On Monday, the NGO Auto*mat is unveiling a monument at the very spot where founding member Jan Bouchal was killed while cycling in Prague. And September will be busy for the group, with a project to turn an embankment into a pedestrian zone about to begin and an annual day of street festivals scheduled for later in the month. Tereza Vohryzková is one of the people behind Auto*mat. When we spoke, she said its main activities included encouraging alternatives to car transport in the city and changing attitudes to public space.
“The second level is the expert level – watchdog and lobbying activities towards the city.
“The aim is to change the transport concept of the city and to change attitudes to important transport construction projects in the city, so that the focus would be more on making the city more livable, and not more easily… ride-able by car.”
Where does the name mean? I’ve never understood ‘Auto*mat’.
“I think the idea is to give ‘mat’, which is from chess, to cars.”
So it’s like ‘checkmate’?
What would you say have been the major successes of Auto*mat in the last 10 years, since you guys began?
“From my point of view, one of the biggest successes is that at this point Auto*mat is seen as quite an influential and strong element among Prague opinion makers about transportation, about public space.
“For me this is a huge success. We are quoted, we are known, we are somehow, sometimes, respected. Which is quite a lot, given that it started really as an activist movement of three people.
“Thousands of people in Prague know about Auto*mat. They follow our activities and they agree with them, or they sympathise with these thoughts.
“There are thousands of people every year who sign up for the contest and who ride daily to work. It’s changing the mentality of people and their everyday habits in terms of mobility, so that’s a success.
“There’s also Live the City Different, or Different City Experience – there are different English terms for our festival Zažít město jinak, which started in 2006…”
This is when you close streets to transport and they become kind of public thoroughfares with people walking and talking and sitting around?
“Yes, it’s a sort of a one-day transformation of public space in Prague and creates a vision of how it could work without cars, or with less traffic.”
This year it’s happening on September 21, is that right?
How many streets are involved this year?
“There are 35 zones that are signed up, or that want to take part.”
How many were there last year?
“It was 23.”
What has been the reaction of the public to this initiative?
“It’s very warm. People are happy and amazed that there is this possibility to take part or to create these neighbourhood festivals. At this point it seems like everybody knows about it and they think it’s great and want to take part.”
I guess one thing the Zažít město jinak festival does is to foster the idea of neighbourhood. Is there a weaker concept of neighbourhood in the Czech Republic than you might find in some countries, for example in the States?
“I don’t know the States so much from my own experience, but I think the sense of community in general is sort of weakened in the Czech Republic.
“This is one of the legacies of communism – this kind of social activity was not so much supported. It’s also the bigger cities, which naturally create this kind of alienation.
“But my feeling is that people are really sick of it, and they really feel the need to create some kind of social units bigger than families, or flats, or apartment buildings.
“They want to meet people they know and people they know just a little bit, and to have their own community and a place where they can go and actually do something.
“That means doing things with kids – it’s a big question for families in the city…I really feel that there is a big need to create social relations in the neighbourhoods where people live.”
So it could happen that somebody might stop and have a chat with a person from their building during this festival who they wouldn’t normally speak to in the lift, or whatever?
“Yes, I believe so. I don’t know how much connections happen on the individual level, but I’m sure that’s it happening on the level of let’s say, businesses, organisations, initiatives, cultural centres like cinemas and theatres.
“During the festival itself really strong connections are created that really help people in the long term. When they want to do something later, like putting on a celebration at Christmas for kids, they are organised at the level of Zažít město jinak.
On Monday you are unveiling this monument to Jan Bouchal. It’s called Bike to Heaven and takes the form of a bicycle pointing to the skies on a street lamp. Who was Jan Bouchal?
“Jan Bouchal was a Prague activist, a young man who was one of the first people here to say that cycling in the city should be promoted more and that transportation in the city should change so that biking could become safer and more popular.
“He was also one of the founders of Auto*mat as a sort of free initiative in the beginning. And he was also working at an NGO that worked on corruption cases in Prague politics.”
And, in a terrible irony, he himself was killed on a bicycle in Prague 7 [in 2006].
You have been working for a long time on the project to put up this monument. How do you think you will feel when you finally see it up?
“I personally will be very happy. Because it was not an easy process to get to raising this monument. So I think I will feel very happy and relieved when I see it raised.”
Earlier this year, Auto*mat were pushing the idea of turning the Smetanovo nábřeží embankment into a pedestrian only zone at weekends. Why didn’t that happen in the end?
“It is happening now, actually. It was postponed because all the negotiations ended up being a lot more difficult. It’s happening now – it’s starting on September 14. And it will go on for the following five Saturdays.”
“Smetanovo nábřeží is one Auto*mat’s oldest campaigns. Actually [founders] Martin Mareček and Jan Bouchal did the first steps, going to the mayor, saying that he should close Smetanovo nábřeží to cars, at least for weekends.
“So this is an old, old story. We think that this is one of the prettiest places in Prague which is completely overwhelmed by traffic and we believe that it should be a pedestrian zone.
“Our campaign and all the steps that we have taken have led us to the conviction that there should be some kind of trial period when people can actually experience what it’s like and see what are the pros of this…measure, let’s say.”
There seem to me to be more and more of such public initiatives focused on public space. Why do you think this is happening now in the Czech Republic?
“I think it’s mainly because people have sort of got over the stage where they primarily take care of their own stuff, their own business, like where they are living or what kind of job they have; of course, now it’s getting harder with unemployment and everything.
“But I think people are realising more and more is that what contributes to their good feelings, or happiness, let’s say, in the city, is the way it looks not just in their flat or their little garden, but the way it looks around them – the way it looks on their way to work or when their kids go to school.
“They also have more capacity to actually do something about this, or more willingness and capacity to do something about this.”
Is it linked perhaps to a change of generation in the civic sector?
“Yes. I think so.”
Could you elaborate on that?
“This is a generation that in my personal view still realises the heaviness or the gravity or however you call it that remains there from the Communist era, but also sees the potential.
“I think these people are not burdened by history so much that it paralyses them. They are also serious or responsible enough to actually want to do something. I think these people are sort of ideal change-makers in the city.”
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