Taken 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.

Congestion has reduced average road speeds to less than 15km per hour.

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.

Diary of a Decade

Oil-dependence has quickened the search for alternative energy sources. The building of nuclear power stations has speeded-up, bringing with it threats to the environment and to basic democratic freedoms. Opposition has risen to the challenge and the conflict is likely to be the West's biggest domestic issue of the 80s.


Death of Gamel Abdel Nasser, premier since 1954. Major Arab leader. Hastened the formal European decolonization of Third World through the Anglo-French debacle at Suez. Fierce proponent of non-alignment of Third World.

Election of Salvador Allende, the first Marxist to win a presidential election in a western democracy and rule by popular consent.

Palestinian camps wiped out by Jordanian army after heavy fighting, giving rise to the Palestinian Black September movement.

Prince Sihanouk, an adept neutralist, is ousted by pro-US army leaders. Nixon orders the saturation bombing of the Plain of Jars.


President Milton Obote overthrown in military coup by General Idi Amin. Elections promised within a year. Tribal killings begin.

West Pakistan army invades rebellious East Pakistan. India declares war, defeats Pakistan army and establishes independent state of Bangladesh. Ten million refugees and 1 1/2 million deaths from famine, disease and war.

Petroleum companies declare buyers market for oil is over as Gulf States demand and get substantial price increases, while President Gaddaffi of Libya obtains even more company concessions on price and ownership of national refineries.

The Shah celebrates the twentyfifth centenary of the founding of Persian Empire in orgy of conspicuous consumption.

Recognises mainland China.

Mao Tse Tung launches another cultural revolution five years after first. Army totally reorganised. Most senior ministers including Lin Piao deposed. 'Continual revolution' declared.

Dollar dramatically devalued, reducing national reserves of most countries. Helped pay for Vietnam war.


African tribal conflicts flare up as Huto rebellion is met with vicious reprisals from ruling Tutsi. 80,000 slaughtered.

Farming land held out of production. Soviet grain purchases of quarter of wheat crop brings high world prices and helps initiate world inflationary spiral.

Many years of drought combined with high world food prices and land-use for cash-crop exports brings famine to Sahelian people, Estimated 50,000-100,000 deaths.

Stockholm Conference on Environment recognises that over consumption by developed world brings waste and pollution while depriving poor world of basic needs.


Military coup against President Allende fomented and encouraged by CIA and US multinational company, ITT. Pinochet heads ruling military junta. Many believe radical change through ballot box no longer possible.

After the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt, Arabs Pressurize Israeli allies through raising oil prices. OPEC increases prices 450 per cent in a year, bringing extra $60 billion revenue.

Popular pressure leads to resigna tion of military government anc return of General Peron - tc overwhelming public acclaim.

Famine, greatly aggravated by official neglect and world fooc prices, affects four million, Estimated 100,000 died.


ETHIOPIA A creeping coup d'etat over six months ousts Emperor Hailie Selassie. Replaced by military committee - the Dergue which despite internal dissensions has redistributed power and land.

Costly wars in African colonies, particularly Mozambique, brings army revolt and installation of General Spinola. New government announces independence for Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau.

The Watergate cover up finally leads to resignation of President Nixon. Disillusionment with Washington paves way for Carter.

Budapest Population Conference recognizes that rapid population growth is more the result of poverty than the cause and that the best contraceptive is a more equitable distribution of income and social services.
Rome Food Conference reveals more than enough food in world despite spate of famines and bad weather. Fertilizer and food reserves established for Third World use.
Sixth Special Session of the General Assembly approved need for a New International Economic Order, rallying point for Third World pressure to establish fairer trading terms with industrialised countries.

Publication of 'Redistribution with Growth' provides damning evidence that high growth rates of some developing countries had brought no reduction in numbers of poor. The belief in wealth 'trickling down' could no longer be sustained, positive redistribution policies needed to end absolute poverty.


Successful resistance by people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos brings withdrawal by the USA after eleven years of military intervention.

Communal war that continued for rest of decade began with clash at Sidon between right-wing Christian Falangists and left-wing Palestinian Moslems.

In national elections half the representatives, including some ministers, lost seats. Vindication of one party democracy. President Julius Nyerere, Africa's foremost socialist thinker, voted into office for fourth and final term.

Invasion of this former Portuguese colony by Indonesian forces leads to guerilla war with tens of thousands of deaths.

Mrs. Gandhi declares State of Emergency, invoking Internal Security Acts to arrest opposition leaders without trial. Compulsory sterilisation campaign begins.

International Women's Year-one of the most under-funded and unknown of the U.N. years of the decade, despite the rise of a significant and articulate feminist movement in the Western World.


Cuban troops evict invading South African army. The first precedent for non-Western military intervention in Africa.

The death of Mao Tse Tung, leader since the revolution in 1948. Slow reversal of many of his policies through attacks on 'The Gang of Four'. The worst earthquake of the decade, at Tangshan, kills more than half a million people.

Re-election of Michael Manley, eloquent Third World spokesman, despite CIA funded opposition and internal economic crisis.

Military junta finally ousts Isobel Peron, and President Videla moves to crush all opposition.

Death of General Velasco, the architect of unique Andean experiment in left-wing military reformism. Government dismantles progressive measures.

Soweto riots by black youth leave, 400-500 dead. Rise of young black opposition movement.

Geneva Conference on World Employment embraces 'redistribution with growth' principle of development and sets the meeting of basic needs - nutrition, health, housing, education and employment - as the aim and measure of development.

Jimmy Carter becomes President. Policy of no military intervention in Third World. Concern with human rights means less U.S. support for repressive regimes in Latin America.


Mrs. Gandhi's rule ends with a Western-style election. Alienated by arbitary birth control measures, largely illiterate electorate show political awareness by voting against her.

Russian involvement in supplying arms, advisors and Cuban troops to help Ethiopia against neighbouring Somalia and secessionist province of Eritrea.

Murder of black leader, Steve Biko, by police signals end of black attempts at peaceful reforms.

Talks between Egypt and Israel lead to drastic cutbacks in military expenditure by two protagonists, and Israeli withdrawal from part of occupied Egypt.


Coup d'etat brings military leadership - heavily reliant on Russian military aid for continued existence in power.

World Health Organisation annouces last cases of smallpox in Somalia ended. World now clear of the disease.

Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico, listen to an ambivalent Pope John Paul II. Whilst strong on human rights, he argues against Church involvement in politics. All things to all men.

Alma Ata Primary Health Care Conference establishes priority for preventative health care in underdeveloped countries rather than expensive curative medical facilities.

The supplying of oil by British petroleum companies to the illegal regime since UDI, was exposed. U.K. government fully aware of these supplies, took no action.

Riots over withdrawal of subsidies on food - demanded by USA - leads to retraction. Successful action by the poor and hungry.


The Shah leaves the country after prolonged public demonstrations against his regime. Khomeini returns from exile to lead Islamic revolution.

Bitter internal fighting finaIly forces the military defeat of President Samoza's forces by the Sandinista.

Invading Tanzanian forces depose Idi Amin to popular acclaim.

Accident at nuclear power plant Harrisburg, USA, exposed thousands to low level radiation and fuels anti-nuclear movement.

Vietnamese army deposes Pol Pot regime. Between one and two million Cambodians said to have been murdered or died from famine.


The big development story of the decade was the massive transfer of wealth and power to the OPEC countries - Saudi Arabia, Lybia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ecuador and Gabon. Some of the effects on world development:-

Oil price hikes, combined with spiralling food prices and massive US spending on the Vietnam War, fuelled world-wide inflation.

Monetarist polices - cutting back on the money supply in order to damp down inflation - spread to country after country - causing unemployment and cuts in social spending. Peru, Zaire, Jamaica, the UK and others forced to adopt such policies in return for IMF loans.

Increased oil bills doubled the balance of payments deficits of the 'NOPEC' underdeveloped countries. So imports from the industrialised world, already more expensive because of inflation in the West, had to be cut back - deepening recession in both rich and poor worlds.

Huge balance of payments surpluses in the OPEC nations have been recycled through the international monetary system. In 1978 alone, over $40 billion in 'petro-dollar' bans was pumped through private banks and into developing countries - more than all the other foreign aid and investment that year.

Repatriated earnings from Pakistani and Indian workers with jobs in the Middle East now provided their home countries with an important new source of foreign exchange.

Dependence on Arab oil has altered the balance of power in the Middle East - undermining Western support for Israel and increasing American concern for peace in the area.

Arabic has become a major world language and the new found affluence of the Arab world has brought with it both 'Coca-Cola culture' and an Islamic reaction - Pakistan and Iran in particular began to re-assert Islamic cultural identity.

Oil has widened the economic gaps between the different groups of Third World countries. At one extreme, the least developed countries like Upper Volta, Haiti and Zaire now have incomes of about $250 per head per year. Then there are the fast industrialising export-led growth countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan where incomes are about $1000 to $2000 per head. Meanwhile, per capita incomes in OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya have topped $6000 a year.

Oil-dependence has quickened the search for alternative energy sources. The building of nuclear power stations has speeded-up, bringing with it threats to the environment and to basic democratic freedoms. Opposition has risen to the challenge and the conflict is likely to be the West's biggest domestic issue of the 80s.

Student Unrest

It was one of those student gatherings that are universal. Intense young people discussing the world’s problems over coffee at four o’clock in the morning; un-happy at their relative comfort while so many were desperately poor. But what could be done? This is where the discussion usually falters, yawns start appearing and the group dribbles away. In February 1969, at one of the Oxford colleges the discussion didn’t end on this note. Instead one bright spark suggested students would be prepared to tax themselves and give one per cent of their income to help lessen poverty. And the ideas kept flowing. The tax system could work through ‘standing orders’, people signing an instruction to their bank to make regular termly payments from their account. Who should the money go to? Any of the organisations working for change that the individual wanted. Let them decide. ‘After all,’ someone enthused, ‘the Third World should be one of our first priorities.’

Third World First had begun.

It had all the weaknesses of new groups and young people. Organisation was scatty, no-one knew too much about the issues. But it also had a lot of strengths. There was an enthusiasm and freshness (they asked Ford for six cars to help the cause - they were refused) and in the self-tax scheme they had a strong and coherent idea for the movement. It quickly proved itself. In the first ten days that small group of insomniacs, coffee drinkers and idealists persuaded a thousand other Oxford students to sign standing orders taxing themselves, providing a regular income for many of the overseas charities. Oxfam was convinced of the soundness of the group and since then has provided the financial backing, together with trusts and the Overseas Development Ministry, for the student-based Third World First.

I joined the group two years later. One of four field-workers, we divided the country’s universities and colleges between us and set about organising and sustaining student campaigns. Activities varied with the interests of the different campus groups, they included film evenings, speaker meetings, sit-ins, poverty lunches, demonstrations, simulation games, grand weekend conferences, public fasts and private readings. All were aimed at generating more interest and understanding of the global poverty­creating machine. But always at the centre of the educational activities were the bankers order campaigns. By the time I had joined, 25,000 students had signed Third World First bankers orders to different charities. That year another 10,500 were persuaded to join the scheme.

The next year I moved on to work with some other former Third World First activists who were starting the New Internationalist magazine. This publication was just one spin-off, Third World Publications, several film catalogues, development action guides for North of England and Scotland, study tours to Algeria and Tanzania, and very significant sums of money raised for the overseas charities; all have been generated by Third World First. Perhaps the most important achievement of all has been immeasurable: the tens of thousands of graduates who were first introduced to the issues of global injustice by a 3W1 canvasser asking them to stump up and sign a bankers order. These students have now moved into government, industry, teaching, social work and retained some commitment to the ideas they were convinced of by Third World First.

Recently I returned to the organisation to find a new group of fieldworkers looking forward to campaigning amongst the students this Autumn. The self-tax scheme was still central to their plans, and the group exuded confidence and enthusiasm. If you are a student, or know anyone in Higher Education who would be interested, you could do a lot worse than contact:

Brian Wren,
Third World First,
232 Cowley Road, Oxford, U.K.

Tel, Oxford (0865) 456 78.

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