European drivers ignore appeal to leave cars at home for the day

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Traffic crawled at its usual pace through many European cities Friday as motorists gave a thumbs down to an appeal to leave their cars at home for a day and go to work by foot, bicycle or public transportation.

However, Margot Wallstroem, environment commissioner for the European Union, which organized the car-free campaign, declared it a success, saying 65 million people in 813 cities across some 30 countries - from Buenos Aires to Bangkok - participated.

''This is to raise awareness to what's happening to our urban environment. ... We want to discuss climate change, noise levels and air pollution,'' Wallstroem said.

Nearly a third of car trips in the 15-nation European Union involve journeys of less than two miles, she said.

But was anyone taking any notice? Motorists across Europe might be angry at spiraling gas prices, but as Wallstroem spoke in a tent pitched near EU headquarters, morning traffic trickled as slowly as ever.

Many participating cities cordoned off streets, creating car-free zones. But others did not even sign up.

In Britain, only 10 of 175 regional governments joined in. In London, only five out of 33 boroughs took part, closing a mere handful of roads.

Downtown Tel Aviv was closed to cars and throngs of bicycles substituted for the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic jams. In traffic-clogged Athens there was relief after days of smog and high temperatures, but downtown streets were closed only after the morning rush hour.

Across Spain, 215 towns and cities asked the country's 19 million drivers to leave their cars at home, but it was rush hour business as usual in Madrid: honking cars snarled many mains streets.

In Stockholm, which shunned the initiative, Deputy Mayor Sten Nordin questioned the usefulness of the campaign.

''The environment won't be improved by one car-free day, but from better public transportation and beltways,'' he said.

''People use their cars to go to work, take their kids to daycare, shop food, for heavens sake,'' Nordin said. ''It's not that simple, just stopping the traffic.''

Thailand's government used the day to protest high oil prices. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai rode his mountain bike half a mile to his Bangkok office and said the car-free day could become a more regular event.


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