London’s Westway is one of highway engineerings’ more monumental achievements. It is a six-lane elevated dual carriageway, which carves its way through two of the more down-at-the-heel districts of North Kensington and Paddington. But this engineering showpiece has been the focus of considerable controversy. In 1970 when the Minister of Transport went to open the road he was met by demonstrators from the local community. When the Minister cut the ribbon and began his ceremonial drive up the road, protesters blocked the road. Residents of adjoining houses hung a banner out of their windows with the message ‘Get us out of this hell’. Their protest brought national television coverage. The Minister and the road builders were embarrassed.
The protest had more than local significance; it marked the beginnings of a popular movement in Britain against road building. In the 1950s there was a general consensus that motorways were an integral part of progress. The US was considered to be the world leader - President Eisenhower had proposed a $50 billion inter state highway programme back in 1954. Britain’s first motorway was opened in 1958. By the end of the 19608 the consensus on motorways being a good thing was beginning to crumble.
The movement against motorways has not been confined to Britain. In 1977 it hit Melbourne, Australia, with the ‘Battle of Alexandra Park’ (see box).
Dissent has even reached the spiritual home of the motorway, the USA, with the Highway Action Coalition leading the fight against road building. In Boston the entire $400 million road network was held up for several years by community groups.
The basic social objection to motorway building, especially in urban areas, is that the roads are built at the expense of the poor to benefit the rich.
Although buses and trucks use these roads and have a general public benefit - the bulk of the traffic using the road network in almost all countries consists of private cars. In the US they account for 76 per cent of traffic; in Italy 76 percent; and in the United Kingdom 80 per cent.
Because the major component of most traffic is cars, the number of cars determines the width of new roads. And motorways are also built for cars in another more subtle way. Bends in the road are ironed out to enable high speed driving - a design aspect that has no importance for slower vehicles like trucks or buses.
Thus motorway building is geared to benefit car users and car owners. Yet car ownership is heavily biased towards the more affluent half of society - for the obvious reason that cars are expensive. According to the 1977 Family Expenditure Survey, whereas nine out of ten households in the United Kingdom with incomes in excess of $20,000 a year owned cars, only one out of ten households with incomes of less than $2,600 a year had a car. And in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are more second and third cars owned by rich families than there are cars owned by all the poorer half of the city.
Road building most directly benefits the rich. But its cost bears most heavily on the poor. In all industrialised countries new road building has to be justified. The most common method is cost benefit analysis which, like motorway building itself, is an American export. It consists of balancing the cost of the road against a number of largely hypothetical benefits. The general idea is that the road should take a route which produces the maximum benefit at the minimum cost.
In rural areas this technique has a lot to be said for it. Given that a road has to be built it is better that it should avoid the more expensive, good agricultural land and avoid demolishing settlements. In urban areas however, it reinforces the bias against the underprivileged. Roads tend to be built through deprived areas because property is cheap. Of course the infamous ‘planners’ blight’ of boarded up property and the road’s construction itself will only cheapen the houses that remain. The upshot is that the rich almost literally ride on the backs of the poor.
Even when a motorway has to go through a more affluent district - and the requirements of building networks means that this is inevitable on occasions - considerable attempts are made to minimise the disruption. In the early 1970s a major motorway network for London was proposed. Two wealthy areas were affected by the schemes: Blackheath and Hampstead. In both cases the road builders attempted to buy off the effective and affluent opposition in these neighbourhoods by putting the roads through tunnels. Before the issue could be resolved a change in political control of the Greater London Council - largely the result of opposition to road plans - led to many of the roads being abandoned. Nevertheless, some were built. They are concentrated in the deprived East End of the city.
Europe’s largest motorway (a monster eight lane highway) is in one of its poorest areas - Belfast. In the early 1970s it was originally planned to continue this road through both a Catholic and a Protestant ghetto. At the time the Catholic and Protestant forces were enthusiastically blowing up each other’s communities. In a rare moment of religious harmony the road proposal produced a tacit agreement between the paramilitary forces that they would resist any outside demolition efforts. The scheme was hastily put into cold storage.
There are other dismal spin-offs from motorway building. Those who suffer most indirectly are the carless. Non-car owners depend on three types of transport: public transport (buses, trains and trams), walking and cycling.
The number of non-car owning families is often underemphasised. Arrogant, assumptions by transport planners are that most people are like themselves’ middle class, male car owners. Yet in Britain 44 per cent of households (1978 figures) do not have a car. Even in the US, with a higher level of car ownership than any other country, 20 per cent are carless.
Most non-car owners depend on walking, and to a lesser extent cycling,to get from A to B. Both methods of moving are more important than transport planners think. Indeed the first comprehensive transport survey to include walking in the United Kingdom was not until 1972. The results showed that as many journeys were made wholly on foot as were made by car. The corollary of building roads to ease congestion is that traffic is shifted to other bottlenecks. In other words, there are multiplier effects. Life everywhere in the vicinity is made difficult and dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. It is difficult, because the desire to ensure a smooth traffic flow means that detours are necessary down those muggers and rapists delights, subways, or over foot bridges.
And dangerous, because the increase in the traffic on the new roads and its higher speed, can be fatal for more vulnerable road users.
Paradoxically, public transport also suffers from road building. In the first place freeways are obviously of little use to buses - since they can’t stop to pick up passengers. Indeed in Latin America buses are actually barred from new urban roads. But public transport also becomes the victim of the insidious growth of private traffic generated by new roads. As the construction of new roads tips the balance of advantage away from public transport, increasing the costs for those who still use it. The result is either higher fares, or increased subsidies, or a cut in services.
Imagine that there are ten people on a bus, and that each of the ten people pays one-tenth of the cost of running the bus. If one passenger now decides to desert the bus and travel by car, which could be a consequence of a new road, then the remaining nine passengers only cover nine-tenths (90 per cent) of the cost of running the bus. There are but three practical options. One is to reduce the frequency of the bus service. The second is to raise the fares - in this hypothetical case by just over 11 per cent. But both of these options make the service less attractive; they both therefore tend to cause a further loss in custom. The only option which will not involve a further loss of passengers is when the state steps in and makes up the deficit.
The drop in public transport custom - because of the rise of new roads and car traffic - has produced diametrically opposed reactions between the AngloSaxon West - North America, United Kingdom and Australia - on the one hand and Europe on the other. The Anglo-Saxon reaction has been to raise fares and cut services. In consequence there has been a general deterioration in public transport. The European reaction, however, has been to increase subsidies. The upshot has been most European public transport systems have actually improved in quality, and now are attracting more passengers. In Paris,for example, where the number of public transport passengers is increasing, the system gets 60 per cent of its revenue from state subsidies. Whereas in London, where fewer people travel by public transport each year, the system only gets a 20 per cent subsidy.
The pressure for building new roads is immense. The car owning classes form an effective, articulate and influential group in all societies - not least because they include the decision makers, the politicians and the transport planners. In addition there are the lobbies of road builders and automobile companies - powerful and persuasive pressure groups.
There is now a general acceptance in the Anglo-Saxon West that the balance has swung too much in favour of the private automobile. And European countries have fewer problems because of their high subsidy policies. Nevertheless there is a long way to go before the massive social injustice caused by the industrialised nations’ recent spate of road building programmes even begins to be recognised.
Michael Hainer campaigned on transport policy for Friends of the Earth before directing Transport 2000 - a public transport pressure group. He is now a freelance journalist contributing regularly to the New Scientist and The New Statesman.