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Infernal Combustion

02.04.2003 | ENVIRONMENT

Once upon a more innocent time, everybody loved cars. They were modern democratic  marvels: compressors of space and time that meant freedom and status the way unfiltered Luckies meant flavor and health. Tram tracks were ripped up per orders of General Motors and car culture was institutionalized in the name of progress—street by street—from Pasadena to Paris.

As long as the model-T got within reach of the little guy, nobody cared. The few crotchety intellectuals  ranting on the sidelines went unheard by a public that had the radio up and the windows down until well past mid-century.

In the 1960s, the car's image finally started to sputter. The ranks of social critics targeting the automobile grew, and public debates sparked wherever the car had transformed social life in its image. Smog blankets, traffic stress, industrial levels of violent death on the highways, the withering of downtown business districts and community life generally—all were attacked as the insidious shadow of King Car.

Today, those early counterculture catcalls sound quaint. The most urgent and damning critique of the car is now made in the atmosphere, by evidence of encroaching climate change caused largely by the world's massive, growing and continuously polluting fleet of vehicles. More than just a "quality of life" issue, questioning car culture has become part of humanity's fight for survival.

In 2003, criticizing cars is an article of faith across the green-left spectrum, from Greenpeace to Reclaim the Streets. But the group with the most laser-like focus on "automobility" is the one with the funny name: Car Busters, a busy little Prague-based outfit with a single-minded dedication to stopping the onward march of the car culture around the world. In a cramped, flyer-filled office on the outskirts of the city, a staff of six crank out a quarterly magazine and a monthly bulletin, help co-ordinate anti-car actions worldwide, and maintain a website ( that features a multi-lingual resource center and contact directory for activists and policy makers.

The magazine currently has a circulation of 3,000, and many more thousands subscribe to the newsletter. The latest issue of Car Busters magazine features articles on the physical health effects of drive-thru culture and a round-up of Car-Free City days on four continents, together with the usual cartoons and scalding gallows humor found in the justifiably worried world of environmental activism.

In its six years of life, Car Busters has employed French, Romanian, Finnish, Canadian, German and Australian activists. The current staff includes two Brits, two Czechs and two Americans. Fittingly, the two yanks are from California, in many ways car culture's ground zero. It was in the American West that freeways, roadside diners and towns centered around intersections first bloomed.

This is the world Randy Ghent grew up in, and he's already spent half his life trying to change it.

The 30 year-old Ghent is a veteran activist and Car Busters' last remaining founding member. He first entered green politics fighting to save the Redwoods in Northern California in the '80s, and has since built a long war-record  of international activism and journalism, including work with the Alliance for Paving Moratorium and regular contributions to Auto Free Times and Adbusters, for whom he was European correspondent. In 1997 he attended Car Busters' founding conference at Lyon and stayed on. In 2000, he helped the organization set up shop in Prague, where cheap rent and low printing costs facilitate its work with activists in Central and Eastern Europe.

Ask the soft-spoken Ghent what he has against cars and he'll take a breath before warning that the subject is bigger than a sound bite.

"Cars are the largest source of pollution and environmental destruction in the world," he explains. "Almost half of all petroleum is consumed by cars—a major impetus for the looming war in Iraq. Half of the toxic air pollution, a third of the smog and at least a third of all greenhouse gasses are [also] produced by cars."

Less known, says Ghent, is the automobile's role in deforming the urban environment, replacing "high-quality pedestrian habitat" with cold and dangerous speed corridors.

"Traditionally streets and public space in general were just as much for social interaction as movement, and space devoted purely to movement was considered wasted and kept to a minimum, like hallways in homes. There wasn't this singular obsession with getting elsewhere as fast as possible, which has been reinforced by planning departments bending over backward to accommodate the car. [And] when people are isolated in speeding metal boxes and living in dreary neighborhoods emptied of places worth visiting, they end up alienated, stressed and depressed, lacking a sense of community or a sense of place. Their social support network has failed them, because it can't co-exist with an environment built for and around automobiles."

Here in the Central Europe, Ghent says, you can see the effects everywhere.

"All of these little villages that used to be one street villages now have this thoroughfare. If you look at a lot of old pictures of cities, you see how they were more about community life and less for movement. There was less alienation and loneliness. Just by going out of your front door you could have spontaneous exchanges with people."

Not even the slickest auto industry flacks would want to debate these guys. Every member of the Car Buster collective  is battle-hardened and can attack car culture on multiple fronts with expertise. They all have deep experience organizing events in conference centers and on the streets. All are dead serious about ending the Auto Age.

Thirty-four year-old Jason Kirkpatrick is a former city councilman from the progressive city of Arcata,  California, and a star organizer brought in to handle  Car Busters' third bi-annual "Toward Car-Free Cities" conference, to be held in Prague next month. Seventy-five international activists representing transportation campaign groups in Europe plan to attend, with four events open to the public.

Like Ghent, Kirkpatrick is a walking PR machine for the car-free cause. Stats and studies fly off his casual conversation like sparks off a Benz in a chop shop. Give him a minute and he'll explain why car-free cities are better for small businesses. Give him two and he'll tell you why they're better for everything from the common cold to the local water table.

"If you have to walk down a street you're likely to go to 2 or 3 stores," he says. "But get out of your car and you'll shop at just one. The amount of retail space a city loses to parking spaces is enormous, and jobs and revenue are lost. This is a gigantic economic impact. In wealthy Amsterdam, 29% of trips are by bicycle, the highest among big cities in Europe."

His colleague Randy politely interrupts to mention a recent study of 30 German towns.  It seems that those with the most pedestrian zones have lower unemployment and a bigger tax base.

Car Busters is funded by its members, subscribers and a hodgepodge of grants. The upcoming Prague conference is partially underwritten by the EU, the Council of Europe and a sprinkling of Rockefeller crumbs. Like any rag-tag NGO, its cash situation is rarely stable for long. "We used to get money from the Foundation for Deep Ecology," says Ghent. "But their priorities changed and now they're buying forests in Chile."

Finding money is complicated by the admittedly radical nature of the Car Busters platform, but Ghent says the frankness and range of the group's voice is what makes it so important as a clearinghouse for ideas and exchange between activists.

We have the luxury of being radical and provocative since we  aren't involved directly in politics," he says. "In fact that's a large part of our appeal. People feel we're like a breath of fresh air because we don't temper our language to please those in power. This is why our website has over 300 hits a day while larger, institutionalized groups—which tend to bore people with meaningless buzzwords like 'sustainable mobility'—have a hard time building a grassroots following."

In a political atmosphere where environmental activism is sometimes equated with terrorism, isn't the image of "car busting" a little...violent?

"We expect 'Car Busters' to be taken more figuratively than literally," says Ghent. "We raise radical questions and advocate  a full range of effective nonviolent tactics, but we don't actually go around telling people to smash cars aside from their own. And an old car can be converted into a nice big artsy flower planter, so there's no need to let our aggressive sides take over."

In other words: they aren't tied to al-Qaeda. In fact, Car Busters publicly denied responsibility for the December sinking of 3,000 luxury BMWs, Volvos and Saabs in the English Channel. As a cheeky publicity stunt, they plan to repeat the proclamation whenever  natural disasters end up destroying large numbers of automobiles.

Despite the caustic cartoons and attempt to stigmatize car owners by establishing Autoholics Anonymous chapters around the world (one of the group's latest side projects), Prague's Car Busters are hard core realists, and work for incremental change as they push radical ideas ahead of the inevitable policy lag. Pillorying fat people in the West who drive SUV's isn't going to save the world, and they know that.

They also know that the real challenge  isn't even in the West. The number of cars in the developing world is exploding, and convincing planners in those countries that the Western model is costly and destructive  is a Car Busters priority. Although most of their contacts and projects involve the West, all of their work has an eye toward influencing global developments.

According to Kirkpatrick and Ghent, gleams of hope are breaking through the smog in poor countries, and both tell stories of working with transport officials around the developing world, especially in Asia, where mega-cities of tens of millions of people make the US model a suicidal impossibility.

Richard Lane, a 24 year-old Car Buster from Sussex, UK, stresses that news from poorer countries is more mixed than people think. "More Third World planners are coming over [to Europe] to watch and get involved in Car free days," he says.

"We always hear about the new highways and the KFC drive-thrus. There are the stories that in Jakarta they're seizing rickshaws and throwing them away,  which is true, but it's also true that it's the past mayor of Bogotá [Colombia] that has given us the best model for the Third World by making Bogotá's car-free the biggest in the world, coupled with an ambitious long-term to chase the car out of this city of six million. He's currently in West Africa talking to local officials. Once you have one good model it can really take off exponentially."

Car Busters doesn't put much hope in the cleaner cars now being introduced in the West, such as hyper-efficient "smart" cars and hybrid-fuel models.

"If these [cleaner] cars were replacing the cars that exist it would be one thing, but that's not what's happening," says Ghent. "And of course, clean cars do nothing to address the worsening quality of the urban environment  or the continuing carnage on the roads—that's over one million people killed and ten million injured every year. More than twice as many people have died since 1900 in US car collisions as have been killed in all the wars in US history. In the Global South, the figures are even more alarming."

Here in Europe, contradictory trends abound, with green shoots sprouting amidst galaxies of freshly laid asphalt.

"[Europe] is moving simultaneously in both directions," says Ghent. "There will be more roads, more cars, a lot of [suburban] development. Here in the Czech Republic, EU membership will mean reduced pollution [from some sources], but also highways everywhere at the expense of trains, which seem destined for further cut-backs and perhaps privatization, which is now destroying what's left of Britain's passenger rail system. Tailpipe emissions per vehicle will improve, but even these gains may be cancelled out by rising car ownership."

In the face of this avalanche of exhaust, what does Car Busters have planned for the future?

"We want to decentralize the organization," says Ghent. "In next month's conference we want to get to the point where more people can do things independent of Car Busters. We work with a lot of international groups and individuals, from groups like Car-Free Russia and Road Alert UK to others like Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, based in New York City. People give us info and we pass it on through our magazine and bulletin, but we want to develop a stronger network of groups around the world."

For now, Prague's Car Busters know that the world's car population, already over 500 million, gets bigger every day. They know the major car makers are building bigger and more wasteful cars and that millions of people still want to buy them. When asked if they have any hope against hope, Ghent volunteers the sober observation that things will get worse before they get better.

"Of course," he says," they are always doing both."

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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