Anarchy 44/Transport: the scope for citizen action

From Anarchy
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Transport: the scope
for citizen action


One of the ob­jec­tions raised to the point of view of anarch­ists and other de­central­ists is that they ig­nore the com­plex­it­ies of plan­ning for the so­cial needs of densely-pop­u­la­ted urban so­cieties like our own. Yet what stands out from a con­sider­a­tion of the trans­port muddle is that there is no plan: there are in­stead a vari­ety of of­fi­cial bodies, un­co-ordin­ated, work­ing in iso­la­tion and often in se­crecy, pro­du­cing muddle, con­fu­sion and waste on en enor­mous scale.

  Min­istries, na­tion­al­ised in­dus­tries, local au­thor­it­ies large and small are work­ing away with long-term and short-term plans, and put­ting schemes into oper­a­tion at enor­mous costs which turn out to have been ob­solete be­fore they left the draw­ing board. To rub the point home, let us item­ise just half-a-dozen cur­rent ex­amples from the press:

  1. When Brit­ish Euro­pean Air­ways makes a loss on its ser­vices, the gov­ern­ment de­cides that the ser­vices are to be kept going and the empty seats filled by re­du­cing the fares. When Brit­ish Rail­ways makes a loss on its ser­vices, trains with empty seats are dis­con­tinued, and fares on those re­main­ing are in­creased.

  2. Among the sta­tions closed on Sep­tem­ber 6th this year was Castle­thorpe, Bucks, on the main Euston-Crewe line, where vil­lagers sat down in front of the last train in pro­test. More than £40,000 had re­cently been spent on mod­ern­is­ing their sta­tion.

  3. At Stran­raer in the west of Scot­land, where the gov­ern­ment is sub­sid­is­ing new in­dus­trial enter­prise, Brit­ish Rail­ways re­cently put into ser­vice a new 3,500 ton ship, spe­cially de­signed for the Stran­raer-Larne ferry. But in Dr. Beech­ing’s plan, Stran­raer will not only lose all its spe­cial ex­press boat trains from London, New­castle and Glas­gow, but it will ac­tu­ally be­come al­most 60 miles dist­ant from the near­est pas­sen­ger-car­ry­ing sta­tion.

  4. The London Traf­fic Man­age­ment Unit of the Min­is­try of Trans­port is at­tempt­ing to al­levi­ate traf­fic prob­lems in London by in­tro­du­cing large-scale <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: one-way traf­fic">one-way traf­fic sys­tems. Simul­tan­eously the London County Coun­cil is try­ing to do the same thing by large-scale round­abouts, like those in the Red Lion Square and St. Giles Cir­cus areas. The two meth­ods con­tra­dict and can­cel out each other.

  5. Batter­sea Coun­cil has had to aban­don a ma­jor part of its hous­ing pro­gramme, be­cause of pro­pos­als for a six-lane motor­way which no-one had told the Coun­cil about and of which it had never heard until plan­ning per­mis­sion for one of its hous­ing schemes was re­fused.

  6. Doctor Beech­ing is pro­pos­ing to close the rail­way be­tween New­castle and Wash­ing­ton in County Dur­ham at the very mo­ment when a New Town is to be built there.

  What is the remedy for ab­surd­it­ies of this kind? The Labour Party (which can hardly blame “the jungle of pri­vate enter­prise” since it is pub­lic bodies which are in­volved in each of these in­stan­ces) pro­poses yet an­other gov­ern­ment de­part­ment to co-ordin­ate the activ­it­ies of all these bodies, and pro­duce what we so con­spic­u­ously lack: a plan for trans­port. In terms of prac­tical polit­ics and pro­ced­ure, the trouble with this kind of “over­lord” body is that in prac­tice it is never given the power it seeks—and is never strong enough to over­rule sec­tional in­ter­ests—this is the ex­peri­ence of “demo­cratic” coun­tries like Britain and the USA as much as that of “dic­tat­or­ships” like Nazi Ger­many and Stalin’s Russia.

A citizens’ plan

  Our own ap­proach would be quite dif­fer­ent. We want a citi­zens’ plan for trans­port: an al­tern­at­ive to of­fi­cial pro­pos­als, to serve as a focus for in­formed pres­sure and agit­a­tion. We would like to see trans­port work­ers and trans­port users draw up their own na­tional plan, and then en­force it. The in­dis­pens­ible bodies of spe­cial know­ledge al­ready ex­ist in the form of the trans­port work­ers’ unions and trans­port users as­so­ci­a­tions. Now, when every­body has some inter­est in the sub­ject either be­cause of their own actual trans­port prob­lems or be­cause of the im­pact of the Beech­ing Re­port and the Buchanan Report (which has made every­one aware of the link be­tween <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: town-plan­ning">town-plan­ning and trans­port plan­ning) is the time for trans­port users and trans­port work­ers to pre­pare their own local and na­tional plans.

  One aspect of a Citi­zens’ Plan for Trans­port, is that sug­gested by Robert Swann in his article “Direct Action and the Urban En­viron­ment” in anarchy 41: a cam­paign to “de­fend the city against ero­sion by auto­mobiles”. Swann en­vis­ages citi­zen action of the civil dis­obedi­ence kind as the teeth of such a cam­paign. In this coun­try Pro­fes­sor Buchanan him­self re­com­mended the same kind of thing last June, in his “Don’t let traf­fic ruin your com­mun­it­ies” speech.

  An­other ap­proach, in rural areas, is that of citi­zen self-help. We have all dis­covered, while on holi­day in iso­lated places, that what ap­pears to be a dis­trict with­out a trans­port­a­tion sys­tem, has in fact a net­work of one-man oper­at­ors or volun­tary bus ser­vices, which in a vari­ety of in­geni­ous ways ad­just their oper­a­tions to suit the pas­sen­gers’ con­ven­ience, or com­bine the bus with goods de­liv­eries. (There is even a gov­ern­ment pamph­let ex­plain­ing the way to go about run­ning such a ser­vice—Village Bus, HMSO, 1956).

  Again, we all know of aban­doned rail­ways which have been taken over by groups of en­thusi­asts and have achieved some fin­an­cial stabil­ity. The Blue­bell Line in Sussex is a fam­ous ex­ample. An­other is the Middle­ton line at Leeds which makes a pro­fit on the freight it car­ries under the di­rec­tion of Dr. R. F. Youell of Leeds Uni­vers­ity. These
amateur ad­ven­tures may simply be the real-life ver­sion of those old Ealing Stu­dios Comedies, but they em­body several im­port­ant so­cial truths—which a lei­sured so­ciety should not ignore. (See Ian Nairn’s article “Do it Your­self” in anarchy 23). In a so­ciety in which the dis­tinc­tions be­tween work and play dimin­ish, many so­cially use­ful but “un­eco­nomic” activ­ities can be moved from one sphere to an­other. And surely what can be done on a small scale by a bunch of amateurs can be done on a grand scale by pro­fes­sional trans­port work­ers. We want the dis­gruntled trans­port users and the dis­gruntled trans­port work­ers to join forces to this end.

Citizens against Beeching

  One citi­zens’ ini­tiat­ive set off by the Beech­ing Re­port is em­bod­ied in the pamph­let Hamp­stead and the Broad Street Line, pub­lished by the Save the Broad Street Line Com­mit­tee, 62 Upper Park Road, London NW3. (3s. by post). Dr. Beech­ing pro­posed to close the Broad Street to Rich­mond Line to pas­sen­gers, even though it car­ries 18,000 of them a day, on the grounds that the ser­vice loses money. A pub­lic meet­ing was held to pro­test about the pro­posed closure, and it set up a com­mit­tee which has pro­duced a re­port that not only de­mo­lishes Dr. Beech­ing’s cal­cul­a­tions, but in­vest­igates in de­tail who ac­tually uses the line and what the cost of al­tern­at­ive means of trans­port would be. The so­cial cost ana­lysis set out in this re­port in­dic­ates that the actual cost to the com­mun­ity as a whole of clos­ing the line would be £578,000 a year, as op­posed to the claim by Dr. Beech­ing that Brit­ish Rail­ways lose £69,000 a year on run­ning the pas­sen­ger ser­vice. The de­tail and im­pec­cable stat­ist­ical ana­lysis which this group of citi­zens has as­sem­bled will cer­tainly make it con­sider­ably more dif­fic­ult to close the line.

And for Buchanan

  Sim­ilar citi­zens’ groups have been formed to “im­ple­ment” the Buchanan Re­port—in the sense of ap­ply­ing Buchanan’s ap­proach to local prob­lems. This is an up­hill task, as this letter from Mr. Robert Timms demon­strates:

  “I am a mem­ber of Brom­ley Design Group, a volun­tary group of archi­tects, sur­vey­ors, art teach­ers and like-minded people. We dis­agree with our local coun­cil’s 32-year-old plan, just about to reach fru­ition, for widen­ing the bottle­neck High Street shop­ping centre to speed the flow of traf­fic through the town. We pre­pared a study of the town centre, com­plete with a scale model of an al­tern­at­ive scheme, maps and sketches. Our al­tern­at­ive to the pres­ent plan of widen­ing the shop­ping street, with off­shoot traf­fic di­ver­sions down resid­en­tial roads, was to turn the ‘bottle­neck’ into a pedes­trian pre­cinct, opened on one side to a pub­lic gar­den at pres­ent ac­ces­sible only by a path be­tween the pub­lic lav­at­ory and the lib­rary fire escape. In mid-April we ex­hibited our scheme, com­plete with a per­fectly feas­ible and com­para­tively in­ex­pens­ive ring road. After an in­ter­val for di­ges­tion, the local Cham­ber of Com­merce pub­licly ap­plauded it as super­ior to the coun­cil scheme. The coun­cil has yet to reply to the Cham­ber of Com­merce
re­quest for con­sider­a­tion of the study. Buchanan re­mains where he was—off the ground on a ped­estal out of reach.”

  What Mr. Timms calls the “insur­mount­able ob­stacle of local au­thor­ity phil­istin­ism” and its equi­val­ent in other pub­lic au­thor­it­ies, are likely to be the brick wall that most citi­zen action groups will find them­selves up against. What they can do about it. Well, the only al­tern­atives are to give up, or to in­crease the pres­sure. A hand­ful of really de­term­ined people who don’t in­tend to give up, can achieve what other­wise seems im­pos­sible.

A social situation

  An example of this comes from an­other field of trans­port, the canal system. In sharp con­trast with other coun­tries where large-scale con­struc­tion of canals is being under­taken today, canal-build­ing in this coun­try, apart from the Man­chester Ship Canal, ceased in 1850. Canals are by far the cheap­est, safest and quiet­est means of regular heavy freight traf­fic. (Even our neg­lec­ted canals in this coun­try carry over 4,000,000 tons of coal, 2,500,000 tons of petro­leum pro­ducts and more than 3,000,000 tons of gen­eral merchan­dise annu­ally. Mr. Marples, need­less to say, would like to fill them up and forget about them. But other people, not­ably the re­doubt­able Robert Aickman, of the In­land Water­ways Asso­ci­a­tion, think dif­fer­ently, and the ex­ample we have in mind is the Strat­ford Canal re­stored to use thanks to a Mid­lands archi­tect David Hutch­ings.

  The Brit­ish Trans­port Com­mis­sion pro­posed to close this canal at an esti­mated cost of £125,000. After a cam­paign of pro­test in 1958, the Na­tional Trust took it over, and em­ployed Mr. Hutch­ings to bring it back into use, after 30 years of total neg­lect, for £50,000. Mr. Hutch­ings says, “When I was an archi­tect in Coven­try I got in­volved in pre­serv­ing canals and so on. And when this came up the Na­tional Trust asked me to do it. We had no plans, no tools, no men, no money, no any­thing. Ever since, it’s been a job of get­ting con­tacts, per­suad­ing them to help, scroun­ging equip­ment, making people give things they didn’t want to give, volun­teer when they didn’t want to, and work far harder than they wanted to for much longer than they wanted.”

  Mr. Hutch­ings talked his way into get­ting the army, prison­ers from Bir­ming­ham prison, and hun­dreds of volun­teers to work on the canal. It took three years and in­volved dred­ging half a million tons of mud, re­build­ing 30 locks, re­pla­cing 70 lock gates weighing over four tons, and vir­tu­ally re­dig­ging more than half the canal bank. The 13 miles canal was re­opened this year, and, in­spired by this suc­cess, the Na­tional Trust is think­ing of re­stor­ing an­other 16-mile canal. If this kind of force­ful energy, which never takes no for an answer were ap­plied to citi­zen in­ter­ven­tion in other aspects of the trans­port sys­tem, who knows what might not be achieved. As Colin Buchanan says, “It is not a traf­fic prob­lem we are faced with, as much as a so­cial situ­a­tion.”