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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Hall Runs Over Europe's Car-Free Day

As hundreds of European cities ban cars from their streets on Thursday in observance of an international auto-free day, the traffic report for Moscow is the same as always: bumper-to-bumper gridlock.

Despite a promise last year by City Hall to join the initiative, the Russian capital will once again be absent from the list of more than 1,300 cities in some 30 countries participating in the fourth annual European Mobility Week, which is supported by the European Commission.

"What would it give the city? What would it give Muscovites?" said Maria Protsenko, spokeswoman for City Hall's transportation and communications department. "We would spend time, effort, money, and what would we get at the end of the day besides irritated Muscovites?"

In 2004, under pressure from environmentalists, Pavel Zlatin, the head of the Moscow's transportation and communications department, said that in 2005 Muscovites would get some relief from the congestion, fumes and roadrage that characterize the city's roads.

"Beginning next year, we intend to organize such a holiday for residents of Moscow," Zlatin was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti last year. "That would help increase the role of public transport, whose development is one of the priorities for the capital's authorities."

But on Wednesday, Zlatin was unavailable for comment and Protsenko said she was unaware of any pledge to join European metropolises like London and Madrid in marking the "In town, without my car!" initiative.

Three million motor vehicles are registered in Moscow, and Greenpeace estimates that up to 200,000 more cars join the city's legendary traffic jams every year.

Although Greenpeace estimates that only 20 percent of Muscovites regularly drive, that number is set to rise as disposable incomes grow and automakers introduce attractive car-financing packages.

Nationwide, the number of cars is increasing by 10 percent annually, while the capacity of roads grows by a mere 1.5 percent, according to the Transportation Ministry.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Car-Free Russia, a group promoting alternatives to automobile dependence, accused the city of deliberately ignoring the pan-European campaign, as well as the host of transportation and pollution problems plaguing the city.

"Russia somehow has always stayed on the fringes," said Dmitry Kokorev, a spokesman for Car-Free Russia. "[A car-free day] is one of the ways to solve a pre-crisis situation. The entire city center is chronically jammed."

Viktor Pokhmelkin, a State Duma deputy and chairman of the Automotive Russia movement, a driver advocacy group, said he would welcome a car-free day. Yet, he cast doubt on the idea ever taking root in Moscow.

"I am afraid the authorities themselves wouldn't be able to part with their comfort, cars and blue lights," he said.

Environmentalists say that while city authorities promise new roads, they neglect to educate citizens on alternative means of transport.

"They still follow a dead-end way of 'local improvements' of the road network, when a drastic revision of the transport concept is needed," Carfree Russia said in a statement.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose administration plans to build a fourth ring road around the city, is jokingly referred to by Muscovites as "Lord of the Rings."

In May, Luzhkov did put on a festival to promote compact cars and raise environmental awareness. But many visitors scoffed at the idea of switching to smaller cars.

In many large European cities -- where drivers have long favored compact cars for their fuel efficiency and ability to squeeze into tight parking spaces -- Thursday's auto-free day will be marked by discounted or free public transportation and closed-off streets.

"It's essentially to get people to start thinking about more sustainable forms of transport," said Steve Taylor, a spokesman at London's Department of Transport.

London, with a population of 8 million, has not been paralyzed by its participation in the car-free day, since major thoroughfares are not affected and the city's boroughs choose which roads to free up for cyclists and pedestrians, he said.

London has already taken steps to relieve traffic jams. Since 2003, after the city introduced a congestion charge for cars entering the city center, London has seen a 15 percent drop in congestion rates, Taylor said.

Asked if he was going to leave his car at home Thursday, Taylor said: "I don't own a car. I cycle to work every day."