Peter Hitchens is someone I rarely find myself agreeing with, but when it comes to an assessment of the destructive influence on the United Kingdom of the motor car and its untrammelled promotion as means of transport, the man is absolutely spot on.
In his book The Cameron Delusion (first published as The Broken Compass) there is, towards the end, an excellent chapter which describes the vandalism carried out on Britain’s railways by the Conservative governments of the early 1960s, and its lasting legacy.
A means of transport [the railway] invented and perfected in this country and ideally suited to its landscape was relegated, ever afterwards [after Beeching], to a secondary position and made to feel ashamed of not paying for itself, whereas roads and motor cars (and airlines) were powerfully and increasingly subsidised from tax revenue, or by exemption from tax, without any political pressure for them to reduce their costs. From the moment these changes took place, a private motor car rapidly became the only practical way of making most journeys across the country. And a motor lorry became the only practical way of transferring freight.
The process did not end there. The practicality of the car for longer journeys quickly meant that many more households acquired cars, which they found were also cheap and easy to use for shorter journeys. This had two further effects. The number of cars on the roads slowed down bus services and made life less pleasant for walkers and bicyclists, who faced growing danger, noise and aggressive competition for limited space. Inevitably, this increased the use of, and the demand for cars. It also stimulated democratic political pressure for the building of more roads – of two kinds. Fast dual carriageways were needed to cope with the greater number of cars. And bypass and ring roads were needed to carry those cars away from residential neighbourhoods. Both these developments once again encouraged cars and discouraged walkers and bicyclists. The faster speeds on dual carriageways, and their greater width, made them more risky and unpleasant than ordinary roads for non-car users. Anti-personnel fences were built to prevent pedestrians crossing them except at designated places.
Those designated places could no longer be simple zebra crossings, where drivers were obliged to stop if a human being placed her foot upon the road. Instead, pedestrians had to wait, sometimes for as long as a minute, for allegedly ‘pedestrian controlled’ lights to change and allow them to cross, in a few brief seconds, hurried along by urgent beepings. Alternatively, they were expected to use dank, ill-lit and inconvenient tunnels, apparently designed for the convenience of robbers and aggressive beggars and approached by long and exasperating ramps or steps. These new fast highways, and bypass roads, tended to be arranged wholly for the convenience of drivers. Complex one-way systems became necessary to join them to existing roads. They swung from place to place using extravagant, land-hungry curves. Non-motorists who dared use them found themselves compelled to take long ways round – which did not seem long to a motorist in control of a large and powerful engine, but which were wearing and dispiriting for a bicyclist reliant only on his calf muscles. And so every step taken to adapt the country for the driver was also a step make it more unpleasant, dangerous and inconvenient for the non-drivers – who happened to be a majority of the population.
Peter Hitchens gets it.
Beyond drawing this excellent chapter to your attention (and I heartily recommend reading it in full – go to your library and do so, if you cannot bring yourself to buy a Peter Hitchens book), I suppose my wider point is that recognition of the blight that the motor car has brought to Britain’s urban areas is not restricted to the political left. I think there is an appetite for change amongst many conservatives, as well as amongst the more ‘progressive’ people who seem to make up the membership of cycle campaigning organizations both in the UK and abroad.
This is a plea for inclusiveness – let’s shape our pro-cycling, and pro-walking, arguments so that they reach out across the political divide. There’s a receptive audience out there – the message just needs to be phrased the right way.