New Internationalist

Taken for a Ride

Issue 092

In one of the most extraordinary technological revolutions of the last thirty years, our transport thinking has become dominated by the private automobile. The results have been dismal - choking, noisy traffic, public services neglected and environmental decay. Dexter Tiranti looks at the contradiction between public need and private greed and argues that our transport policies have done little more than take us for a ride.

The last twenty years have seen a transport explosion. It’s been heralded in our popular songs, from the gently evocative ‘Trains and boats and planes’ to the driving excitement of have ‘fun, fun, fun till her Daddy takes her T-Bird away’. New Yorkers can now go for a weekend in Montreal, Sydneysiders take their holiday in Bali, and Londoners speed off to their little farmhouse in the Dordogne. But strangely, travellers can spend as long stewing in the traffic on the way to the airport as the flight time to their destination. Whilst long distance travel has undoubtedly improved, back on earth our shorter and much more numerous journeys have become a daily ordeal. Everywhere traffic threatens our environment, whether in Athens with car fumes dissolving the Acropolis, in Paris with heavy truck vibrations threatening the Pantheon, or in our own town where property values plummet near the main highways.

Public transport has been ignored or cut back so that now, in Britain, its standards are pre-war. Instead we struggle to get around; walking, cycling and above all by driving into ever greater congestion. And it is from the car that so many transport issues stem. We wrinkle our nose at the fumes, wince at the noise, and dodge smartly through the moving lines of steel and rubber. But even if living with cars is tough, sales continue to mount. Strangely, the buyers are often the same people as those who complain about them. ‘You drive a car yourself, don’t you?’ is the automobile industry’s final defence against its critics. The paradox of use and dislike is not explored.

Transport now absorbs something like 20 per cent of the national income of industrial countries. One would expect a lot of time, attention and energy to be devoted to it. And it is - both in expand­ing the output and in the planning of the systems. Planning above all is highway planning. There’s no doubt this is well researched, what is in question is the approach. Crudely, it has been start-with­the-traffic-and-design-the-world-around-it. This fireman mentality - spot the blaze (congestion and jams) and then rush to extinguish it (with more roads) - begs a couple of important questions. The first is lack of co-ordination.

Until recently town planners, transport operators and road builders worked in isolation of each other. Town planners might try to limit parking, haulage operators would be concerned with main­taining profit margins while road planners wanted to ease congestion by building roads that were speedy and safe for motorists, if not for anyone else. It was no-one’s job to enquire into alternative ways of travel, or to discourage cars and help trains, buses, metros, cyclists and walkers. Questions of cost revolved simply around the means, to widen a road or build an underpass; there was never any doubt that the ends were justified. Traffic flow came first - safety, environment and people only second.

Also ignored was the tendency for new roads to generate new traffic. It’s been known for a long time. A study of the 1925 opening of the Great West Road into London found: ‘It carried four and a half times more vehicles than the old route; no diminution, however, occurred on the old route and the numbers of vehicles on both routes increased from that day to this.’ The reason is obvious. There is a great reservoir of car owners deterred from using their vehicles to commute, precisely because of congestion. Increasing the road space closes the vicious circle. It encourages more travel by car and less by public transport.

Today’s middle class living is about low-density neighbourhoods. It has to be because cars, the highways and the parking space that they need take up a lot of space. The inner city becomes gutted to ease the traffic flow. The extreme examples are North American cities where between a quarter and a third of their area is a concrete wasteland of cloverleaf inter­changes, parking lots, garages, spaghetti junctions and drive-ins. When this happens, city centre employers like insurance companies and newspapers begin to move to the suburbs. Residents wanting peace and quiet move further away into the countryside. Then out-of-town shopping centres are developed to provide a wider choice at a lower price. But public trans­port is still designed to go to and from the city centre. It cannot cater for this sprawl of work, shopping and residential needs. The car becomes the universal answer.

Behind private transport needs, a head of technological steam has built up which it is difficult to diffuse. The biggest and most exciting of modern projects revolve around challenges like supersonic aero­planes, the Channel Tunnel, hydrofoils, the Delaware Bay Bridge. Engineers want to be tested, and somehow researching a more durable shoe leather (and more than half of western journeys are still by walking) or making a cheaper bicycle appear rather tame by comparison.

Finally, the road lobby shelters a mammoth industrial financial complex. It includes the construction companies, the automobile manufacturers, the petro­chemical industry, road haulage firms, civil engineering companies - all with their relevant trade unions. Not surprisingly there are plenty of hangers-on: scientists and engineers whose careers are dependent upon these industries; journalists respons­ible for the car reviews; lobby groups like the automobile associations; senior govern­ment administrators who come from the car industry or who will retire into it … the list is formidable.

At first sight their case for transport needs to be met with more cars and high­ways is persuasive.

Automobile owners pay a lot of money in road and fuel tax, something like $7000 million in the United Kingdom. Doesn’t this give them a right to have highways built and maintained for them? insists the road lobby. But the fuel tax goes into the Central Exchequer like every other tax. There is no reason it should be directly allocated to roads; after all no one argues that the tax on beer should be used to build more pubs. And when the account ledgers are made up, there’s no doubt drivers get more than their money’s worth from society. The annual cost of road accidents, hospital care, police and law court time, and destroyed property to­gether with the road building programmes far exceeds the taxes drivers pay.

Perhaps more important are the indirect costs inflicted by cars on people who use other forms of transport. Extending high­ways takes custom from trains, trams and buses, depriving them of revenue, bringing cut-backs and increased charges for the passengers who remain. The decline in public transport services has been dramatic. Between 1951 and 1971 bus passengers dropped by a half in the UK, a record for any industry and comparable only to the collapse of the stagecoach with the spread of railways. At the same time fare prices have risen nearly twice as fast as inflation. Driving costs, despite oil price rises, have dropped in real terms.

Nevertheless, people want to maximise their freedom of action, argues the road lobby, and the car helps them. This, it is claimed, is the reason for the dramatic rise in car ownership. And if these are the transport trends of the last two decades, made up of the individual actions of millions, surely it represents the way society has chosen to go? But a lot of people are left out of this choice. Why do planners concentrate on the households with cars, never those without? In Europe between 40 and 60 per cent of families are carless; most, understandably, from the poorer half of society. And the planners forget to look into the households with cars to see who is the driver monopolizing the use of the vehicle. In the great majority of cases the male breadwinner takes the car to work, leaving wife and children to walk or go by bus. So the number of people without cars is far larger than families without cars. It includes teenagers and wives who, when added to the carless families, leave six or seven people out of every ten in Britain dependent on other means of transport. Even in the US, two of five Americans over the age of 15 were transport-poor in 1970. And for the carless there has been a dramatic decline in free­dom of action, with mobility restricted by poor public transport, and lives disturbed by the increasing congestion. Or is the freedom of the richer half of society more to be cherished than that of the poorer half?

And what of the dangers of motor accidents? If drivers, the car lobby remonstrates, are prepared to risk them­selves on the road - and their cars are becoming safer all the time - then they have a right to make that choice. But do they have a right to risk others? In any conflict between something hard and fast and something soft and slow we know who is going to be the loser. It is pedestrians and cyclists who make up nearly half the traffic accident casualties every year, and they have little choice but to venture out of their front doors.

It is our concern for the environment, the roadbuilders maintain, which means we need more highways - to ease the congestion, the noise and the fumes. As for unjamming jams, increased road capacity generates increased numbers of vehicles. And it is a curious argument that maintains tarmac-ing more land is environ­mentally sound. Britain, laying new roads over land the size of an average county (as has been done in this last decade) cannot go on too long before running out of space. And for the future? If the earth’s finite resources of oil are exhausted (and they are scheduled to last just another thirty years) then future generations would be dispossessed for ever.

If Western society has been polarized by automobiles into the haves and havenots then the Third World is far worse. There, planners with similar assumptions and similar priorities for the motor vehicle, are catering to only one per cent of the people who are drivers. Taking on board the Western highway planners’ ideological baggage means scarce resources are lavished on roads built to excessively high standards for theoretical heavy traffic. And brand new highways lie deserted under a tropical sun. Until recently, most Third World planners felt that improving their transport infrastructure would, somehow, bring development in its train. In this gamble on the catalytic effect of roadbuilding the stakes are high. More of the developing world’s resources have been spent on transport than any other sector of the economy. Not only is this development from the top down, with major highways built to a far-too-high standard for far­too-few vehicles, but it has starved other sectors of the economy.

Despite the total unsuitability of expensive motor vehicles needing a stream of spares, and consuming costly fuel and servicing skills from overseas, more than 47 developing countries had established automobile industries by 1972. Most of the factories had progressed no further than assembly of kits imported from the parent company. Ironically this depend­ence on foreign technology, foreign skills and foreign loans, was in the assembly and running of vehicles that could only be afforded by the most fortunate few. Bicycle factories on the other hand are few and hard to find in the underdeveloped world, although this vehicle is cheap, uses no expensive fuel, demands no high standard track and does sterling work shifting people and freight.

Detailed studies of rural transport in both Bangladesh and Nepal have shown that improving rural roads in isolation gives greater advantage to the larger farmers and traders who have their own vehicles. It allows them to make agricult­ural improvements, see more of their produce at distant commercial markets, and buy up more land with their new ­ found affluence. In both countries new roads meant more landless peasants.

Yet living far from country roads can mean little or no access to health or education facilities. And whatever buying or selling that occurs is through itinerant traders who sell dear and buy cheap. A recent International Labour Organisation study cut through this dilemma of whether or not roads are worthwhile, by arguing strongly for building a myriad of inexpen­sive country tracks and helping the rural poor with appropriate cheap vehicles and more efficient carrying devices. The idea is to help people take advantage of the communications network, rather than allow it to exploit them.

This begs a few obvious questions. The kind of transport technology that is deployed in both Western and Third World countries is largely a result of the organ­isation of the economy and the power structure. The choice between alternative transport systems, supposedly objective is in reality ideological. The proliferation of cars leads directly from growth-orientated societies - a beggar-take-the hindmost philosophy that sacrifices the needs of the community to the greed of the consumer. Instead of serving the individual, the individual serves the system. Ivan Illich put it this way: ‘The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and when it is standing idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns money to put down on it and meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends 4 of his 16 waking hours on the road or getting his resources for it.’

He comes to believe political power grows out of the capacity of a transport system… He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it.’

Nevertheless, there are a thousand small ways to nibble away at the edges of the problem. Town centres can be reserved for pedestrians. Resources can be pumped into trains and trams. Anti-pollutant and safety control measures can be slapped on the auto. Priority has to be taken back by the least polluting of movers; the walkers, the carriers and the pedallers. With speed restrained, and technology controlled then movement at far less human cost will be possible as never before.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Taken for a Ride

Leave your comment