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‘This is Cyprus. We need our cars!’

September 22 is World Car-Free Day. But can anyone on this island manage without their vehicle for 24 hours asks Alix Norman

 

The average Greek walks roughly 2.8 kilometres per day. People in Turkey walk more: roughly 3.4km per day. Brits do 3.6km; Russians 6km; and a resident of China walks roughly 6.2km each day.

In Cyprus, no numbers are immediately available. But they’re unlikely to be high: this is a nation that loves its automobiles! Over 90 per cent of Cypriot residents prefer cars over other types of transport. And a recent Nicosia municipality report reveals that public transport is responsible for just three per cent of journeys, and bicycles for 1.5 per cent. All of which means that it’s unlikely too many of us will be trying this Friday’s global event: World Car-Free Day.

Every year, on September 22, countries across the globe encourage motorists to give up their vehicles for 24 hours to highlight the benefits of reduced air pollution, decreased traffic congestion, and a safer society. Now, in terms of pollution, Cyprus is isn’t too bad: our urban areas register 13.8 μg/m3, just above the EU average, but well down from 14.5 μg/m3 five years ago. Traffic congestion is also manageable at many times of the day – unless there’s a presidential motorcade on its way. And road deaths have recently fallen by 20 per cent. Still, it would be rather nice to have an entire car-free day across the island. But is it possible?

Once upon a yesteryear, our ancestors went everywhere under their own steam. But today, we don’t all work in the nearby fields or village shop, so our daily commute tends to much longer.

There’s also the faster pace of life, multiple private lessons for the kids, and supermarkets the other side of town. Throw in the monthly Ikea trip, and it’s easy to argue that owning a car in Cyprus is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Perhaps this is the reason the recent petition for once-a-month car-free Sundays in central Nicosia seems to have fallen through?

“Look, this is Cyprus. We need our cars!” declares 34-year-old Andreas, a banker who suggests that time constraints are the main factor. “Tell me how I’m meant to get from Lakatamia to Acropolis each day without a car? And what about my meetings in Limassol? I need to get there on time; the only way to do that would be in a taxi – that’s just a car that costs a day’s salary!”

Limassolian George is also unlikely to go car-free come September 22. But for this 44-year-old bachelor, it’s more about the driving experience. “I have a Porsche Boxster, a Fiat 500, and a vintage Jaguar my Dad gave me. I love cars, I love driving. I’m not going to give that up even for a day!”

George’s rate of car ownership, it transpires, is not overly abnormal. According to recent data, Cyprus has 785 vehicles per 1,000 residents, and ranks 12th on the list of cars per capita. But we’re still well below Malta, Gibraltar, Guernsey, San Marino, and Lichtenstein – all countries with more cars than people!

It’s notable that most of the top 10 are small, picturesque nations – places that aren’t large enough to generate a public transport infrastructure, and probably have a great many rental vehicles for visitors. At the other end of the spectrum, we see factors such as poverty, lack of roads, and a higher rural population coming into play: of the 10 nations with the fewest cars per capita, all are in Africa or Asia…

“When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, nobody had a car,” says 61-year-old Sandya. “We all walked. Some rich people had a bicycle. In Cyprus I walk from my madam’s house in Strovolos into town each Sunday for church and friends. It is nothing.”

For some, of course, walking isn’t an option. Those who need to transport heavy loads, move multiple kids, or have urgent appointments are all less likely to try the upcoming Car-Free Day. And a number of us couldn’t manage without our vehicles for very valid health reasons…

“God gave us legs to walk,” says 71-year-old Oroklini resident Petros. “But he also gave us the ingenuity to invent the wheel, thank goodness. I wish these eco-warriors would think about those of us whose knees have given out before they start ranting about the environment!”

Then there’s proximity. Although most of the island’s towns are fairly centralised (except Limassol – if you live on one end of the coastline and work on the other, all is forgiven!), many of the more necessary businesses have moved to the suburbs.

“Back in Yorkshire, we lived in a small village,” says 65-year-old Paphos resident Gemma. “Boots, WH Smith, the clinic and the pharmacy – they were all right on your doorstep. You could go a week without driving. But in Cyprus, there’s no such thing as a high street. So most days, you’re in the car at least once to get everything you need.”

And then, of course, there’s the issue of public transport. Cyprus may not have the trains or trams that are common in large foreign cities. But we do have buses.

“Yes but they’re not only unreliable, they’re expensive!” says Jack, a 24-year-old photographer. “Salaries in this country are abysmal, and when most of your money goes on rent and food, even the bus fare of €2 per trip can be prohibitive. And the car prices here are insane; if I could afford to buy a vehicle, I still couldn’t pay the petrol.

“And so I walk,” he shrugs. “40 minutes to work in the morning, 40 minutes back in the evening. I think that as long as you’re young, fit and live in a town, you can manage. Though, to be honest, if I had the option of driving to work, then that’s what I’d do. Every day. Even on Car-Free Day!”

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