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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

More Roads, Less Trains

Air Date: Week of

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In Hungary, there’s a push to develop road systems to accommodate the rise in car ownership and prepare for a projected increase in commerce if the country is to join the European Union. Some say the move toward road-building means more pollution and comes at the expense of the public transportation system. Drew Leifheit reports.


CURWOOD: In today’s post-Communist Eastern Europe, many nations have a new-found love affair with the automobile. That, combined with their zeal to join the European Union has led some of these countries to expand and modernize their road systems in the hope of fostering economic growth. But in Hungary, this effort comes at the expense of rail and bus networks. Drew Leifheit reports from Budapest.


LEIFHEIT: It’s just after 5:00 p.m. on a chilly weeknight. Executive Alpar Bodis stands on a dark Budapest street waiting for an electric bus. The red bus arrives, he gets on, and it rambles along about five stops on its way to the end of the route, a train station. There Mr. Bodis hops on a train for a 30 minute ride back to his village located on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital.

BODIS: I hate driving into town, and it’s much more time. It will take about two hours just to get downtown by car on a weekday during the rush hours. So, the train is much better for me.


LEIFHEIT: Hungary’s public transportation system connects virtually every town and village in the country. The extensive rail lines are a legacy of the country’s economic growth in the late 19th century and received heavy state subsidies throughout much of Hungary’s 40 years of Communism. But after Hungary broke its ties with the Soviet Union in 1989 to become a market economy, Budapest residents, as well as those across the country, are increasingly seeking the freedom associated with the automobile, if they can afford it.


OVERLOCK: I used to live in the city’s center before I had the car. No. Zero. I had no need to have a car day or night. There are buses, there’s metros, there’s everything. It’s excellent.

LEIFHEIT: Janice Overlock is an American who’s lived in Hungary for seven years. She says she only started driving after she moved out of downtown Budapest to start a family.

OVERLOCK: I live in one of the outlying areas. So I bring my car in to the Metro, and then I go from the Metro here to work. So I do that. On weekends we drive around in the car. I almost never go on buses. So usually I rely on the Metro and car.

LEIFHEIT: As people become more mobile, many cities like Budapest are beginning to sprawl. From 1989 until 1997 an estimated 100,000 Budapest residents fled the city’s center and moved to outlying areas. Vilmos Tolgyesi is chief engineer at the Budapest Transportation Company. He’s seen the dramatic decrease in train and bus ridership in the years just after the political changes.


VOICEOVER: We had a low point four to five years ago, because people no longer had to wait years for cars and the number of car owners increased. Motorization exploded in Budapest and Hungary.

LEIFHEIT: Mr. Tolgyesi has also watched the public transportation system fall into disrepair due to a lack of funding. Over the last decades, spending on roads has increased 400 percent while public transportation money, says Mr. Tolgyesi, has been just enough to keep the extensive transit fleet running. Increased car ownership is just a part of the government’s push to build roads. Hungary’s desire to join the European Union in two to three years’ time requires greater accessibility to underdeveloped domestic and international regions. For that, the country must increase the roadways’ capacity to accommodate an estimated 50 percent increase in traffic.

Zoltan Kazatsay is Deputy State Secretary at Hungary’s Transport Ministry. He says the road system has some distance to go from its sad state of the early 1990’s.

KAZATSAY: We didn’t have motorway network at all. We had some motorway sections in operation, and their standards are comparable with the relevant European Union standards. But they didn’t represent that network. And it was shown by different investigations that those areas where the motorway was operating showed a much faster development trend than those areas where the motorway was not available within about one hour time or so.

LEIFHEIT: Some environmentalists say the increase in road building is already leading to more pollution, its associated public health problems, and a lack of sustainable transportation policy in the region.

KAZATSAY: I don’t believe that we have a national development plan that reflects very much sustainability ideas or, you know, environmental management approaches.

LEIFHEIT: Robert Nemeskeri is a director with the Regional Environmental Center, a non-governmental organization based in Hungary. He points out that while pollution in the region has decreased during the past decade since the closing of socialist era heavy industry, the steady increase in road traffic means automobiles are now the main contributors to air pollution in the country. Mr. Nemeskeri says that East Central European countries like Hungary should not look to Western countries for progressive transportation policy.

NEMESKERI: I believe that there is, or there must be still, opportunity for us not to commit all the mistakes what have been done in the Western European countries. For instance, not to excessively develop freeway and road transport systems over railways. But unfortunately, at present, I don’t see this to happen.

LEIFHEIT: One vital element of sustainable transportation policy, according to Nemeskeri, would be the development of a high speed rail link between Budapest and other major European capitals. Andras Lukacs of Budapest’s Clean Air Action Group would also like to see money put aside to improve public transportation. He notes that the rate of respiratory disease here has doubled in the last decade.

LUKACS: If the present trend continues, the situation will get worse because the number of cars will increase, the length of motorways will increase, the number of trucks crossing the border will also increase, and the technical innovations and the technical improvements of motor vehicles will not be so quick to reverse this trend.

LEIFHEIT: Lukacs says that EU regulations such as those that call for modernizing public transportation systems and extending subway lines can result in a cleaner environment in Hungary…though he believes they will be very difficult to enforce. Zoltan Kazatsay of the Transport Ministry says that Hungary can find ways to slow the increase in the number of cars by encouraging public transportation use. He points out that its rail service is nearly double that of the average of the European Union, and that Hungary does have plans to upgrade the current railway network.

KAZATSAY: We would like to keep this level, and we would like to increase this level up to about 15 percent within about 10 years time. For that, several new regulations should be introduced, partly due to the European Union accession procedure and requirements, partly due to the present status of the railway sector.

LEIFHEIT: Kazatsay says that, in addition to increasing subsidies for bus and rail, the state must provide a higher level of service for its passengers by improving its transportation system and its roads. Only then can Hungary move into the future. For Living on Earth, I’m Drew Leifheit in Budapest.

[MUSIC: L’Alta "Black Arrow" IN THE AFTERNOON (Aesthetic—2002)]

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living n Earth.




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