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The car? It's curable. Marta Żakowska's book about Polish car addiction

26 of April '23

I was not persuaded by Marta Zhakovskaya to rehab my car. Simply put: I never had and never wanted a car. "Autoholism. How to put down the car in a Polish city" is therefore a must-read for those Poles who —through compulsion, craving or lack of imagination —have become addicted to a highly toxic means of transportation.

I have always been indifferent to the charms of the car. Yes, a car sometimes comes in handy, in a big city it is very rarely necessary, but nothing more. Basically just problems, costs and nerves. What's different is smoothly running: rail, streetcar, own legs or, less often, bus. I intuitively chose them from a young age, although with the smooth operation and accessibility of the public transport was (and still is) very different. I rationalized this spontaneous choice to myself somewhere in high school, at a time of the growing automobility of the 1990s. However, when I later gave arguments for not owning a car, I was treated with puzzled concern. A bit of a victim of fate, and probably a bit of a lunatic, because, after all, with a driver's license. I knew a few more like that, and that was the end of it.

far from reason

Like-minded people have fortunately arrived in the last fifteen years. Active in urban movements, after proper reading, observation of what is happening to Polish space, and visits to countries that have the dominance of the car behind them, these people began to fight for the car to stop being the only and desired choice in our country as well. One that seizes every free space, poisons the air, makes life difficult for pedestrians, subjugates the construction of houses and neighborhoods and the organization of daily life.

One of those turned back from the road to car addiction is Marta Żakowska, an urban anthropologist and co-founder of "City Magazine," who has written a nourishing and necessary book about the fact that car use is largely an addiction in our country, and that it is worthwhile and possible to quit. In doing so, it's not about banishing the car altogether, but about a much more rational approach to it. Because it is with the logic of using cars (and not vehicles as such) that we have a problem.

„Autoholizm. Jak odstawić samochód w polskim mieście”

"Autoholism. How to put down the car in a Polish city" by Marta Żakowska.

photo: Jakub Głaz

Reading „Autoholism...” was varied by the whine of jacked-up cars and motorcycles coming through the window along with the spring. The roar of engines converted so that the whole neighborhood could hear them, rhymed perfectly with the helplessness beating from the book in an attempt to rationally explain the Polish attitude to the car. For in our country the car is seen not as one of the alternative means of transportation, but something necessary and irreplaceable, even —"natural.„ At the same time, the car responds to hard-to-measure, often almost infantile needs. The childish "brum brum” performed by adults is, by the way, not surprising, because —as Zhakovskaya points out —from an early age we are inundated with toys, gadgets or clothes with the motif of an innocent car.

what crisis?

Contrary to reality, "brought up to the car" Poles treat the car as a substitute for freedom and a sign of status or even life success (except for those who are simply condemned to use the car —by inefficient or abolished public transportation). To a large extent, Poles' relationship with the car is a phenomenon that psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists, not transportation or logistics specialists, should be wading over. In an interview published in the latest May issue of "A&B," Żakowska tells Ania Diduch, moreover:

I began [...] over time to suspect that our car crisis has irrational sources. And to snoop through the registers that led me to our civilizational and cultural autoholism.

"What crisis?" —a large part of the Polish population will be surprised to see the abundance of cars everywhere, year after year, more and more enormous and in numbers that exceed eight hundred cars per thousand inhabitants. That's exactly it, "Żakowska answers them with her book: there are far too many cars, they are inefficient, they steal time, money, space, health and, for some, life. They destroy the environment, mangled our reality and our space and relationships with people to a degree that many no longer realize.

rich documentation

How did such a strong subjugation to cars come about? In nearly two hundred pages, Żakowska provides numerous examples and quotes that show why life without a car seems unimaginable to a significant number of Poles. This despite the fact that in many cases, primarily in the cities mentioned in the title, there are still (as opposed to traffic-excluded localities) available alternatives: public transportation, bicycles, one's own legs, and, as a last resort, car sharing. And also, although there are widely described in „Autoholism...” cities (one in Poland!) where —thanks to various creative ways —traffic and parking lots have been replaced with places for meetings, leisure and all kinds of interpersonal interaction that cannot be experienced by driving.

What makes it difficult to change the status quo in our country? First of all, limitations or lack of imagination. A large role is also played by the populism of politicians, who are afraid of the reaction of hardened self-drivers, even though the example of the New York authorities shows that it is worth going against the tide. Hence, we lack comprehensive, rather than locally dosed solutions that will support the development of efficient public transportation, coherent systems of bicycle paths, friendly sidewalks and green squares. Prototyping, promoted by Zhakovskaya, or tactical urbanism —the best remedy for a shortage of imagination —is also rarely used.

diplomatic shift

The shortcomings of the car and related phenomena are, by the way, widely known, but Poles either repress this knowledge or interpret it creatively, which, as we read, is typical of those affected by addiction. It is therefore very apt to have coined and used the term „autoholism,” indicating a morbid addiction to the car. The term is even more catchy than the "auto-addiction" mentioned in the book, popularized by bus driver and activist Wojciech Galenski, who, as Żakowska writes

tells us that auto-arthritis usually develops from a combination of selfishness and stupidity.

Sharp, blunt, true, but perhaps too sharp to be effective. Meanwhile, by saying „autoholism,” Żakowska diplomatically shifts the emphasis from stupidity to addiction, or disease —a phenomenon less shameful than the lack of working gray cells. The disease can be treated, with stupidity —worse. Calling autoholism a disease is a chance for the affected citizen to get out of addiction with a face.

"Autoholism. How to put down a car in a Polish city" by Marta Żakowska.

photo: Jakub Głaz

First, however, you need to understand that you should take treatment, sincerely want it and consistently strive for recovery. And here is where the dog is run over. The data and descriptions collected by Żakowska prove that in Poland we are still at the stage of downplaying and denying addiction, which makes it difficult or impossible to start therapy. This is indicated by a comparison of the changes that have occurred in attitudes toward car traffic as a result of pandemic restrictions. Some European and American cities have abruptly (and permanently) switched to a different way of thinking and acting (a surge in new bike lanes, closed streets, traffic restrictions). In Poland, the effects are much weaker, basically imperceptible.

trickery indicated

Despite the awareness of the problem on the part of activists and more sensible citizens, there is therefore a lot of tedious, thankless work ahead, spread over decades. Zhakovskaya's book will certainly help with it —providing both a diagnosis and interesting methods of therapy. At the same time, she warns against the mass propaganda of car companies, which bait with visions of electric cars —yes, no longer stinky, but just as strongly generating traffic jams, parking problems and burdening public space.

So: a must-read, both for the convinced and the unaware of the car problem. To make the impact of „Autoholism...” even greater, the next edition should be taken up by a stricter editor than before, removing repetitive threads and tidying up the structure of the work a bit. Now getting to some of the conclusions is akin to repeatedly circling the same urban quarter in search of a vacant parking space.

Half-jokingly, I also recommend releasing part of the new edition without the word „autoholism” in the title. Thanks to such a ruse, some Poles, who will never buy a book postponing the car in their lives, may purchase Żakowska's work as... a guide to efficient parking. Because today the answer to the question „how to park a car in a Polish city?” is probably still: "for free, where be and as close to home as possible".

Jakub Głaz

Marta Żakowska "Autoholism. How to put down your car in a Polish city".
Krytyka Polityczna Publishing House, Warsaw 2023

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