The idea of placing bans on driving in European city centers dates as far back as the reign of Julius Caesar. Back then, concerns that the constant rage of chariots was disrupting pedestrians, led Rome's city planners to ban the horse-drawn vehicles from the narrow alleys around the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. Two thousand years later, Rome and other European capitals are taking their example from Caesar and adopting similar approaches to counter non-stop congestion and alarming air pollution.
This year, Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni, has banned driving in the city center on three different Sundays. And once a week, the city imposes a limited driving ban both on cars and those scooters that Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" made popular. Each Thursday, the city bans vehicles with either an even or odd numbered license plate from driving in the historical center. Even without the ban, much of the city's most-famous areas -- from the Piazzo Campo de' Fiori to the former working-class Trastevere district on the other side of the Tiber River -- are largely closed to daytime traffic.
But an extended high-pressure front with spring temperatures and little rain is all the Romans need to feel, literally all of the environmental sins that have been committed in the city over the decades. For every 1,000 residents in the city, there are 995 cars on any given day, along with about 350,000 loud, stinky mopeds and scooters. Add to that the thousands of soot-spewing delivery trucks and technologically outdated busses and life in the city can feel about as refreshing as wrapping your lips around a tail-pipe. When it comes to environmental policy, the country has "been asleep for years," complains environmental expert Alberto Fiorillo.
Draconic measures are in order in Rome and elsewhere because under Italian law, mayors can be held liable for health-threatening environmental damage. And environmental groups are threatening to sue the city chiefs.
A dozen Italian cities - from Turin to Bologna, Ferrara, Parma and Ravenna - have already issued driving bans. The northern Italian city of Vincenza imposed driving bans for four straight days at the beginning of February. But that's "nowhere near enough" to mitigate the health hazards, says the city's mayor, Enrico Huellweck, a trained medical doctor. During the first six weeks of the year, the city violated European Union standards on 38 days.
Other European cities have done equally little. In Paris, for example, the same game gets played over and over again when the ozone levels start to rise. City hall and police departments threaten, warn and cajole people to drive more slowly or, better yet, to leave their cars at home, where the parking is free. To no effect. The city's magnificent Champs-Elysees is constantly choked by bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Many of the city's residents see the local government's measures to stop congestion as little more than harassment. The city has closed streets along the banks of the Seine, added new bus lanes and increased the number of bicycle paths, which hardly existed before. But Parisians see themselves in the tradition of their former mayor, Jacques Chirac who famously said: "Paris wants to drive and we're going to help it." Of course, times have changed and today President Chirac not only gave up smoking in public, but is also announcing measures aimed at fighting "one of the biggest health risks:" exposure to diesel motors.
It's the same story in Madrid: lots of talk but little action. Murky yellow smog covers the city like an unwanted cap. After huge public events like the recent celebration of Epiphany - the city hoses the streets with huge columns of water. The water doesn't just wash away the litter; it also cleanses the air of dangerous levels of pollution.
At the beginning of the year, the city approved a "Strategic Air Quality Plan." It was long overdue. Some of the city's neighborhoods violated the EU limit for fine particulate materials, or so-called "fine dust," more than 100 times last year. The plan also calls for limits on driving - something the city hasn't seen since 1981.
Other European cities have addressed the problem more strategically -- and successfully. "Fine! Particle Free" - is the slogan used by the Austrian cities of Klagenfurt and Graz with Bolzano over the border in Italy. In the southern Alpine foothills, fine dust levels are expected to shrink dramatically by 2007. The driving restrictions being imposed there will also impact the major trucking and tourist traffic that passes through Austria en route to Italy, Switzerland and other countries.
In other European countries, governments are hitting residents where it hurts -- their pocketbooks. This idea of "traffic control," successfully practiced in Singapore since 1975, came to the rest of Europe via Scandinavia, where the Norwegians first introduced city tolls. In 1986, Bergen began charging a congestion fee for its downtown area, followed by Trondheim in 1988 and Oslo in 1990.
But the environmental impact is incidental. The original goal of the tolls was to raise funds for road construction. Building roads through Norway's hard granite requires expensive tunnels or massive detours.
In 2003, London became the first European city to impose a toll for its city center based on environmental reasons. After a long political battle, the city introduced its "Congestion Charge" to great fanfare. Ken Livingston, dubbed "Red Ken" for his progressive policies, became the first mayor who didn't accept the idea that London's smog is God-given. Because what London residents laconically call the "big smoke," is a hazard to both the human and animal population. The turtle dove, famous from the "12 Days of Christmas," has seen its population decimated by pollution.
The city now charges drivers a daily fee of five pounds ($9.41) to enter the crowded city center. The fee is set to increase to eight pounds in July. Last year, 273,000 people paid the fee. More impressively, public acceptance and the measurable success of the program has exceeded all expectations. Air pollution between Hyde Park and the Tower of London has been reduced by 12 percent, traffic jams are down a third and overall traffic is down by 30 percent. At the same time, the number of regular passengers on the city's famous red double-decker and other busses has increased by nearly 50 percent.
Encouraged by London's success, Sweden's capital city of Stockholm is planning to implement its own congestion charge. Last week, Sweden's highest federal court cleared the way for a trial car toll based on the London model. The toll will go into effect before the end of the year and a referendum, planned for summer 2006, will determine whether it is allowed to continue.
Fearing the toll would drive people out of Stockholm, the Swedes originally considered an alternative plan. That proposal called for commuters to purchase a monthly pass for 300 crowns (40) that would have been displayed as a decal on their window. The new plan is more expensive, at 6.60 daily.
Traffic is an enormous problem in Stockholm and previous efforts to limit it have failed. City planners built wider streets and a new tunnel system, which opened last year, in an effort to ease traffic jams in the city. Instead, much to the horror of planners, they have attracted more cars and led to more congestion. With better traffic flow and less congestion, the city hopes the toll will also help make the local air a little cleaner.