Vítek Masare: Prague Cycling Advocacy
In today's interconnected world there is no obstacle for dialogue and exchange between people and cities. One doesn't have to rely on books or theory; know-how and examples of best practices are accessible within a few clicks.
People in cities—especially post-Soviet cities—need to be in conversation to learn from one another, to share the most reasonable ways of development, and to challenge old practices neglecting the interests, safety and health of communities and individuals. Particularly because of their shared past, political and social realities.
Urban activist Vítek Masare was in Moscow attending last year's Delai Sam on behalf of Prague based Auto*Mat, where he coordinates lobbying activities for sustainable urban transportation, inclusive public spaces, and cycling projects like Critical Mass and a Bike to Work campaign.
As part of Auto*Mat's advocacy efforts, Vit and others occasionally use the recently achieved right to question particular municipal representatives during an assembly session. This is mostly used when politicians refuse normal dialogue.
Auto*Mat was founded in 2003 to address mobility issues in the city. It emerged as an idea shared by a group of parents who realized they could not push their prams around the city, and that urban development projects were overlooking bicycling or walking for the future.
Auto*Mat now works to promote livability and to attract people back to the streets and squares through its diverse activities. Over time, it has developed from being a group of volunteers involved in art and guerrilla actions into a semi-professional association. It uses several strategies to communicate their message, each targeting specific groups—the media, politicians or the general population. Most visible are the big, experimental public events that change perspectives about the possibilities of urban public spaces by temporarily altering people's daily realities. Read on about how Vit got involved with Auto*Mat and about the various strategies they use.
Guardian angels helped pedestrians cross, appearing in unexpected places in the middle of traffic.
How did you become a part of Auto*Mat?
I have an international relations background, and during my studies and travels abroad I began identifying different and often better patterns of how cities develop their public spaces and invite people to use them. Livable cities have rich public life, and that’s what I wanted to support in my hometown, which was suffering from car fever and side effects of mass tourism.
Prague seemed to be alive with possibilities, and I wanted to change things myself. I came across the documentary film Auto*Mat, which changed my life—I started volunteering for the association, inspired by how they challenged stereotypes from below and attempted to change the ongoing situation. Now, I've been a part of it for nearly 3 years.
Prague's city center was turning into a hostile and exclusive space, rapidly gentrifying, and full of cars. A highway tunnel—Europe's largest urban tunnel (an extremely costly one)—was being built and was using up all municipal funds. The city seemed for tourists and cars instead of as a space for locals to enjoy.
What are some of the strategies you use to promote urban livability?
Converting streets into residential zones where traffic serves, but doesn't dominate, is becoming very popular. We show how cycling can be an efficient alternative to cars stuck in traffic jams or hours passively spent in metro system without any contact with daylight. People using bikes might partially ease the congestion and car dependence and bring more life to the surface.
We organize experimental public events like Critical Mass rides and a sort of Reclaim the Street festivities called Different City Experience. We also create informational materials like maps, information brochures, and provide news from the domain of urban development and transport politics in Prague and worldwide.
For media and experts, we back our arguments with professional, expert analyses and examples of best practices that exist abroad. For politicians, we show them how many people support these comparably cheap solutions, and how easily they could gain some positive PR besides their everyday scandals and affairs.
River Mass Kayking was a community event to occupy and activate the river as a public space in the city.
The idea is to change perspectives on how spaces in Prague can be used and developed. I organized a river mass kayaking event near the Praha castle inspired by the activity by rowers in Budapest and Critical Mass, to show the potential our river offers as a public space right in the heart of the city. We are also part of international collaborative networks, Livable Cities and Volunteers of Cycling Academy, where we share experiences with other similarly oriented organizations.
People have now decided to change and improve their spaces, despite municipal disinterest and inactivity. For example, they have brought back the tradition of farmer's markets all over Prague, which have become very popular after 20 years of chain stores.
What are Auto*Mat's major achievements?
The documentary movie Auto*Mat brought our ideas to the broader public via film festivals, cinemas, TV and local DIY screenings. Around 500 companies and institutions take part in the Bike to work campaign in Prague, Brno and other big cities in the Czech Republic. The first big “Tempo 30” zone now covers the whole district of Karlín in central Prague, and we created the Prague Green Map showing positive public spaces and local sustainable economy in the city.
Auto*Mat's Green Map of Prague to allow people to enjoy the benefits of urban life.
Several huge automobile-only projects have been denied or whose plans changed and billions of crowns can now be used more purposefully. Another result of efforts along with many of our allies is that you can carry the bike on metro, trams and trains as well as ferries.
Vit skiing in the main square of Prague in the same spot where apparently the first skis were used in the city.
The cycling network is still disjointed and it’s difficult to get cycling infrastructure in the budget. Many have prejudices and many are not interested. Most decision makers haven't questioned driving everywhere, which has been the case in the last 20 years.
But there have been public calls for car-regulations and for modern approaches to work with public spaces and communities. People have started demonstrating that they may care about their city and neighborhood more than politicians who are stuck in their political party’s hierarchy and commitments.
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