Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Roads to freedom

Rachel Aldred considers a city humanised by sustainable transport

July 4, 2011
7 min read


Rachel Aldred is a sociologist and director of the University of East London’s sustainable mobilities research group


  share     tweet  

Observe a main road into any British city at rush hour, and the queues sum up what’s wrong with the way we currently organise society. Long lines of polluting, energy-guzzling individual vehicles designed for speeds in excess of legal limits, travelling no faster than a bicycle or horse. Most have only one occupant. The drivers don’t look happy; they are picking their noses, texting, talking on phones, listening to music, staring out of the window, honking, muttering. Although they may not realise it they are inhaling concentrated pollution through air conditioning systems. Many are overweight or obese, due to physical inactivity; all are sitting in classic repetitive strain poses making tiny movements while their bodies remain rigid.

What about the people making the ‘right’ choices? Those in buses are only too often caught in the same queues. They pay heavily for the privilege: bus travellers, like train travellers, are seeing fares rise well above inflation again, while total motoring costs are in long-term decline. Pedestrians and people waiting at bus stops breathe in petrol and diesel fumes and struggle to cross the carriageway between the stop-starting cars.

Cyclists are frequently consigned to tiny cycle lanes carved out of nearside motor traffic lanes; as well as being unpleasant these place cyclists at risk of being hit by left-turning motor traffic. And where are all the children? They aren’t playing in the streets (categorised as ‘dangerous behaviour’ in the road injury Stats19 database). Often, they will be driven to school.

Britain is still suffering the effects of decades of prioritising the car. The Buchanan Report (Traffic in Towns), bête noire of the environmental movement, makes this clear. Back in the 1960s Buchanan was in fact honest about the future impact of the car on the city. He said planners had a choice: they should either bulldoze historic cities to accommodate mass car ownership or keep our small-scale historic city designs and dramatically restrict car use. In the end, they did a little of both, with the dystopian results Buchanan predicted.

Unpleasant alternatives

Alternatives to the car are now often expensive, unpleasant and/or inconvenient, particularly outside London. Our toxic property market has helped turn swathes of the country into commuter belts, with long-distance travel built into people’s lifestyles. As epidemiologists Wilkinson and Pickett argue, hugely unequal societies, like Britain, are hostile and frightened societies. The car appears more attractive when the streets are frightening, when strangers appear not as ‘friends you haven’t yet met’ but as potential threats. It is a symbol of separation and of ‘safety’ achieved through arming yourself.

Motor vehicles do not kill and maim on an equal opportunities basis. Children living in poor areas are at higher risk of road injury than children living in richer areas. In common with older and disabled people, children are disadvantaged by car-dominated societies; they can’t see over 4x4s, easily circumnavigate pavement parking, or cross junctions in the short time allowed. ‘Vulnerable road users’ are blamed for the violence that they experience; in the ‘Tales of the Road’ campaign the government tells children it’s their fault if they are injured or killed if they don’t wear bright clothing. Car-dominated planning effectively disables and excludes large numbers of people.

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition seems to believe that in the long run electric vehicles will save us. Electric vehicles can improve local air quality but they won’t improve road safety, equalise access to the streets, make us more physically active or cut congestion. And given how we currently source electricity, they will be largely carbon-powered.

There is no technical fix; social change is needed. But persuading people to change their travel behaviour is only likely to be successful on a large scale if public transport, walking and cycling are made more pleasant, more convenient, more convivial and more affordable than driving. This is not usually the case in Britain today – although driving is frequently stressful and unpleasant, it is often seen as the ‘least worst’ option.

Humanising transport

Making transport in cities work differently requires creating streets for people rather than cars, prioritising human-scale transport. This would encourage walking and cycling, which generate the greatest social, health, and environmental benefits, with public transport widely used for longer journeys. Making public transport affordable and accessible is important, and Britain’s bureaucratised and privatised hotch-potch hinders this. However, we already offer free bus travel for older people, which has been shown to have wider social benefits, enabling people to socialise with others in their communities. In Belgium, the town of Hasselt has had a zero-fare bus policy since 1997, paid for out of municipal and Flemish taxes. The additional municipal cost is around 1 per cent of the city budget.

Despite the power of the automobile lobby, cities across the world have been made more liveable through the redistribution of space. In Bogotà, Colombia, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa saw curbing the car as an equalities issue, building political support on that basis. Streets were re-allocated to give more space to rapid bus transit, pedestrians and cyclists. Copenhagen in Denmark prioritised cycling in many city streets (see page 56), and more than a third of journeys to work are now by bicycle.

In the Netherlands several decades of planning for cycling, from high-quality infrastructure to financial incentives, has led to more than a quarter of all journeys being made by bike. One promising if currently highly corporatised initiative in the UK is public bike hire. Such schemes can help turn the bicycle into an accessible form of public transport shared between citizens, making it less of a specialised and ‘sporty’ activity.

In the UK the city with the most sustainable transport is London, where public transport use is high and car ownership low. Reasons include land-use and planning factors such as access to local shopping facilities, limited availability of land for car parking, and relatively short journeys to work that can by made by bicycle or public transport. For transport to be made more sustainable it requires thinking far more broadly than just about ‘transport’, but about how people live their lives and what they need to do day-to-day.

Utopian schemes

Utopian ideals and plans continue to inspire campaigners. These include Situationist city plans, produced by groups such as Amsterdam’s ‘Provos’, who proposed dramatically restricting car access to the city and leaving thousands of ‘White Bicycles’ freely available for city residents to use. Writers from Walter Benjamin to Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau have celebrated the potential of walking and wandering to disrupt top-down city plans. Resistance to top-down planning is constant, even if often fragmented and unspoken – inscribed as footprints in the grass where pedestrians follow ‘desire lines’ rather than official detours.

But planning is not the enemy per se; there is always planning even if it’s hidden and privatised. While the car is a symbol of corrosive hyper-individualism, the car-system depends on massive public and private investment. It represents the organised and expensive control of the many by the few, creating inhuman environments that generate the need or desire to drive. City residents regularly resist this by attempting to humanise their streets and stop them becoming mere corridors for through traffic, often in the face of state indifference or hostility.

Finally, we should remain critical of claims to city sustainability. Gentrified city centres where the affluent walk, cycle, and take taxi journeys might be supported by sprawling, impoverished suburbs where the poor are reliant on long and unpleasant bus journeys to get to town. So promoting walking, cycling, and public transport needs to be linked to an equalities agenda, where all can participate in these modes. This can form part of a new utopian vision of cities for people, what we might call ‘planning for wandering’ – designing cities so that people of all ages and abilities can easily and pleasurably get around by foot, by bicycle, or public transport.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Rachel Aldred is a sociologist and director of the University of East London’s sustainable mobilities research group


An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.


7