: And that’s all Sir?
Mayor: Of course if they have enough people behind them, then I will sign that pledge too — if that is what it takes to be mayor again. Sign it, that is and get reelected. And then once in office, back to my Plan A. And now, goodbye to you Sir.
Editor: Thank you Mr. Mayor (bowing his way out the door backward, at the same time wincing at an enormous clap of thunder followed immediately by the sound of pounding rain.)
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About “Freedonia”: “Freedonian was probably first used by Americans immediately after the American Revolution in place of the demonym “American”. The term Freedonia was later popularized by the 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, as a fictional country. Over time, however, the word has come to have a more generic meaning. It can be anything from a noun describing a plausible yet fictional country, to an adjective (“Freedonian”) used to characterize a place like the Freedonia of Duck Soup. Because the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia had so many qualities—autocracy, diminutiveness, and obscurity, to name but a few — a place can be described as “Freedonian” for having any one of these qualities.” (Source WP) It seemed like a good match with ego-driven opportunistic transport policy — autocratic, diminutive, and obscure –which has done so much damage to cities and their surrounding regions in many parts of the world.
About our editor:
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France
Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton
* For another view of Freedonia, see “The Laws of my Administration” from Duck Soup