Reclaiming the streets … for cars? Why Bucharest is reining in outdoor events
The Guardian, 4 August 2016
While cities around the world embrace pedestrianisation, Bucharest’s new mayor is blaming traffic on street events such as Via Sport, which closes a central boulevard to cars on weekends. Is the Romanian capital taking a step backwards?
“The reason we are doing this in the street in the summer and at the weekend is to encourage people to leave their cars, take their bicycles, walk with their kids, play games, and have fun,” says Alex Zamfir, one of the co-founders of Via Sport, an event that has taken place on most summer weekends for the last seven years on one of the busy thoroughfares of central Bucharest. During Via Sport, a 750-metre stretch of the Kiseleff highway is closed to vehicles from 10pm on Friday until 2pm on Sunday, to create a safe space for leisure and sports.
Yet it’s a Saturday morning in late July, and rather than looking out over hundreds of children and adults playing games, we are sitting on a bench watching a slow stream of cars go by, perhaps two dozen every minute or so.
A few days earlier, the event organisers had received a letter saying that due to “road upkeep” over the next four months, Via Sport couldn’t take place. This came in the wake of recent comments made by the new mayor of Bucharest, Gabriela Firea, which some feel threatens many of the cultural and sporting events that take place on streets in the Romanian capital.
“Just this weekend, the traffic in the capital was blocked and not because there were too many cars – but because there are many street events approved in downtown Bucharest, whether cultural, entertainment or sports, and this doesn’t happen in any [other] European capital,” said Firea – who was elected mayor on 5 June – in a recent interview with one of Romania’s news stations. Despite apparently supporting street events in Bucharest, she added that they shouldn’t be held in the central area.
Firea highlighted Via Sport as one of the events that was affecting traffic – leading many people to question the true motivation for shutting down the event – as well as the concerts that take place in Piata Constitutiei, a large square in front of the Palace of Parliament in the city centre. Tens of thousands pay to attend live shows there and it is one of the most popular venues in the city.
In recent years there has been an explosion of street festivals and events taking place in Bucharest, which has added to the cultural and sporting fabric of the city. “It is a vibrant city, and a city that is working. It is active, it is not asleep anymore. Culture is part of that,” says Raluca Ciuta, the manager for Bucharest’s bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2021 and the cultural programmes director at ARCUB, a centre that organises hundreds of events around the city.
Yet, at a time when many cities around the world are trying to push for increased street festivals and pedestrianised activities, Bucharest city hall seems to be going against the grain.
Following the success of last September’s first car-free day in Paris, the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, decided that the Champs Élysées would be closed to cars the first Sunday of every month starting in May, with pedestrians taking over the street. Other cities – from Mumbai to São Paulo – have also been opening up their roads and boulevards to pedestrian activities on weekends, to better encourage people to get out, walk around and have fun. Meanwhile, some cities are taking more drastic action to limit the presence of cars in city centres.
“If this is permanent I think it is a backward step for Bucharest,” says Ciprian Salceanu, a software programmer who goes to Via Sport at least once a month to play table tennis and basketball with friends.
Defending her decision to close Via Sport due to roadworks, Firea said in an interview on 26 July that she would not take lessons from a company that “stubbornly keeps five people” on the boulevard while “blocking hundreds of thousands of people” in their cars. (Firea didn’t respond to requests for an interview with The Guardian.)
Zamfir admits that at certain times of the day, when it is very hot, there are not so many people out but says in total they get between 5,000-8,000 people every weekend. “Maybe 2pm is not busy, but the morning is the time families come, and on a hot day people will stay playing until three to four in the morning.”
A few days after her initial comments, Firea tried to clarify her position. She stated that major street events would be safe, and she was simply talking about events that were not well attended or those that could be moved to other areas of the city and off the major boulevards. However, organisers of other street events in Bucharest are not convinced, and some are bracing for more actions from city hall.
“I believe they will also try to close other street events. I don’t know if they will succeed, but we are definitely going to put up a fight,” says Cristian Neagoe, who is concerned for the future of his own event, Street Delivery, which was inspired by London’s Reclaim the Streets movement, and has been running for a decade, blocking off a street in central Bucharest for several days every summer.
Neagoe says that Street Delivery’s whole vision “relies on getting the automobile out of the city centre and highlighting the needs of pedestrians, promoting bikes and public transport … We cannot move it in a park or indoors, because that would defeat its whole purpose.”
Before being told the event was closed due to four months of road maintenance (which precludes the event from resuming this year), Via Sport’s organisers were offered alternative venues to host their event. “They offered us a boulevard almost literally outside the city, far away from any metro station or residential buildings,” says Zamfir.
The second option was the entrance to a park, but they decided it wasn’t right for their event and its goal of offering people an alternative place to play sports and highlight different uses for the city’s roads.
For the moment, Via Sport is the only event that has been impacted, and it is unsure whether it will spread to other street events and festivals, but there is a feeling that actions in recent weeks show a lack of policy. “I think the conversation is pretty chaotic,” says Ioana Paun, a Romanian theatre director and performer. “It is important that there is a public strategy for cultural events. The mayor shouldn’t just approve or disapprove but should help shape public life,” she adds.
On Thursday 28 July, around 70 people gathered outside Bucharest city hall to skip, play badminton, hopscotch and hit tennis balls as part of a small flashmob protest against the decision to close Via Sport.
“It isn’t the numbers that matter but the message, and the message is that we should give priority to health over traffic,” says Mircea Toma, the president of Active Watch, a Romanian transparency NGO that was behind the flashmob.
“Bucharest is the second most polluted capital in the EU because the centre is flooded by cars,” Toma says, while stressing that in his opinion the mayor’s approach to shutting down street events was autocratic. “She announces she doesn’t agree with them and then imposes a decision using maintenance work as an excuse,” he says.
In fact, one of the rumours circulating on social and local media is that Firea targeted Via Sport partly because her political party’s headquarters are just north of where it takes place, and they have been affected by traffic on the weekends.
The closure of Via Sport may now improve traffic, but few believe it will make much of a difference to drivers. “At the most we might add five, six minutes to your journey. Not much time if you ask us,” says Zamfir, adding: “It feels like city hall is saying traffic is more important than fresh air over the weekend.”