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Cities and retail parks

I really hate shopping, especially if I have to do it at shopping centres.

Car-free streets

Imagine a place where lots of people live, but there are no cars. You’ve seen very old movies – often silent and black and white – where the streets are crowded with people wearing hats but there’s no parade. They’re just normally crowded with people moving about, walking everywhere. Have you noticed that fat people are rare in those old movies? There are boys and girls there, playing in the car-free streets. People seem to talk to each other. They jump on and off the trams and buses, wait for trains. And the cities are on a human scale, with human sized streets.

Retail adventure

I had myself a little adventure a couple of weeks ago – I went to Decathlon at the Budaorsi shopping centre, Hungary. It’s an enormous, sprawling, American-style, retail-opportunity-offering, automobile-prioritising, philosophy-of-constant-shopping Hell.

Mind you, I was expecting trouble. I’ve tried walking to shopping malls before, in England, in America and in Hungary and it’s always horrible. My expectations were low.

No car

Of course, if I had had a car, I would have gone by car and saved myself a lot of trouble. However I don’t have a car and I couldn’t find what I wanted at a smaller branch of Decathlon in Budapest. In fact they seemed rather offended that I thought they might have it. A judo gi? Here? Oh no, we don’t do that sort of thing here. This is a respectable sports store, with respectable bicycles, respectable backpacks and huge quantities of respectable ugly sports clothing, but not martial arts kit, ooh no.

So it was the huge Budaorsi Decathlon – which had gis, according to Mr Google – or nothing. I asked Mr Google for the best route, found a couple I thought quite insane, but did find a bus which went sorta close and only a kilometer of walking.

The Decathlon Retail Opportunity

I got off the bus, said köszönöm to the driver as you do on country buses, and swung along the road which actually did lead directly to the massive shoebox store in only about 10 minutes. I was impressed.

Once inside the store I was less impressed because despite asking a tired lady at a desk, and understanding her instructions perfectly well, I couldn’t find the judo gis (a gi is basically white pyjamas which used to be samurai underwear but became standard kit for anyone doing martial arts).

I paced up and down the aisles looking for anything martial artsy, passing lurid shoes, lurid tracksuits, lurid sport-specific kit, but no white pyjamas anywhere.

Desperate, because I hate shopping and I hate shopping at modern retail boxes most of all, I asked one of the staff. He turned out to be a non-robot, spotted that Hungarian was not my native language within three words, addressed me in excellent English and found me the white pyjamas I wanted.

A short time later, I was through the cash desk and into the sunlight with my bag of loot. Hooray, I thought, I’ve made it!

Car parks

I could have gone back up the road to the bus stop but I hadn’t seen one for the opposite direction. Besides, I knew there was a bus stop somewhere nearby at Budaorsi benzinkút, which sounds quite poetic but is actually Budaorsi petrol-fountain. In point of fact, thanks to Mr Google, I knew it was about 2 km due east.

I started crossing the car parks heading east, getting directions to a bus stop from a nice gentleman changing bin bags, but I couldn’t find the bus stop. I kept heading east. This meant I had to step onto the sacred car-only roads occasionally, which meant I got shrieked at by a cross woman in a car which I’d dared to delay by five seconds. I retaliated by asking her where Budaorsi benzinkút was, she waved vaguely eastwards and I told her she was very kind. I hope that annoyed her a lot. Hungarians are masters of pre-emptive sarcastic politeness and I like to think I’m learning the gentle art.

No Signposts

On I went, lovely sunshine, occasional regimented trees, lots of sacred car-only roads to cross. No useful signposts, of course. I got a better fix on the place from a pleasant woman working at MömaX which sells furniture, continued along the car parks. All around was lots of retail opportunity I was rudely ignoring. Apart from the gentleman with his bin bags, I was alone.

And finally I saw, shining in the distance, the twin arches of the Macdonalds at Budaorsi benzinkút, and just as Frodo did when he saw the Gates of Doom, I knew I was near my objective, the bus stop.

Past Media Markt, past KFC, past the wood yard and the new Mercedes Benz dealership, and there it was, Macdonalds with the familiar horrible stink that they pump out to attract people, opposite the bus stop. I only had to wait about 10 minutes for the bus and 15 minutes later I was home.

Phew.

Why have I taken you on this unremarkable journey?

Remarkable

Because in fact it was remarkable. We’re so used to shopping malls and shopping centres that we don’t find it strange that there are large shopping areas where you’re only supposed to go by car. We don’t find it strange that the only options for pedestrians are either to walk into the big box stores or cross acres of car parks. We don’t find it strange that we’re disencouraged from walking anywhere in these vast sacred precincts dedicated to money: we are supposed to drive. It’s deliberately made difficult to walk anywhere. Why? Because people with cars buy more stuff they don’t need, because they can put it in the back. The philosophy of shopping malls (and parasitic capitalism) in a nutshell.

Insect

There’s a similar retail park south of the dual carriageway which is equally difficult to navigate without a car. To get to the Budaorsi benzinkút bus stop from there you have to walk across a rickety pedestrian bridge across all the lanes, and you have to know where it is by psychic powers because there are no signposts at all. A kind lady showed me.

On the first couple of times I went to Tesco’s there, I risked life, limb and lungs by using the car exit. I climbed on narrow bits of concrete verge to the off-ramps, walked round a huge roundabout and back down the on-ramps to the bus stop to get home.

I felt like an insect that escaped getting swatted this time. I felt the way I did in Los Angeles, crossing an enormous five lane (in each direction) highway, with a ticker and traffic light telling me I only had ten seconds left to scurry across before the trucks and automobiles would CRUSH ME FLAT.

Pedestrian-friendly city

And Budaors is just outside Budapest which is a lovely pedestrian-friendly city, with a fantastic public transport system (BKK I love you!) Many Budapesti don’t own cars because why would you need one when you have a cornucopia of buses, trams, trolley buses, boats, metro and overground trains to take you places? But entire cities in the USA are exactly like the Budaorsi retail park.

And of course, pretty much all of those cars that you have to drive to the big supermarkets are zooming along spewing out more and more CO2.

Quiet revolution

We don’t just need a change, we need a quiet revolution. We need to revolt against those seductive cars. We need to move the shops and the supermarkets back into the cities where people can get to them by bus and tram and metro or walk all the way. Obviously, they won’t like it to begin with, although it will be a lot more healthy for them, especially if there aren’t any cars in the city. They’ll have to get used to walking for longer than two minutes at a time to get to the car, but then it will also be more fun, more pleasant. Yes, of course, disabled people can have their mobility scooters.

The wasteland of shuttered shops in the cities will shrink and the cafes, shops and restaurants will expand as the people come back to the streets. For a picture of what it might be like, read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs.

We’ll meet each other by chance and stand chatting in the street before moving to a cafe; kids will run around and play in the car-free roads as they used to; there will be different people there at different times but the streets will never be empty in the daytime or evening; a whole new-old kind of pedestrian life will resurrect itself.

To make a start on saving our species from global heating, we need to empty those retail parks. Let there be no cars in the car parks, For Sale signs everywhere, falling to the bindweed and the ivy and the battering thistledown, finally demolished to make way for woodlands and beautiful meadows full of flowers and butterflies.

 

4 Comments

  1. Lajeanne Leveton says:

    The other problem with a society based on cars is that as people age, driving becomes dangerous and eventually impossible.
    I believe there was a concerted effort to get rid of Trams and other such pedestrian-friendly ways to travel in a city, once cars became popular and lucrative.

    Where/when did you learn Hungarian? My only contact with Hungary was going to High School with a boy who at age 5 escaped Hungary during the revolution of 1956, with his parents. They were Jews and had spent WWII in a concentration camp, and apparently life didn’t improve much once the war was over. Do you know if there is still a Jewish community in Hungary??
    I remember the “poor old man” who didn’t know enough but to read right to left, in one of the early Carey books.

    Looking forward to the next Carey book! Frankly don’t like any of the possible titles.

    1. The effort to get rid of trams was paid for by the car manufacturers to get rid of competition. Here in Hungary, retired people go on public transport for free. which is brilliant – not least because public transport forces you to walk to the bus stop and away from the metro to get connections.
      I’ve been learning Hungarian since I got here in 2014.
      Life got much worse after the war because they had full on Stalinism and collectivisation and all the lovely things you get from Communism like food shortages and scerotic central ordering of consumer goods. There is a small Jewish community in Hungary, mostly in Budapest around the huge and beautiful Dohanyi utca synagogue.

  2. Barbara says:

    All this and you never once mentioned bikes. Which is how I shop, as there is no way I can walk 8km with my shopping. Not because there isn’t a nice quiet green lane, there is. I just can’t carry enough shopping with my two arms. Have you tried living in the country? What we don’t have is buses. I love bike lanes when I go to big cities.

    1. I have indeed lived in the countryside. I lived in Cornwall for 21 years and if there’s a worse county for buses and trains, I don’t know where it is. However Cornwall has a lot of hills and very narrow lanes along which the Cornish rarely travel at less than 90 mph, shouting “Get out o’ moy road!” When I move back to England, I may buy myself an electric bike.

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