Friday photo: urban motorways

The four mile M32 arterial motorway, from the M4 right into the centre of Bristol, and beneath it, Bell Hill / Stapleton Road, a residential street made unfit for people by the presence of the motorway.

Once upon a time, Bristol was divided only by the River Avon, the river which flows east to west through the city centre harbour and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the spectacular Avon Gorge. There was a North Bristol and a South Bristol. The Victorian railways made some new barriers to movement of people around neighbourhoods within the city, but they largely ran along the edge of development, boxing it in, rather than cutting through and dividing places.

But then, at the start of the 1970s, the planners smashed a path through Eastville and St Agnes for the M32, tore down the Thirteen Arches railway viaduct, fresh kill from the Beeching axe. Perpendicular streets were cut in two; parallel streets were half demolished, the other side made unbearable by the new motorway that looked in on the upstairs windows. Lower Ashley Road has become two streets that share only a name, separated in the severed neighbourhoods of Easton and St Pauls. St Agnes, which once lay between the two, and merged with them as fuzzy overlapping neighbourhoods do, doesn’t really exist anymore. There is now a North Bristol and a North East Bristol, the motorway making a far more formidable border than the river has been for centuries. There are just a half-dozen potential crossing points for people on foot or on bicycles, and most of those are intimidating period concrete underpasses through complex tangles of wide and fast motor junctions. If the walls don’t stop you, the death strip will.

The motorway allows the rich to move out to the Gloucestershire countryside and commute back into the city each day, in ever longer jams of single-occupancy vehicles as the years pass. They’ll tell you how hard-done-by they are, having to pay so much more in tax than is spent on roads, having to put up with the sight of all those freeloading losers who get to bypass the jams in the new motorway bus lane, the pedestrians who can stroll through their underpasses unimpeded by signals or signs or stacking traffic, and the cyclists who ride by in the parks beside the motorway on one of those extravagant taxpayer-funded Cycling City routes.

The people who have really paid for the M32 are the people of St Agnes, forced out of their homes. Their neighbours left living in the dead-end stubs of terraces amongst the ruins and under the watch and the 24/7 noise of the passing traffic. The businesses that withered and died and the communities that slipped away. The kids who go to Millpond Primary School, twenty metres from the edge of the motorway, breathing the fumes all day, and the kids they’ll never meet, living a hundred metres away in an entirely separate community across the impenetrable frontier. No amount of motoring taxes can ever pay for the things that were taken from these neighbourhoods — safety and security, health and peace, community and prosperity, lives and livelihoods — because those things were never offered up for sale. Car ownership in Easton and St Pauls is low — people have never been able to afford to run a car, never needed or really wanted to own one — but they’ve paid for the car more than any in Bristol.

Where the M32 is the dagger thrust into the heart of the city, the Railway Path is the thread that ties the neighbourhoods of northeast Bristol together.