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Car-free day urges EU capital residents to get greener

by Reuters
Friday, 16 September 2011 11:45 GMT

By Johanna Somers

BRUSSELS, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Brussels will free its streets of cars and heavy traffic this Sunday as it celebrates its 11th annual car-free day, marking a week when cities across Europe promote cycling and other green transport.

The seat of the European Union and home to environmental legislation for its 27 member states wants to encourage efforts to cut vehicle emissions -- and get citizens out on their feet.

While planners recognise that one day will not make much difference to the environment's bill of health, the event is supposed to create awareness that leads to change in the future.

But will it?

Brussels has held a car-free day each year since 2000 -- but was given an F-grade this year for progress in reducing "soot emissions" by the Soot-free for the Climate campaign run by a group of German environmental and consumer associations.

Mirroring Brussels; London, Madrid and Rome were also given failing grades. Berlin did among the best with a B, but none of the 17 cities assessed secured an A grade.

Brussels has also been dubbed the most congested European city by car navigation firm TomTom -- though its blockages are nothing compared to, say, parts of China. In 2010, drivers suffered a 60-mile (97 km) traffic jam on a highway from Beijing to Mongolia.

Brussels and more than 1,900 other cities will bring "alternative mobility" experts together to discuss cycling infrastructure and behavioural changes during European Mobility Week from Sept. 16-22.

During the week, the Brussels embassy of the Netherlands will be holding Orange Bike Days, which include expos, organised rides and workshops to encourage cycling, long a part of the Dutch national identity.


Roelof Wittink, director of the Dutch Cycling Embassy , a network organization, said Brussels had some way to go to improve the lot of its cyclists.

"In Amsterdam we have segregated cycling facilities or we have situations where we have calmed down the car traffic so much that in fact cyclists feel at least equal to car drivers," he said.

Many bike riders in the Belgian capital would agree, but say there are still some things which need improvement.

"There is not enough respect for cyclists," said Mark Grassi, who rides his bicycle to work but said he struggles to find anywhere to park it safely.

Even the European commissioner for climate action, Denmark's Connie Hedegaard, finds cycling a bit stressful in the European capital. When she lived in Copenhagen, she used to cycle 9 km (6 miles) from her home to her ministry.

"Sometimes I do bike, but it is a very different experience. It is not... relaxed," she said. Shortly after she arrived in the Belgian capital in February 2010, her bike was stolen.

"It was where I live in Brussels, it was locked to a tree, but it was gone," she said.

Brussels wants cycling to make up 20 percent of transportation by 2020. But its current share is estimated at only about 4 or 5 percent, said Julian Ferguson of the European Cyclists' Federation.

And EU-wide, only 7 percent of citizens cycle daily, according to a European Commission report.

Spain and Austria will take the lead in the Mobility Week effort this year, with the most cities participating -- 627 and 446 respectively.

If a city was able to reduce its traffic by half, it would be making big improvements, said Jos Dings, director of green policy campaigning group Transport and Environment.

But when it comes to harmful chemicals in the air, there is really no safe level of nitrogen dioxide and particle emissions, which are emitted more heavily by diesel vehicles, he said.

Nitrogen dioxide can cause respiratory problems; particle emissions can cause long lasting damage or diseases such as cancer, Dings said.

But "every reduction you make towards zero still makes sense," he added.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

(Created by Paul Casciato)

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