State intervention

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.

10 thoughts on “State intervention”

  1. Spot on.

    This from “minutes” (actually me sounding off) of Northumberland County Council’s Bicycle User Group:

    “A broader discussion about sustainable commuting developed. It was noted that with the post-unification expansion of staff numbers at County Hall there are plans to spend substantially on enlarging the car park. That it’s deemed axiomatic that “more staff must mean more car-parking” – and that funding can always be found to lubricate motoring – is unsurprising from a car-centric employer for which the default position is the driver’s seat. Better – for an organisation committed to green Workplace Travel Planning – would be strategies for responsible management of existing provision, using the costs of the proposed build and the subsequent £400 per year per space to sweeten alternatives. The jaded myth of County Hall’s inaccessibility by any means other than private car for staff journeying up from Tyneside was disinterred. Car parks aren’t naturally occurring geological features like Whin Sill extrusions, or limestone pavements. That so many staff drive is neither chance nor inevitability, rather it’s product of a particular historical decision to re-locate County Hall a mile off the A1 and surround it, at great cost, with 4 acres of free car parking. Had it been set down adjacent to the train station with car parking restricted to essential users, a subsidy of rail ticket vouchers equivalent to the annual cost of a car-parking space offered to all staff, and top notch cycling provision, then different commuting patterns would pertain. In other words, the car-dependent status quo at County Hall is an engineered outcome of loading 100% of the incentives into the laps of staff who choose to drive to work; the very antithesis of our stated policy position. ”

    All power to you.

  2. To scale this; Of the £22M funding for the cycling city project, only £13M or so was dedicated to infrastructure (across Bristol and South Gloucestershire).
    At latest costs – this would buy you half a mile of Motorway…

  3. I had reason to visit the offices of Soil Association in central Bristol recently. I asked about transport choices. The majority of staff cycle to work (I forget the exact proportion). The “awful” traffic in the city centre and very limited number of spaces allocated in the underground car park mean very few even consider driving to work, yet it appeared they all managed to get there on time each day. I’m sure this behaviour, and that of other cycling-friendly towns and cities would be replicated in every urban centre if cycling didn’t appear (to the average person) to be such a risky business. The responsiblity for this lies squarely with the local authority.

  4. Your (blog’s) position is inconsistent. You present road building as “state intervention in lifestyle choices”, and you argue that “lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies”. You say that design specifically affects “people who would like to be able to walk and cycle”. Yet you are apparently not willing to accept that this can happen in the Netherlands, which you hold up as a model.

    Your position seems to be that building a motorway in the UK is “designing for cars” and pro-car “state intervention”, and yet building a motorway in the Netherlands is not. More relevantly for UK policy, the implication is that if the UK followed similar transport and planning strategies to those in the Netherlands, it would somehow cease to ‘intervene in lifestyle choices’ in the way that you claim.

    This post is three months old, so there is little point in going into detail here. If you are prepared to go into this in a new post, then here is an appropriate specific example, where new road and cycle infrastructure coincide:

    Which is the state-promoted lifestyle choice, in your terms? And is it logical to make a distinction anyway?

  5. Paul, this is not inconsistent with the other post you refer to. It is making exactly the same point as that other post. Any investment decision politicians make affects our choices. Every example I list and every example you list affects transport and “lifestyle” choices. I’m not sure how you’ve missed that point.

  6. You specifically take the position that “Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.” The rest of the post suggests you are talking about the UK, but European countries have invested in roads, not to mention the USA.

    The question is this: do you think that provision of new or upgraded roads is an intervention by the state, with the intention or effect of making people use cars? Is that your position? And if so, why do you seem to think, that somehow this does not apply in the Netherlands?

    That’s why I gave the example of the motorway bridge featured on David Hembrow’s blog. It is a perfect example, especially with the parallel rail bridge 800 m away. Looking at the general position of this blog, then what comes across is something like this:

    UK government builds 12-lane motorway bridge = massive pro-car state intervention forcing people to drive cars.

    Dutch government builds 12-lane motorway bridge, puts state-of-the-art cycle bridge next to it = wonderful.

    Not the way you think? Then explain. A separate post on the issue would be a good idea, i.e. about the use of the Netherlands a a model by cycle advocates, and what exactly they are trying to emulate.

  7. Sorry Paul. I’ve explained it three times now. I give up. I am obviously a bad writer, for I can’t think of any way to make “ALL investment decisions affect subsequent choices” any clearer. Given that everybody else seems to understand it just fine, I think it’s time to move on.

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