York environmental campaigner Richard Lane says that this is our best chance to address congestion – and improve the city’s health
Most people, if you ask them apropos of nothing, agree that we should all probably drive less. For that matter, they’ll probably agree that we should watch less TV, eat more fruit and vegetables and help old ladies across the street.
But we don’t, do we?
It’s not because we’re bad people. It’s not because we aspire to get scurvy or because we think it’s funny when old ladies get run over. It’s just the way our lives have worked out.
Back in 1951, only 14 per cent of UK households had access to a car1. The postwar baby boomers bought into the automotive dream in a big way, and by 2009 three generations of motorists had pushed that figure up to 75 per cent.
There are now more households with two or more cars than there are with none. It’s all brought things to a juddering halt.
The freedom of the open road is a distant memory. London drivers can now spend three full days per year in traffic jams2.
But by now, we’re all children of the motor car. We were rocked to sleep by them on long journeys, serenaded by the stereo. There’s probably quite a few who were even conceived there.
It’s shaped our expectations, and it’s shaped our towns. Life without the supermarket run is as unthinkable to many families as a Sunday without church was this time last century.
Addicted to the car
Where do the family attractions open – Red Goat, the Odeon, Waterworld, the tenpin bowling alley? Near the big-box retail hypermarkets, where the parking is free and easy. Because we all drive. It’s just the way our lives have worked out.
Motorists may grumble about the congestion, but they drive anyway. Perhaps it’s just part of the driving experience now. Why don’t we just leave them to it?
The simple answer is because it isn’t harmless. Altogether 24,791 people were killed or seriously injured on the UK road network in 2012.
On the day that the York Press launched their Think, Don’t Swim campaign on the dangers of swimming in York’s rivers (eleven deaths in five years3), the story just underneath it on the website was Man dies in A1237 crash [with] Tesco lorry.
Another featured a 21 year old woman killed in a collision on the A19. In those same five years, there had been 470 killed or seriously injured on York’s roads4. Yet no Think, Don’t Drive campaign.
In large areas of York, air pollution is at illegal levels – it’s estimated that around three people die prematurely in York every week as a result5.
Those aren’t three bolts from the blue – just the identifiable deaths from hundreds more who suffer with poor respiratory health. Without any industry to speak of, there’s really only one place this airborne crud can be coming from.
And I haven’t even mentioned global warming – that dubious and uncertain legacy to our children and generations to come. Transport is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in the UK.
How do you change things?
So what if you were a city council and you wanted to try to do something to stop the carnage? What might break this vicious circle of car-dependency that bumps off the weak and the wheezy?
Only two things have ever really worked to cut traffic levels: congestion charging and restricting the road space given over to the private car. The former makes driving more expensive, the latter makes it less convenient.
The former reduces congestion, the latter recognises that congestion is a fact, and that it stops the number of people driving from increasing. So why should we provide more space for us to fill to saturation? Why not less?
This is why the Lendal Bridge trial is exactly what we need to do. It’s no great secret or shame that it’ll move traffic around a bit – but it’s our best chance for traffic reduction.
The council may not have made a good fist of the signage, but it’s a better fist than they’d have made of congestion charging.
Getting ourselves unhooked from the motor car is going to take at least another generation, but there’s no need to wait before we start reconquering our city’s public space and fresh air. Many of our lives depend upon it.
- Richard Lane is an environmental activist and one of the organisers of the Towards Car-Free Cities conference in York in 2010
- He’s also a musician with the agit-swing band Reason Breeds Monsters and Tweets @nose_army
- For all our Lendal Bridge stories, click here
1 from Transport Statistics Great Britain 2011 (PDF)
2 from the INRIX Traffic Scorecard
3 The date was September 21, 2011
4 Statistics available here (PDF)
5 Based on 2009 figures from the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP, 2009), cited in the council’s Low Emissions Strategy. It is calculated from UK averages – the York figure may therefore be higher