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

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.


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


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