Anarchy 44/Too many cars

From Anarchy
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Too many cars


Pub­lic and pri­vate trans­port are an epi­tome of col­lec­tiv­ism and indi­vidu­al­ism. The user of the former sub­ordin­ates his per­sonal time­table and itin­er­ary to that of the vehi­cle he is using. The user of the lat­ter has full free­dom of choice, lim­ited how­ever by the fact that mil­lions of others are exer­cis­ing their similar free­dom. The motor car has de­cent­ral­ised trans­port. As Lewis Mum­ford put it years ago, when he wrote The Cul­ture of Cities: “In­stead of the train, which in­creases in eco­nomy up to a point with the num­ber of cars at­tached, we have … a more flex­ibly used indi­vid­ual unit, which can start or stop, take the high­road or the branch road, at its own con­ven­ience, with­out wait­ing for other cars. And in­stead of the rail­way line, which tended to cen­tral­ise trans­port­a­tion along the main art­er­ies … the motor car has brought into ex­ist­ence the new high­way net­work. Thus the motor car can pen­etrate the hinter­land in a more ef­fect­ive and eco­nomic fashion than the rail­road could: for eco­nomy in rail­road­ing de­pends upon load­ing the tracks to max­imum cap­a­city and con­fin­ing trans­port­a­tion, as much as pos­sible to the main routes. More­over, the motor car can climb steep grades and pen­etrate hilly country with free­dom un­known to the rail­road …”

  But twenty years later, Mum­ford stresses a dif­fer­ent aspect of the auto­nomy of the driver: “Con­sider the bright idea engin­eers are al­ready seri­ously play­ing with: the no­tion of tak­ing the con­trol of the pri­vate motor car out of the hands of the driver, so that he will be­come a mere pas­senger in a re­mote con­trolled vehi­cle … look at the con­se­quen­ces. The driv­ing of a car has been one of the last re­fuges of per­sonal re­spons­ibil­ity, of the <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: do-it-your­self">do-it-your­self prin­ciple, in our ma­chine-ori­ented eco­nomy. At the wheel of his car the most down-trod­den con­form­ist still has a slight sense of re­lease; he may capri­ciously choose his destin­a­tion alter his speed, ex­plore a side road, or loiter in a woody glen for a pic­nic lunch. One by one, in the inter­ests of safety or max­imum speed, these free­doms are being taken away. The final tri­umph of auto­ma­tion would do away wth all the sub­sid­i­ary pur­poses of travel by pri­vate vehi­cle; no­thing would change, neither the man nor the oc­cu­pa­tion nor the scen­ery. Obvi­ously the mech­an­ical re­sults have al­ready been more ef­fi­ciently achieved in a rail­road train, while the same bore­dom could have been ar­rived at more cheaply by the simple non-tech­nical de­vice of stay­ing home.”

  We do not, how­ever, have to ima­gine radar-con­trolled elec­tronic “auto­ways” to reach this con­clu­sion. The stand­ard­ised land­scape of the <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: super-road">super-road, made neces­sary by the volume of traf­fic, takes the point
away from this kind of travel for pleasure. What is the point of going any­where when the place you leave, your des­tin­a­tion, and every­where en route are ex­actly the same?

  The obvi­ous ad­van­tage of the motor car to the in­di­vidual user is that it can pro­vide a door-to-door ser­vice. But this ad­van­tage is di­min­ished con­sider­ably in town jour­neys by the ever-present prob­lem of where on earth to park the car any­where near the ap­pro­pri­ate door.

  The obvi­ous dis­ad­van­tages of the motor car are the ap­pal­lingly high ca­su­alty rate as­so­ci­ated with it—to which we are so ac­customed that we take it for granted; the con­ges­tion, con­fu­sion and delay that it brings to travel; and the way in which piece­meal at­tempts to ac­com­mod­ate it in cities that grew in the days when the rich travelled in horse­drawn vehi­cles and the poor stayed put, are not only de­stroy­ing the pleasure of being in a town, but are also fail­ing, at a fabu­lous cost, to cope with the prob­lem.

  Eco­nom­ic­ally the pri­vate motor car is an aber­ra­tion. As Her­bert Man­zoni once put it, “The present-day motor car has de­veloped from the horse-drawn car­riage; there is every evid­ence of this de­velop­ment in its form and size and it is prob­ably the most waste­ful and un­eco­nomic con­triv­ance which has yet ap­peared among our per­sonal pos­ses­sions. The aver­age pas­sen­ger load of motor cars in our streets is cer­tainly less than two per­sons and in terms of trans­port­able load some 400 cubic feet of vehi­cle weigh­ing over 1 ton is used to con­vey 4 cubic feet of hu­man­ity weigh­ing about 2 cwt., the ratios being about 10 to 1 in weight and 100 to 1 in bulk. The eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tion of this situ­a­tion is rid­icu­lous and I can­not be­lieve it to be per­man­ent.”

  He is right or course but his sober ra­tion­al­ity is not likely to make much of a dent in our fellow-citi­zens, whose ad­dic­tion to the pri­vate motor car is prob­ably not en­tirely ra­tional. The motor car is still a new­comer in the life of man­kind and we have yet to work our way through its im­pact and come out (if we sur­vive) on the other side. On the basis of past trends and of Amer­ican ex­peri­ence it is estim­­ated that in Great Britain, this tight little island, there are likely to be 18 mil­lion vehi­cles in­clud­ing 12 mil­lion cars by 1970, and 27 mil­lion in­clud­ing 19 mil­lion cars by 1980 and per­haps 40 mil­lion in­clud­ing 30 mil­lion cars by 2010. Since there were last year about 10½ mil­lion vehi­cles, these estim­ates im­ply a doub­ling of the num­bers in 10 years and nearly a treb­ling within twenty years. Pro­fes­sor Buchanan em­phas­ises that nearly half the total in­crease is ex­pec­ted within the first ten years.

  How can we, in a coun­try of this size, pos­sibly cope with these stag­ger­ing in­creases, and with the chaos and slaugh­ter which we are bound to as­so­ci­ate with them?

   The Min­ister of Trans­port, Ernest Marples, is a gim­micky, in­con­sist­ent char­acter who dur­ing his term of of­fice—which pre­sum­ably ends this monthwas re­spons­ible for com­mis­sion­ing both the Beech­ing and Buchanan re­ports. But the two docu­ments be­long to dif­fer­ent cen­tur­ies in their ap­proach and ex­emp­lify the dif­fer­ence be­tween fin­an­cial and so­cial ac­count­ancy. Dr. Beech­ing, the £25,000 a year former ICI di­rec­tor, was briefed to make the rail­ways pay, and, on the basis of figures which some people have found ques­tion­able, and of rail­way
oper­at­ing meth­ods of fifty years ago, has taken each line in iso­la­tion on a crude pro­fit and loss test. (Even in the nine­teenth cen­tury Par­lia­ment in­sisted that the rail­way com­pan­ies should take the rough with the smooth and use the luc­rat­ive routes to sub­sid­ise the ones which would not pay on their own.) The Buchanan Report is a docu­ment of an en­tirely dif­fer­ent kind: it is a study aimed at dis­cover­ing the prin­ciples which will en­able us to de­fend civil­ised urban values from the ef­fect of traf­fic. When Marples took of­fice he asked who knew most about the im­pact of the motor vehi­cle on so­ciety. “Get him! Wher­ever he is, abroad or at home!” He was told that just round the cor­ner, in the Min­istry of Hous­ing, was an arch­itect and town-planner who had writ­ten the best book on the sub­ject. The man was Colin Buchanan and the book was Mixed Blessing: the Motor in Britain, pub­lished in 1958. (This book, brought out by a tech­nical pub­lisher, did not make much im­pact when it ap­peared. Far and away the long­est dis­cus­sion it evoked was in the anar­chist press: <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: freedom">freedom 22 and 29 March, 5, 12, 19 and 26 April 1958).

  Buchanan gath­ered around him a small team of about seven people, and, so he tells us, “we studi­ously avoided any­thing re­sem­bling com­mit­tee pro­ced­ure. We cre­ated in­stead a studio or draw­ing-of­fice atmos­phere in which, from morn­ing to night for nearly two years, traf­fic in towns was the sub­ject of dis­cus­sion and not in­fre­quently of heated argu­ment.” The re­port they pro­duced, Traf­fic in Towns. (HMSO £2.10.0. Abridged edi­tion, Penguin 10s. 6d.) is a fas­cin­at­ing book, which seeks, not to re­com­mend any par­tic­u­lar course of ac­tion (“be­cause this seems to be a mat­ter that so­ciety must de­cide for it­self”) but to de­mon­strate the courses of ac­tion that are open to so­ciety.

  Colin Buchanan sums up the “law” which emer­ges from his study group’s re­port in these words:

  “Pro­vided reason­able en­viron­mental stand­ards are to be se­cured, then the amount of traf­fic that can be ac­cepted in an urban area de­pends on what the com­mun­ity is pre­pared to spend on phys­ical alter­a­tions and what it is pre­pared to ac­cept in the way of a new look. If the com­mun­ity in ques­tion finds that some pro­posed set of measures is al­to­gether too ex­pens­ive and too dis­rupt­ive of famil­iar scenes, then it can have less ex­pens­ive and less dis­turb­ing measures, pro­vided it is re­con­ciled to not hav­ing so much traf­fic. It might even re­con­cile it­self to not spend­ing any money at all, in which case, pro­vided it wanted a civil­ised in­viron­ment, it would only be able to have a small amount of traf­fic.”

  The Beech­ing Report has been ac­cepted by the gov­ern­ment, with ac­tion, the Buchanan Report has been ac­cepted—with words. Is it simply going to be shelved? Pro­fes­sor Buchanan, when asked this ques­tion, re­plied: “It was writ­ten to in­flu­ence the way people think, and once this pro­cess has been started (as I feel farily con­fid­ent it has in this case) then it is dif­ficult for the pro­cess to be ‘shelved’.”

  Al­most sim­ul­tan­eously with the Buchanan re­port, there ap­peared a book for arch­itects and plan­ners and the people who em­ploy them, full of de­tailed in­form­a­tion and ex­amples of how to trans­late the prin­
ciples which emerge from a civil­ised ap­proach to the prob­lems brought about by the motor vehi­cle into prac­tice. This is Paul Ritter’s Plan­ning for Man and Motor (Pergamon Press £5.5.0), largely a man­ual on ped­es­trian and vehi­cle se­par­a­tion—in resid­en­tial dis­tricts by means of Rad­burn type hous­ing lay­out, and in town centres by means of multi-level plan­ning. (For Ritter’s ap­pli­ca­tion of his ideas to his own city see his article in the Not­ting­ham issue of this journal—anarchy 38.

  Both the case studies ana­lysed in the Buchanan Report and those dis­cussed in Paul Ritter’s book pro­vide a yard­stick for as­ses­sing the wis­dom and util­ity of the road­buil­ding and im­prove­ment schemes which are being under­taken at the moment. Malcolm MacEwen com­ments on the im­pli­ca­tions of Buchanan, “If so­ciety wants to go on spend­ing £900 mil­lion a year or more on vehi­cles, then it must be pre­pared to spend, say, another £900 mil­lion on ac­com­mod­at­ing them. I see no evid­ence that either a Con­serv­at­ive or a Labour gov­ern­ment will be pre­pared to in­vest cap­ital on any­thing like this scale, and clearly the pre­sent Gov­ern­ment does not in­tend to. But the alter­nat­ive, if Buchanan is ac­cepted, is equally un­pal­at­able. It is to cur­tail not only the use, but also the manu­fac­ture of motor vehi­cles, which are our prin­cipal ex­port and one of the main­stays of full em­ploy­ment.”

  This is the ab­surd situ­a­tion that we are in: not merely the Gal­braith­ian para­dox of pri­vate af­flu­ence and pub­lic squalor, but the fact that this is rend­ered per­man­ent and im­mut­able by the fact that 10 per cent of the coun­try’s total labour force is em­ployed in the road trans­port in­dus­try.

  Wouldn’t it be a first step to san­ity if those 2,305,000 people were to get to­gether and de­cide what they really wanted to do with their lives?

  Polit­ic­ally, the gov­ern­ment has ac­quired an inter­est in the ex­pan­sion of the motor in­dus­try. The Min­ister of Trans­port has pro­claimed the ob­ject­ive of mak­ing Britain “a car-owning demo­cracy.” An MP has de­fined the ped­es­trian in a Con­serv­at­ive Britain as the man who has parked his car and is walking to his des­tin­a­tion. The num­ber of cars on the road is now taken as an index of na­tional pro­sper­ity, so that any falling off in the rate of growth would be in­ter­preted as a sign of polit­ical fail­ure. Lord Derwent, the Chair­man of the Brit­ish Road Fed­er­a­tion, said at its an­nual meet­ing this year: “We must be real­istic and ac­cept that a ris­ing stand­ard of liv­ing car­ries with it a vehi­cle birth rate—at pres­ent one every 50 sec­onds of the day and night—which takes its course as in­ex­or­ably as hu­man mult­i­pli­ca­tion.” Is this real­ism, how­ever, or fat­al­ism? It is not a bit too late, when the fif­teenth child ar­rives (ap­par­ently by some in­ex­or­able pro­cess of mult­i­pli­ca­tion) to call in the Family Plan­ning As­so­ci­a­tion? 100 mil­lion cars may not be 100 times better than 1 mil­lion: they may well be 100 times worse, for if it is a fal­lacy to despise the ma­chine it is also a fal­lacy to sup­pose that hu­man hap­pi­ness can be measured by the num­ber of ma­chines and not by the qual­ity of life.
—<span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: the architects’ journal">the architects’ journal