Friday, 12 September 2008

Boris Johnson, the motorcar and the destruction of civilisation

Neil Harding has a brief post entitled What A Time To Be Pro-Motorist in which he points out that, bit by bit, Boris Johnson is moving away from the previous policy of seeking to reduce the role of private motoring in London and to increase that of public transport, cycling and walking.

The previous policy, known as "road user hierarchy", was enthusiastically embraced by Ken Livingstone, but actually introduced in the first place by the Tory Steve Norris when he was a junior Transport Minister in the 1990s. As Transport Times writes in its July issue:

The policy was introduced not because of any hatred for the car. Cars are the most inefficient form of transport when it comes to moving people on scarce road space. Based on average occupancy figures, a bus is six times more efficient in the number of people it can move for every yard of infrastructure than the private car.

The objective in any crowded city where space is at a premium must be to move people as efficiently as possible.

In stark contrast, continues Transport Times, Johnson's transport adviser Kulveer Ranger told the London Assembly: "No mode should be seen above any other. There's no hierarchy here. Those people who need to travel by car get a fair crack of the whip, as do cyclists, bus users and Underground users."

As Green Party MLA Jenny Jones commented: "The implications for me are that they don't know what they're talking about. They've promised to speed up traffic and reduce congestion and to make things better for cyclists and pedestrians – but it's impossible to do both."

For some more of what Johnson is up to on transport, see this piece by Simon Fletcher (a former Ken Livingstone staffer) on the Guardian blog: bus fares going up, kids' tube fares increased, the extra congestion charge for gas-guzzling vehicles abolished.

From the comments on Neil's blog item, it is evident that some people still haven't grasped that cities are for people and not motorcars, and that private cars are to be tolerated only "on sufferance", if at all, in city centres. This means that pedestrians, cyclists and buses should always have priority over cars, and if the cars get stuck in jams as a result, that's tough. That congestion will in itself help to dissuade idle and selfish motorists from careering around unnecessarily in their tin boxes on wheels.

Those of us who subscribe to Carbusters Magazine have long been familiar with these ideas. For those who are not, there was an excellent letter in the Guardian Weekly the other day from a reader in Tasmania, Annie March. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on their website, so here are extracts:

Cars are a lie. The real costs of the mobility, freedom, comfort and power that they promise include environmental and cultural mayhem in oil-producing regions like the Niger delta; the Iraq war; the 1.2 million people who die every year at the hands of the motoring Moloch; ecological disasters caused by oil spills; and the fouling of earth, air and water during all phases of the life-cycle from the extraction of raw materials to the eventual disposal of the corpses.

As much as 35% of urban land is colonised by cars -- by noise, toxic fumes and acts of violence waiting to happen. This appalling monoculture has turned our cities into wastelands (.....) Car-based mobility has trumped not just community but common sense; divide the time spend driving, paying for, servicing and grooming a car by the distance travelled and the answer is walking speed.

Our addiction to cars is holding the future hostage and driving a planet to death.

What I like about this letter is that it stands back and gives the bigger picture -- it is not only in the environmental sense that the motorcar is destroying our civilisation, but also in the distortion, in all kinds of ways, of urban life to accommodate it, and its deleterious effect on human relations and society generally. Even if a completely non-polluting car were invented, cars would still be bad for us. The problems go much wider than just pollution and congestion.

UPDATE: Christian Wolmar is also on the case.


Trooper Thompson said...

"From the comments on Neil's blog item, it is evident that some people still haven't grasped that cities are for people and not motorcars"

Err... who do you think drives the cars, if not people?

"That congestion will in itself help to dissuade idle and selfish motorists from careering around unnecessarily in their tin boxes on wheels"

Pure fallacy. You welcome congestion like a wicked nanny welcomes spooning out castor oil to her unfortunate charges, and you fail to realise the negative impacts of congestion affect everyone to a greater or lesser degree.

Fine, if you want to daydream of a car-free utopia, but you're not really offering any practical and helpful suggestions, are you?

Harry Barnes said...

Trooper Thompson : try this for size -

peezedtee said...

TT: I don't welcome congestion as such, and I am well aware of its negative effects, but unless you ban cars from an area altogether (my preferred solution), or introduce seriously punitive road pricing (my second preference), the congestion itself is always going to be the main disincentive to further traffic. The unavoidable bottom line is this: Urban road space is a finite resource for which demand exceeds supply. When it becomes physically impossible to get any more traffic flow through a given piece of infrastructure, some people will give up trying. This has always been so, and it cannot be otherwise. See e.g. Bangkok, in permanent gridlock, where equilibrium is maintained only because a certain proportion of people just decide they will have to manage without making their journey, or they walk, or use the Skytrain elevated metro instead, equivalent to the Tube in London. (Or buses in bus lanes, where available.)

You accuse me of providing no solutions. On the contrary, the solution, as I keep saying, is to use public transport, or cycle, or walk. 50% of car journeys are of less than two miles. Many motorists are simply bone idle.