Damascus: Cars Banned from the Old City

BaladnaThe Syrian newspaper Baladna launched a new English edition in December.  The first issue is on the web, and features a story about the Damascus mayor’s plan to ban cars from the narrow streets of the old city.

If Syria is an alien place to you, this article will make it feel utterly familiar.  In the interviews with restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and tourism operators, everyone says exactly what they would say if this were proposed in any other city in the world.

On some level, every city wants to believe that its transport issues are local, special, distinctive, when in fact the same issues can be found all over the world.  Most transport issues arise from basic problems of geometry and economics.  Your city may be a unique and wonderful place, but unless you’re inventing new geometry or economics, your transport problems will probably look pretty familiar to a traveling consultant like me.

Example:  Inner cities built at a pedestrian scale do not have room for everyone (or even most people) to take 12 square meters of real estate for their car, unless of course these cities are largely abandoned.  That much is just geometry.  The basic elements of urban economic activity are also more similar than different.  Every city needs a range of transport options at different time/cost tradeoffs, and also needs to handle deliveries, all within streets that are valued as places more than as transport facilities.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the debate about closing streets to cars sounds pretty much the same from one culture to another.

A later issue of Baladna (apparently available only in print) features a plan to replace microbuses with fewer larger buses — also a common reform happening throughout the developing world.  The over promising is also common:  The “ministry expects the capital to be … traffic jam free by the end of next year.”

UPDATE:  Commenter Alon Levy asks a good question:  Is this a translation of an Arabic article, or an article composed specifically for English readers?  I was assuming it was the former, and that the comments recorded were translations from conversations in Arabic.  But it occurs to me that the people interviewed — mostly in tourism, restaurants, shops — might all speak English, and that this might have been a distinct piece of journalism pitched to the British- and American-trained expectations of Anglophone readers.  If you read Arabic, please look for an Arabic equivalent of this article, from early December, and let me know.

10 Responses to Damascus: Cars Banned from the Old City

  1. Daniel March 12, 2010 at 5:06 am #

    I’m amazed you managed to find this; I guess that’s why I follow your RSS feed.
    I agree that this does have a small world kind of feel. The one difference that jumps out to me is the restaurant owner who is lamenting the fact that his customers who drive will no longer be able to park a five minutes walk away. They will have to walk further.
    That sounds like something you might hear in the states but at an entirely different proportion. Many here demand a spot directly adjacent to the use and consider five minutes intolerable. It’s a difference of degree.

  2. CroMagnon March 12, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    Whether or not delivery vehicles will be allowed is the issue. What about private trash collection?
    I don’t see how a restaurant can work without these.
    Commercial vehicles are not usually mentioned when the “car-free city” groups advocate for their cause.

  3. Daniel March 12, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Yeah, the article doesn’t directly address deliveries, but I’d assume they would consider that under the exceptions for those who live within the district. I should hope so at least.

  4. EngineerScotty March 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    The city of Damascus, OR–recently voted down an initiative to ban light rail within the city limits. http://www.clackamas.us/elections/results.htm
    While TriMet/Metro aren’t planning on sending any trains Damascus’ way for a good long time (on the high-capacity corridor map, a train corridor to Damascus is discussed, but considered a very long term priority), the city is largely a mixture of rural properties and half-acre septic sprawl; which incorporated a few years back to largely resist Metro plans to direct development to the area.

  5. Alon Levy March 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    The article is very American-style – it’s interesting. It mentions some people talking about how it’s good that the streets will be less crowded, others talking about deliveries, yet others talking about customer access. It is very familiar, as you’ve noted, Jarrett. I wonder whether it’s like this just in the English version for Western readers, or also in the Arabic original, which would mean the newspaper really is following American reporting mores.

  6. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org March 12, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Alon.  Good question.  I was assuming this was a translation of an Arabic article.  Does anyone out there read Arabic?  If so, let us know.  You can probably find the Arabic coverage of this issue on the Baladna website, from early December.

  7. rhywun March 12, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    Commercial vehicles are not usually mentioned when the “car-free city” groups advocate for their cause.

    I would imagine that’s because it’s a given that such plans will make allowances for deliveries and garbage pickup. As I am sure the hundreds or thousands of existing examples around the world operate.

  8. Ericorozco March 12, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    I personally found Damascenes inviting, approachable and remarkably …er… human-like. 🙂 Why we should find their mundane reactions to changes in daily conveniences a little surprising is amusing!
    Sadly, my Arabic is still at the tourist level so sorry I can’t help you with the translation question.
    I think it’s important to understand that the Old City of Damascus is a relatively tiny area in proportion to the surrounding urban center, and that the Old City already is pedestrianized to an extent, so we’re not talking grave changes here. Surrounding the old walls are also bustling market areas where a lot of business is dependent on foot-traffic.
    Having lived nearly 3 years in Jerusalem’s Old City I always found it remarkable the complete variety of carrier strategies that tight old world fabrics develop:
    Here by the way is how trash pick up is done: http://is.gd/aqj1a
    Damascus’ Old City, for its part, is a little spoiled for enjoying its relatively wider streets, but it is not to say that it can’t adapt.
    Nonetheless, you are right, I think form and economics, rather than governmental acts, should regulate vehicular access. No one completely bans cars from the streets in Jerusalem’s labyrinthine Old City, if they are wide enough (and level enough) to accommodate them. I note that the busiest pedestrian street in Damascus’ Old City, the Souk El-Hamidiyeh, is wide enough for cars, but the reason it is pedestrianized has probably a lot to do with the fact that it is a busy shopping street. Whereas the other streets that the article mentions are quieter. Unless the street is lined on both sides with active storefronts that cater to foot-traffic, no reason to ban traffic from the street. The city will find its natural equilibrium and it gets to that point by reasons that are probably beneficial to it.

  9. J March 13, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    I’ve always found it amazing how every city considers itself unique. “X will never work here”, “X might work in Y, but we’re different”.
    No. You’re not. This issue always comes up with parking, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, pedestrian countdowns, etc etc. Boston is finally taking steps to remove the second operator from the orange line subway. His job is just to open doors. Of course, people against the removal claim that just because one operator is good enough for other subways, Boston is “unique” and requires two.
    It hurts to see how much money is wasted on studies and pilots for ideas that exist in many other cities, just because “it may not work here”.

  10. karin kloosterman October 24, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    I visited Syria for a couple of weeks and one of the things I loved about getting around were the microbuses. You could meet people on them and could get from point a to point b faster. Please keep them!