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 a 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 human consequences. The driving of a car has been one of the last refuges of personal responsibility, of the 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 with 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 at home.”

We do not, however, have to imagine radar-controlled electronic “autoways” to reach this conclusion. The standardised landscape of the 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 horse-drawn 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 of 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 month—was responsible for commissioning both the Beeching and the 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 comer, 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: 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 environment, 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 bas 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 fairly 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 principles 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 multilevel 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 McEwan 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.

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Mar 21 2019 17:39


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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