In reviewing the Radio 4 documentary Bristol: Cycling City (I didn’t hear it and was too slow on the iPlayer), the Guardian‘s radio critic Elisabeth Mahoney once again revealed the bizarrely muddled thinking of a nation so thoroughly addicted to its car culture. The Cycling City project, in which a mere £22 million was given to the city to invest in cycling infrastructure and projects, was, she said, a “large state intervention in lifestyle issues”.
The implication is that the billions we spend designing our roads and streets for motor vehicles does not amount to a large state intervention in lifestyle. Or perhaps Mahoney thinks that the inner-Bristol ring road has always been there, that the M32 arterial motorway is a natural geological landform laid down in the last ice age, and that the traffic signals that allow the narrow old city streets to support such a volume of cars just shoot from the pavement without the council even having to put down the right kind of fertiliser.
The roads projects of the second half of the twentieth century add up to the biggest state intervention in lifestyle choices there has ever been. Building for the motor car gave some people new freedom and luxury, to others it gave divided neighbourhoods and cities ruined by blight. People were pushed out of their villages by richer car-commuters from the city, elderly people were isolated by the loss of their bus service, and people who were quite happy not driving — who couldn’t afford to run a car — were forced into supporting one as the car culture around them led directly to the closure of their local shops and services and sources of employment. Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.
Amongst those whose lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies are people who would like to be able to walk and cycle. Currently the proportion of journeys made by bicycle in much of the UK is less than one percent, and even in Bristol is well within single figures. Again, perhaps Mahoney simply thought that this is the natural state for cycling — that the rates above 25% regularly achieved by some European cities are unnatural, achieved only by the force of the state. Actually, if you ask a sample of people on the streets of Bristol, or any other British city, about their transport choices then the chances are they will tell you that they would like to be able to walk and cycle for their daily local journeys, but their streets and neighbourhoods simply aren’t designed to allow it. You have to cross a dual carriageway that has no crossing; you have to learn to love four-lane roundabouts; you have to cycle down a suburban ‘A’ road that has lines of cars each side parked half on the pavement and half covering the cycle lane, while double-decker buses and articulated trucks overtake six inches from your handlebars, and queues of cars grow behind you, honking, just incase you haven’t yet got the message that you do not belong here. Most streets don’t look safe for cycling and walking, let alone inviting. Many people want to take advantage of the time and money saving benefits of making short journeys on foot or by bicycle, but they don’t think they can.
There is nothing natural about this state of our streets. They do not just spring up out of the fields with four lanes and a row of parking places outside the shops and no room for pedestrian crossings or cycle lanes. Somebody designs them that way, and that somebody is in some way an agent of “The State”. The state can’t not “intervene” in streets; it has a number of choices for what to do with streets, but all of them amount to an “intervention”, and all of them affect our lifestyle choices. Designing streets with only the needs of the motorcar user in mind has been a massive state intervention preventing people from making journeys on foot or by bicycle, even if they had really wanted to. Funding infrastructure and projects to make it possible for them to make those journeys is not forcing anybody to cycle. It is not state intervention. It’s providing a level playing field.
We’ve reached a point where most of the people alive in this country today have always lived in an era of mass car ownership. Over half of the population were born after the first motorway opened. People have a habit of believing that the world they grow up in is the natural and objectively correct way for the world to be; that if it were any other way the world would collapse. Which is a problem when it comes to our city streets, which over the past fifty years have been designed extremely badly, in what we can objectively say was the wrong way.