The streets of Vienna are crowded, especially during rush hours: employees have to go to work, children and students have to go to schools and lectures, shopping has to be done. Everyone has to go somewhere – on foot, by bike, public transport, or… by car. The roads are made for cars that make the city loud and stink of exhaust fumes; instead of green parks, dreary parking strips shape the cityscape. A city is the place where the multiple traffic crisis, amplified by the car lobby, is most visible and tangible. Those facets include:
Multiple traffic crisis
Climate crisis: Austria’s car-based transportation system is massively heating up the climate crisis. Around 30% of Austria’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to road traffic (Environment Agency Austria 2019). While emissions are slowly declining in nearly all the other sectors, they have continued to increase in the transportation sector by 74% since 1990 (Environment Agency Austria 2018). The consequences of the climate crisis are catastrophic and those who have contributed the least are hit particularly hard. The climate catastrophe is already a devastating reality for people around the world and further exacerbates existing injustices. Even in Austria, hot summers already lead to hundreds of premature deaths (AGES 2020).
Health impact: In addition to the climate impact, car traffic also directly affects our health. In recent years, air pollution accounts for about 7,500 premature deaths in Austria (Austrian Chamber of Agriculture 2019). The number of direct traffic fatalities in 2018 was 400, out of which 40 were cyclists and 45 were pedestrians (BMI 2019). Last but not least, at least 1 million healthy Europeans die every year due to traffic noise (Environment Agency Austria / WHO 2018). Moreover, these negative effects of car traffic are not evenly distributed. They mostly affect people who live on busy streets, ground floors as well as cyclists and pedestrians and those who rely on public space, such as children in playgrounds. This shows that the damage is not borne by the polluter and makes the mobility question a question of justice.
Resource conflicts: A mobility system based on car traffic is exceedingly resource and energy intensive. Not only the drive, but also the production of cars requires a lot of energy and rare raw materials, which are mostly mined in the Global South. Due to the structure constraints of the capitalist mode of production such as competition, profit maximization and economic growth, these rare raw materials are also becoming scarcer and are subject of violent conflicts. Accordingly, nowadays the struggle for resources is the second most common cause of conflict (BPB 2018). For example, rare ores from soils which are essential for electric cars finance the armed conflict in the Congo and wars are waged over access to oil fields (Ganser, D. 2012). In order to satisfy the mobility and general consumption needs, as well as the production demands of the Global North, lives and habitats around the world are being destroyed. In the case of mobility, the nature of capitalism, which is historically and currently based on exploitation, colonialism, extractivism and patriarchy, becomes clearly visible.
Space usage: The car is a highly inefficient means of transportation. The average occupancy rate is 1.15 (VCÖ 2018), which means that each car is on the move for 41 minutes a day. Thus, it is used less than 3% of the day (own calculation by BMVIT 2016) and often only occupies the public space for the rest of the time. The space usage of cars is huge and is even legally secured by building regulations, for example. Meanwhile, marginalized people in particular, hardly find safe places to live where housing is a scarce commodity which is being speculated with.
Social costs: The external costs of car traffic (e.g. traffic accidents, air and noise pollution, climate change) are enormous, they amounted to around 11 billion EUR in Austria in 2016 (VCÖ 2017) and are borne by the general public. That is around 1200 EUR per person per year, regardless of whether they drive a car or not.
But who benefits from all of this?
The state is unable to effectively control the car industry and further slows down a radical change in mobility and stricter environmental regulations – as became apparent in the recent emissions scandal. This is not surprising if we consider the close link between politics and the car industry and take into account that, for example, positions in the car lobby or supervisory board functions in corporations, are often occupied by former politicians. Simultaneously, the expansion of green capitalist electric car mobility is being massively pushed and financed by the state in order to secure the dominant position of cars. However, there are neither measures to avoid traffic, nor those that would allow for widespread expansion of local transportation and dismantling of the existing car-dominated infrastructure. Therefore, especially in rural Austria, many people still rely on their cars. We strongly reject this traffic and infrastructure policy which work in favor of the car industry. Instead, we advocate for a mobility system that is not a subject to the capitalist profit logic, but which contributes to social prosperity and enables climate-friendly mobility for everyone.
The illusion of “green growth”: electric cars
The illusion of green growth will not guarantee this. While society is becoming increasingly aware of the climate crisis and the consequences of motorized private transportation, which means that cars should inevitably be heading towards their expiry date as soon as possible, the car industry and its lobby are trying to maintain their supremacy with greenwashing and idyllic advertising campaigns for ‘environmentally friendly’ electronic cars. In these campaigns of the car lobby, so-called E-SUVs are presented as toys for ‘real men’, with help of which they will (re-)conquer the wilderness. Once again, the car as a status symbol shall ‘promise’ freedom, status and power to the owner. In practice, these vehicles will rarely drive in the tundra, but rather on bike paths, because they are simply too wide for narrow roads. While the imaginary conquest of ‘wilderness’ takes place mostly at the expense of considerable amount of nature destruction, the car companies and their suppliers make their profit at the expense of the environment, health and human life – in Europe and worldwide.
But this growth-oriented business model continues to consume massive amounts of resources and exacerbates social injustices – locally and globally. E-motorized private transportation does not solve any of the problems of the multiple traffic crisis. If fossil-fueled cars are replaced by electric cars, this can even exacerbate the problematic developments: in addition to the still enormous space consumption, the low occupancy rate and tire wear, electric cars also require a lot of energy, which is still produced up to a considerable extent by the fossil fuels. The manufacture of electric cars costs even more energy and resource than that of conventional combustion cars. As a result, the life cycle assessment of such supposedly ‘environmentally friendly’ vehicles is hardly better than that of their siblings with combustion engines (UPI 2019).
The traffic crisis is exacerbated by various so-called rebound effects: electric cars are getting bigger and heavier due to their supposed ‘climate friendliness’. Studies show that they are used more often and are also purchased as second or third cars in many households. Additionally, the supposedly ‘green’ electric car often serves as a replacement for the use of local public transportation (UPI 2019; Wolf, W. 2018). In the medium term, the place of electric cars is only where there are currently no alternatives to maintain basic social security without motorized individual transportation; for example, in terms of health services and ambulance or in some rural areas. Here it becomes apparent that the hesitant attempts of the car lobby to answer the multiple traffic crisis – namely the addition of e-cars on top of the combustion cars – fall short of purpose and only serve to safeguard their own interests. The car lobby is thus a barrier to the comprehensive and radical mobility change that would enable climate-friendly future. The belief in “green” growth remains nothing but a dangerous illusion.
Our vision: mobility justice!
We advocate for a mobility system that is socially just and environmentally sustainable. Mobility is a basic need of all people and a prerequisite for social participation. Mobility justice therefore means that all people can (but do not have to) be ‘mobile’. It is important to reduce both mobility privileges and mobility constraints. In addition to decarbonization, democratization and socialization of the entire transportation system must also become the cornerstones of this mobility change. The mobility change cannot be detached from a revolution in spatial planning that would make everyday journeys shorter and distribute traffic areas fairly. It should also be taken into account that a fair transportation system is also considerates of the different conditions that exist, for example, between urban and rural areas. A first step of our vision is to free the Vienna’s inner city from cars for private transportation purposes and return public space to the people. This should not shift the problem to the outskirts though – and our vision does not stop at Vienna‘s city borders. Rather, it should be a first step towards a fair transportation system. Everyone has a right to the city, the city belongs to all of us. Ultimately, a comprehensive mobility change also involves critically questioning our mobility privileges in countries like ours of the Global North. We therefore express our solidarity with everyone fighting for the ‘Freedom of Movement’ for all people.
Our goals and how to get there
By the #WienAutofrei 1 campaign, we are fighting for the vision of mobility justice and a car-free city. From now on, private cars should no longer be allowed to be driven within the zone called ‘Gürtel’ (belt). There can be no more billboards with car advertising. Necessary steps have to be taken in order to meet the mobility needs of commuters from outside the ‘Gürtel’ via public transportation. No more highways are to be built for this. Within the ’Gürtel’, the existing infrastructure can be restructured in a way that is socially just. This will make the public space free of traffic jam and our future climate-friendly. In order to enable this radical mobility change, the #WienAutofrei campaign is aiming to achieve the following four overarching goals:
- Car-free Grätzl – turn residential areas back into meeting places
The way to a car-free city is through mobility change from below! The residential areas must be freed from cars so that the streets can be transformed into communal living spaces. Barcelona shows with the concept of Superblocks (Grebenjak 2020) that this is possible to a high extent and immediately – given that there is political will and the interests of the car lobby are not prioritized over the interest in a good life for all that would be spared of street noise, polluted air, confined spaces and daily fear of traffic accidents.
- Ban on car advertising and car fairs: No further manipulation by car lobbies and corporations!
Cars don‘t keep the promise of freedom that the car lobby advertises. Rather, cars – especially in the city – take away the freedom to breathe clean air, to be spared of noise, not to risk our lives as cyclists and pedestrians, and to be able to use the public space. Above all, they deprive us of the freedom to create a climate-friendly future and a good life for everyone, worldwide. With creative, disobedient actions and our PR, we draw attention to the false promises of the car industry which assert that cars are legitimate means of transportation and which are greenwashing this by the lie of the benefits of e-mobility. By delegitimizing this strategy in the public debate, we will also suppress the political influence of the car industry and thereby create space for the first steps towards mobility justice.
- No new highways – put the preparations for the Lobau highway on hold and create climate-friendly mobility solutions for commuters instead
For achieving a climate-friendly transportation sector, the current car-centered transportation policy can no longer be ‘carved into stone’. Therefore, we will not accept the construction of highways and, if necessary, block these destructive plans with our bodies.
- Just transition: Not only the future of our transportation system must be fair, but also the way there – especially for the workers affected
Many workers in the industry perceive the restructuring and dismissal measures of the car companies, which have been accelerated by the switch to e-mobility, as a threat. That is why we want to continue our exchange with workers’ movements as well as trade unions and work together to develop policies that would prevent the necessary radical mobility change from impacting the employees negatively – even if that would mean that we have to change how we work. To enable fair transition, alternatives must be created and – if car corporations and suppliers refuse to switch from resource-intensive production – we must ask the question of property. We need an integrated and ecological mobility system that is regulated and planned democratically and serves the common good.
Our # Vienna Car-free campaign focuses on fighting the predominance of car-mobility. However, through alliances and mutual support, we are additionally connecting our campaign back to the grassroots initiatives that advocate for the implementation of all positive alternatives that bring us closer to our vision of a mobility-friendly future. These include the numerous Grätzl networks, which advocate for subsiding of traffic and the conversion of traffic areas into living spaces, doing important organizational work; cyclists‘ and pedestrians‘ initiatives that develop visionary concepts for city-wide, sustainable transportation infrastructures, campaign for their implementation and demand democratization of transportation planning. Furthermore, our solidarity applies to all those initiatives that oppose the construction of the third runway at the Vienna-Schwechat airport and deploy the reduction of air traffic. And finally, we show solidarity with all anti-racist struggles for ‘Freedom of Movement’ for all people.