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Choked by Cars, Europe Looks for Alternatives

Rise in traffic is most drastic in East Europe. Officials gather to find ways to slow growth.

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In Paris last summer, you couldn't see the city of lights for the smog. The air quality became so dangerous that at one point, the number of cars entering the city was restricted.

"It was a matter of an extreme disaster situation," says Kaj Barlund, an official with the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). "From one day to another we had to restrict half of the private cars and traffic in Paris.

Traffic congestion in Europe, he says, "is a trend that is becoming worse."

Despite a reputation for bike paths and public transport, many countries in Europe are scrambling for ways to keep more cars off the roads.

Take the Baltic state of Latvia, for instance. In 1990, when it was in the Soviet Union, its capital, Riga, had 120 cars per 1,000 people. Today, there are 200 cars per 1,000 people, and the growth shows no sign of slowing.

"We have been behind the Iron Curtain so long," says Andis Zilans, Riga's director of planning. "We watched [on TV] all the beautiful things in the West, fashionable ladies stepping in and out of cars. It became a goal for us to own a car."

Mr. Zilans adds, "In Riga, we expect the number of car owners to increase close to the rest of Europe. There will be 300 to 400 per 1,000. I think that we can learn from experiences in Western Europe and minimize the damage. It is not just limiting cars, it is providing alternatives."

At a workshop earlier this month sponsored by Austria and the ECE, officials from all over Europe discussed a wide range of transportation- and energy-related proposals that would benefit the environment.

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