• After the Tyranny of the Convenient

    It started a long time ago; those first rough voyagers of speed kicking up dust in the villages. Then a tide of Model Fords and the opening up of previously hidden inroads to the country. Black and white, the early images come to us like cinematic semaphores; comedies of Keystone cops and early reels of high jinks in ever growing towns in unknown stretches of Californian dreams and burgeoning Mid West cities, while in Europe ponies and traps were suddenly old hat and a million horses in London and their every growing tides of manure were superseded by black motors to add to the smog, weirdly and infernally echoing the tides of black-clad pedestrians, the black hats and umbrellas pushing for space in a town where everyone keeps to themselves.

    In many ways the motor car was one of the key innovations of the century, facilitated by an industrial model where the workers themselves were increasingly dehumanized then shunted away almost altogether. Its one great clarion call was the way in which it opened up horizons. Distant prospects were suddenly made close. Families experienced the kind of travel almost akin to teleportation in its speed and sense of ensuing displacement. It came to be seem as a kind of cornerstone of liberty, its costs not clear to many at first, like cigarettes that were considered good for the throat.

    But of course it only ever accelerated. Read accounts of people walking country roads in the seventies, their dismay at the rising tide of roadkill; shocking in the sense that it was shocking at all to us and our conditioning to the sight of flattened animals. And then the great monsters, the great modern roads – marching across the land leviathan like, ripping up hillsides, tearing neighbourhoods in two, almost Stalinistic in their scale of social and literal engineering.

    And now we have the reality for so many – the conditioning to life on the motorways; the dulled sense of drudgery of endless concrete, the feeling of confinement, the sense of being nowhere at all but trapped in a kind of high-speed neverworld where there is almost a sense of not moving at all; vehicles glide from side to side and distance is distorted, time itself feeling rinsed out.

    But it’s a sacrifice many are willing to make – pragmatically or reluctantly. For still a huge majority in this country, cars are the transport of choice – and they are thereby locked into the economy they represent; the financial outlay for keeping a car on the road means that that choice becomes locked in – few can afford that and regular train travel as well. That many are sick to the teeth about this and that they would very willingly embrace a move to the railways were they reasonably priced is of course one of the great scandals of the age.

    But for many, cars continue to hold an allure that makes motorways a cross they are willing to bear. The endless adverts, the pull of ergonomic seats and carefully molded interiors, the obsession with performance of the machine itself – it represents a kind of wedding to the machinated world, a kind of semi-cyborg state of entrapment. And all the minor roads are sport and everyone’s cushioned in steel and polished glass and all too often never seem to hear the roar of tyre on tarmac they leave in their wake – a collective endemic whereby the air conditioning and stereo surround leaves people blind to the huge irony and madness of a nation in perpetual motion, choking the roads, snarled in inability or unwillingness to find their way out.

    That our towns have been built around cars for so long hardly helps this. And for anyone out in the sticks where buses are largely the preserve of pensioners and even then are being cut to the core, cars have become a kind of no brainer. The speed they represent, their flexibility, the power they give to go anywhere at once at any given time, not limited by timetables, or routes or the absence of stations or lines – none of this can be easily dismissed.

    But if we are to escape their huge costs – well rehearsed in so many places – there’s surely a need to try and do better. If rural communities are not always what they once were it’s interesting to consider how a different pattern of travel may change this. If the model of private car ownership could be successfully challenged and car sharing clubs received the kind of patronage they deserved it could prove transformative for many rural and suburban areas blighted by a kind of over individualization.

    Equally, if people made decisions about where they lived based on their travel options; being somewhere that has good transport links and lobbying for them to be improved where they don’t exist it could liberate many people from the serfdom car ownership can so often represent.

    But a shift away from private car ownership can represent a kind of change which could be considered something of a sacrifice. Yes, you might not be able to travel exactly wherever you wanted at high speed at the drop of a hat. But such changes can bring unsuspected rewards. There’s a lot to be said about different relationship with both a sense of place and of the experience of travel itself. It might take you longer to get somewhere, but you might come to know your surroundings a little bit better in the first place. You might have to make detours but that could take you to incredible places you might never have known about otherwise, or which you’d have been more tempted to rush through without a moment’s pause. You might miss the conditioned isolation of your own vehicle but even the basic communion of being in a peopled carriage can increase your sense of connection with humanity at large.

    Moving away from individualized cars might mean turning so many things we take for granted on their head, but it can lead to lives that are more dynamic, connected and enriching. If that in any way represents an inconvenience it could also mean a liberation from the vast cost of running a motor. It could mean life with a better sense of priorities that bolsters, not separates and drains communities. And just as it would shape our experiences it would have huge ramifications for planning and how we organise and give precedence to other forms of transport. It might mean we sang the praises a little more often of those other liberators – the bicycles that opened up so many rural vistas back in the eighteen hundreds, the huge terminus railway stations that each form a kind of cathedral to models of modern transport that bring people together, not to mention the sense of dependability of shouldering a bag and knowing that, with time and a sense of great adventure, your boots can take you anywhere you wish.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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