• The Politics of Congestion

    So I’ve been re-reading some of Lynn Sloman’s ‘Car Sick: Solutions For Our Car-addicted Culture’ recently. For anyone who hasn’t come across it, it’s a hugely informative book, packed full of the kind of details and arguments you’d expect from a highly influential transport consultant. Her chapter ‘Why the political system cannot tackle transport’ seems particularly relevant at the moment. A long list of why’s stacks up in the process of answering the question posed in the chapter’s title. First comes the lack of strategic planning whereby the type of co-ordination seen in London to co-ordinate buses and tubes is woefully lacking in other cities, to say nothing of more isolated regions. This is largely due to the lack of one overriding authority in any given place where local governments’ powers have been successively scaled down in favour of private companies over the last thirty or so years.

    Then there is the preoccupation with building big infrastructure projects where councillors, county surveyors and politicians are under the spell of large schemes; whether their perspective is skewed in this direction from a training in civil engineering, careerism or electoral vanity. The need ‘to do something’ is translated into leaving some kind of visible legacy; often literally concrete schemes that carry more immediate impact than cycle and bus lanes as well as the myriad of other ‘smart measures’ that Sloman advocates, even if the latter offer much more of a genuine and clearly thought out way forward.

    Next come the funding rules that mean it is easier for those in local government to get funding for large and expensive projects where the money is largely a one off, however much the costs may escalate, whereas the much more modest investment needed for bus services and the like must be renewed year on year, which central government is apparently more reluctant to provide. This means local authorities can potentially spend millions on large infrastructure year after year – largely because of the criteria of the funding, even where a much better return for smaller schemes appears to be given.

    Not least is the problem that for many making the decisions, the only real issue at stake is one of congestion. Even if the thinking that congestion can be somehow be reduced even as traffic increases has apparently been dropped, the mentality persists that this remains the most important factor considered. The impact on communities, landscapes and the wider environment are relegated here to the great goal of keeping traffic moving and reducing the incurred projected costs of failing to do so. So we get the bigger road junctions, the wider roads and motorways and - in London at least - congestion charging. Though only the latter has any real affect as it sets out to reduce traffic, not cater for and lead towards increased levels of cars.

    But there is a much wider and more insidious factor at play here – and that is the amount of column inches and airtime given to pro-car agitators convinced that the right to drive is an unalienable freedom and that any effort to curtail it, or even help provide a tenable alternative, is an affront on basic civil liberties. Here cars are much more than a means of transport – they are somehow transmuted to freedom itself and legions of readers are stirred to vexation at the slightest tweak of fuel duties or anything else that does not champion the open road and our right to drive upon it, despite the mounting evidence that such a right comes at the cost of so many other things that once we could take for granted and now seem more precarious. Walking in relative peace may once have seemed reasonably fundamental, as was the belief that the seasons might maintain some semblance of predictability, or the expectation that communities would not be shattered and divided by trunk roads far from the daily lives of those who take decisions to impose them. Far from their lives unless they one day drive along those roads; slick behind the wheels in the sanitised, anaemic world car travel offers.

    So much is dependent on the kind of views and questions columnists, broadcasters and even surveyors of public opinion devise. Sloman quotes John Adams, a geography professor at UCL who put it like this: “The political debate about transport is driven by an implicit opinion poll: ‘Would you like to have a car?’ Overwhelmingly, those without cars answer ‘Yes!’ ” But he goes on to say there are other ways the question could be framed: ‘Would you like to have your cake and eat it?’ or ‘Would you like to live in the sort of world that would result if everyone’s wish were granted?’ or even ‘Would you like to live in a dirty, dangerous, noisy, ugly, bleak, brutish, socially polarised, fume-filled greenhouse?’

    As Lynn Sloman concludes, we have been let down by a political class who think the top priority for those to who they are accountable is “to be able to drive wherever we want, as fast as we can, with no impediment.” But as she shows, when not misrepresented by loaded questions and statistics, most people are much more concerned with basic values about their expectations and desires for the kind of world they inhabit. These things can be provided by the kind of measures Sloman spends a large part of the rest of her book advocating and which have already been implemented successfully in many European cities. They are a long way from the kind of ‘hammer blow’ restrictive measures that media pundits rail against and which politicians of all stripes are wary of. Perhaps John Adams summed it up best with another rendition of his question: ‘Would you like to live in a cleaner, quieter, more peaceful, beautiful, harmonious and neighbourly world?’ Such a future – unlike the dream of no congestion however many roads we widen or build – could still be attained given sufficient political will.



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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