MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT TRANSPORTATION IN HUNGARY
by András Lukács
Clean Air Action Group
H - 2041 Budaõrs, PO Box 102
Phone: 36-1-206-5598 or 36-1-206-5599 Fax: 36-1-165-0438
Before 1989, when Hungary's political and economic transition began, transportation habits in the country were more sound in many ways than in Western Europe. A very large percentage of the people travelled by train or other public transport, freight was carried mostly by the railways, a big majority of the citizens did not own cars, there was easy walking or public transport access to shopping and workplaces. Since then, however, the conditions have deteriorated rapidly. Accelerating this unfortunate trend are many misinformed print and the electronic journalists who believe fallacies promulgated by official sources, and who communicate those heedlessly to the public. And journalists who do try to go against the grain are often stopped by nervous editors, for fear of offending advertisers or politicians.
Universities, too, are presenting erroneous concepts as universal truths. Hungarians are receptive to such misconceptions also because these days they tend to reject anything that happened before 1989, and also they at least admire if not worship of everything that happens in Western Europe or in the United States. There is only a small minority of experts or politicians that admit that the transport policies of the West, which Hungary also attempts to implement, are wrong. And more importantly, Money and Power, represented by well-defined and organized groups have vested interests in maintaining and reinforcing the current transport policies. On the other side, those who do not agree with the current policies are represented by non-business associations, NGOs that lack the necessary funds, resources, and, many of them, the sufficient skills and familiarity with the issue.
These are some of the worst fallacies about Hungarian transportation that regularly end up in the media:
"Road construction is one of the preconditions for Hungary's entry into the European Union." EU representatives say that this isn't true at all. In fact, the EU Country Study on Hungary laments that road transport development is given excessive priority over railway and water transport. The Ministry of Transport, however, is silent, and is reluctant to refute that fallacy; and the papers have only published a few sentences - if any - on EU's real position on the issue.
"Hungary has always been a transit country, and it is vital for the economy to strengthen this position." Transit of goods by rail is indeed a significant source of income for the Hungary's state-owned railways. However, as shown in a study by the Hungarian Traffic Club, lorries going across Hungary bring about a loss equivalent to nearly 1.5% of the GDP by damaging roads and other facilities, emitting environmental and health hazards, causing accidents and traffic congestion. Road transport also plays a major role in black economy and crime. And yet budget revenues from transit road freight transport are almost negligible.
"Motorways are essential for the progress in Hungary's underdeveloped regions." But a number of studies, both foreign and Hungarian, show that motorways do not necessarily boost the economy in underdeveloped areas, and can even have the opposite effect. Studies also reveal that funds invested in motorway construction are often better spent on other industries in depressed regions. Such studies are rarely mentioned in the media, however, and the government doesn't like to talk about them either. Hardly anyone knows, for instance, that Ministry of Environmental Protection commissioned a study from a multinational company, and that this study concluded that building the M3 motorway between Budapest and the neighboring Ukraine is not worthwhile.
"New roads help prevent traffic congestion, thereby reducing pollution." Research around the world shows that new roads actually boost traffic and cause more congestion and environmental harm. An example in Hungary is the southern section of the ring road around Budapest. Within four weeks (!) of its opening, the stretch was carrying more traffic than anyone had counted on, and the old road that it was meant to ease was as crowded as ever. Since then the city built another bypass road, and traffic jams are already common there, and the situation did not improve on any other roads. Yet, the Government and the Budapest Municipality continue with the their enormously costly road construction program in Budapest and its vicinity, and the media largely supports them.
"Economic development is impossible without a growing number of motorcars on roads." The number of motorcars has tripled in Hungary in the last 20 years, and reached 2.4 million, whereas national income has hardly moved up. The Government has failed to do or publish calculations, comparative cost-benefit analyses to tell which branches of the economy, to what extent and efficiency contribute to long-term, sustainable economic development. Although the Government declares that intellectual capital, human resources are the key factors in social development and not physical capital, energy and material consumption, it acts just the opposite in practice.
"Car-drivers are already heavily burdened with taxes, so they should be exempted from further fees." This is one of the most commonly cited fallacies. Again, international and Hungarian studies indicate that car-drivers do not pay for all the damages they cause to the environment or to the society. The Government admits this problem, but has taken no steps to implement the ‹Polluter Pays› principle in practice.
"To help market economy develop in Hungary, the Government must reduce its involvement in the economy, and stop supporting loss-making activities such as public transport." Environmental organizations and other public interest groups underlined that public transport (including railways) produce environmental, social and economic benefits that cannot be measured by criteria used in the world of company business. The government is willing to admit that abandoning state funding for public transport would be an error. This position is reflected also in the media. However, government funds for improving public transport are still diminishing; several branch railway lines are on the verge of being closed or falling apart for lack of maintenance.
"The minority should subordinate their interests to those of the majority." This is commonly cited by both state and local officials, as well as the media. The principle holds true in certain cases, but not as a reasoning for building new roads or gas stations or shopping centers which seem to serve majority needs but in truth harm the economy, the environment, the public. Meanwhile, when an activist group suggests constructing a new bus lane where the buses now carry 60 thousand riders in one direction a day, local authorities reject the idea on the basis that the lane construction would eliminate 200 parking spaces.
"Introduction of Park and Ride (P+R) lots is essential to solving Budaepst's transport problems." Certainly it makes sense for some drivers to park their cars on the edge of the capital and then take public transport to their destinations. However, officials fail to mention that 150,000 cars flow downtown every day from surrounding settlements, and nearly another 150,000 from the city outskirts. That is a hundred times more than the present number of P+R parking spaces in Budapest (3,000). Due to lack of funds and also to geographic conditions, the city is unlikely to build more than another 9,000 P+R spaces in the next ten years. Therefore, whatever is broadcast by the media about the necessity of opening new P+R parking lots misleads the public.
While such fallacies hold, worthwhile and feasible proposals to curb environmental pollution caused by transport are extremely slow to reach the public and the decision-makers. For instance, often neither inhabitants, nor local officials have an idea what traffic calming means, and how efficiently it works in densely populated areas. They also do not see what benefits they can obtain from giving priority to public transport, and what are the ways to improve it.
In order to change this situation it is fundamental to improve the capabilities and opportunities of NGOs to express their opinion. Measures should be taken also to create financial independence of key media. Unfortunately, to date initiatives to that end have failed due to opposition by the Government.