Poznan’s currently car-free central square is threatened by increasing traffic congestion in the city. Photo by Lee Schipper.
Lee Schipper was recently invited to Poznań, Poland by the consulting firm Convoco. In this article, Lee and Sylwia Klatka (Convoco’s managing director and Poznań resident) report on the challenges the city faces in cleaning and greening its transport systems.
Poznań is one of the 10 largest cities in Poland, with the second highest per capita income in the country. The city sits on a major East-West highway connecting Berlin with Warsaw (and ultimately Moscow), and its modest population of 600,000 people is already choking on well over 200,000 cars. Lee’s invitation from the city was facilitated by Sylwia Klatka, the founder of ConVoco, a local company that works on transport and environment projects with cities around Europe. During his time in Poznań, Lee got to meet the Deputy Mayor, Mirosław Kruszyński, the head of the city Environmental Department, and key officials in city departments related to transport and infrastructure.
Poznań resembles many other middle-sized cities in the region. Under the Communist regimes that controlled Poland and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, public transportation, rather than private automobiles, was favored by policymakers. As a result, networks of trams, buses, and electric trolleys were often chosen for the downtown streets of cities like Poznań.
Today, Poznań’s legacy of state-sponsored transport systems is clearly evident in its widespread public transportation infrastructure. And public transport remains popular with the current generation of city leaders who remember the scent of burning coal from furnaces and stoves and exhaust from poorly maintained vehicles and would like to reduce air pollution. For example, the city has over 300 buses that meet EURO 3 emissions standards, and over a dozen tram lines. All the single and articulated body buses we saw were modern, and none of the rolling stock from before 1990 was evident. The interchange for urban and suburban buses and one of the city’s tram lines continues to be clean and well organized, with clearly posted schedule information (see photo). In addition, in the last decade a fast tram was constructed, and a number of interesting transport oriented development (TOD) projects have recently been popping up around it.
Despite these positive signs, however, Poznań faces a number of serious transport challenges. In the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain, automobile ownership in Eastern Europe skyrocketed, even in the midst of the economic crises that marked the region’s transition to a free market economy. As Eastern Europe recovered from these shocks in the mid-1990s, and the region began to experience economic growth again, car ownership increased even more. These better times also meant that people were able to afford better housing. Unfortunately, new developments were often farther from city centers, further stimulating car ownership and the strains on public transport.
Evening rush hour in Poznań
As a result, the average Eastern European now owns almost as many cars as their Western European counterparts (according to city officials, there are nearly 400 cars per 1000 residents in Poznań). In fact, cars (including taxis) now account for nearly 50% of all trips, with public transport serving just over 40% of the population, and walking and cycling taking up most of the rest. Combined with the concomitant collapse of government financing for public transportation, this influx of automobiles has seriously eroded the quality of Poznań’s urban environment. Traffic jams are now a constant reminder of the scourge of too many automobiles in an old, European city. And while most trams have right of way, they are often stuck at large intersections, which impeding their efficiciency and effectiveness.
To make matters worse, because of its location on the Berlin-Warsaw-Moscow highway, Poznan is also beset by heavy truck traffic. These trucks increase traffic, noise, and air pollution in the city’s outer areas, forcing the city to focus resources on by-passes and ring roads, rather than public transport projects in the city center.
In addition to congestion, the recent economic and social changes in Poznań have also caused so-called “air pollution hot-spots”, where heavy traffic containing many older, poorly maintained vehicles boosts emissions of CO, NOx and PM to dangerous levels. This transport-related air pollution is exacerbated by the increasingly popular use of coal for home heating. Skies over Poznań have suffered as a result, and the evening rush hour in the crowded inner city leaves many residents exposed to relatively high levels of air pollution as they walk in traffic or sit in their cars.
Authorities on both the municipal and regional levels are aware of these problems, but lack a common vision of how to act. Some of the obvious solutions which could contribute to a more sustainable transport system (such as congestion charging, fewer cars downtown and cleaner fuels for taxis) have been slow to gain traction because political leaders fear that such initiatives will face opposition from individual motorists, downtown businesses, taxi drivers and others. These groups are often averse to change and unwilling to invest in cleaner vehicles and fuels.
An additional problem is that the city lacks the instruments to regulate clean air or vehicles through taxes or other mechanisms, such as vehicle inspections. Poland’s recent entry into the EU has made these problems more acute by opening the door to the importation of used cars from other EU members. These imports are often more polluting than cars made or purchased new in Poland.
Interestingly, the whole world will be watching how successful Poznań is in its efforts to clean and green its transportation sector, because over the next 5-10 years, this small burg will have several turns on the world stage. Next December, for example, Poznań will host COP 14. Between now and then, the city will also serve as the venue for a series of fairs and meetings related to clean fuels, clean cities and clean environment. Finally, Poznań will be one of the host cities for the UEFA European Football Championship in 2012. Given this high profile over the next decade, Poznań would very much like to be able to demonstrate clean fuels and vehicle technologies on its streets, and to start meeting this goal sooner rather than later.