1960s >> 1964 >> no-713-january-1964

Coping with the car

One of these days, we have been told by Mr. Marples, we’re going to wake up wondering what’s hit us. In rather more elegant language, and at much greater length, the Buchanan report has warned us of the same thing. What is going to hit us, both literally and metaphorically, is the motor car.


Only recently the inhabitants of Kingston on Thames were given a foretaste of what Mr. Marples meant when one Saturday afternoon the whole of the town came to a complete standstill. For a couple of hours no vehicle could get into the town and nothing could get out. The panicky thought even occurred to some of those marooned, apparently, that they never were going to get out.


Is this really what is in store for us? Is the motor vehicle really going to end by overwhelming our cities, wiping out community life, completely dominating our existence? Or will capitalism, which has generated the monster, be finally forced to come to terms with it? And is it really capable of doing this? Are we to be impressed by Buchanan, or is he going to go the way of all the other Utopians up against the harsh realities of private interests and individual ownership? Let us consider a few facts first.


At the beginning of 1963, there were about eight million four-wheeled motor vehicles on this country’s roads; by the end of if, they will have been joined by another million. Estimates are for 13 million in 1970, and for 20 million by 1980, an average of one for every three people or one for every 20 yards of road (actually less since the population is concentrated into certain areas and not evenly spread). All this is prophecy, of course, and one hefty slump in a year or two’s time could knock all these figures for six. But the essential problem has already posed itself and will only get worse unless it is dealt with one way or another.


This headlong development is not peculiar to this country. France already has nine million vehicles and will have increased on this number by a further half million by the end of the year; , with a much larger area the problem is not so far quite so acute, but Paris has even worse traffic jams than London, and the other big towns will soon be as bad. Germany will probably have 8½ million vehicles soon and Italy 4 million; many of the smaller European countries have traffic densities at least the equal of, and sometimes greater than, their bigger neighbours.


Far in excess of all of them, of course, is the United States, with the fantastic total of 80 million vehicles. The effects of this are, however, localised and in many areas one measures the number of square miles to the car and not the other way round. But the problem is no easier in the built-up areas where most of the population is concentrated, in fact, it is often much worse. Los Angeles, and similar towns, stand as terrible warnings of what the unrestrained advance of the motor car can do to man and his way of life.


At the same time, the car manufacturers of the world are busily expanding output, installing new plant, going in for more and more automation, opening up new factories. Spurred on by state financial aid and other encouragement, Ford go to Liverpool, Rootes to Linwood, Citroen to Rennes, Renault to Caen and Le Havre, Volkswagen to Emden; so linked has the motor industry become to the general health of modern capitalism that governments hardly dare interfere to control its booms and fall over themselves to stimulate it out of its slumps.


Whole industries have become its subsidiaries. Sheet steel and rubber are its hangers-on, petroleum pays it homage. It feeds upon vast quantities of glass, paint, plastics, chrome, and electrical equipment; it requires huge investment in heavy plant and machine tools. When the internal combustion engine misfires, the whole of capitalism begins to cough; when it is turning over well, the economy feels buoyant.


So far the motor vehicle has carried all before it. But the problem now threatening capitalism and its governments is how to reconcile this ever-increasing production with the need to keep the products on the move. Even its die-hard supporters can see the absurdity of turning loose hundreds of thousands of additional cars on to roads where the traffic already can hardly turn. Yet capitalism is on the horns of a real dilemma—how to impose restrictions on the car (which to be effective will need to be drastic) without disastrous repercussions on the industry itself.


Capitalism’s Sacred Cow
In spite of all the evils and inconveniences it has brought in the way of noise, noxious fumes, dirt, nervous frustration, congestion, economic waste, death and injury from accidents, the car has so far had things pretty much its own way. It has become capitalism’s sacred cow, which nobody has been allowed to hinder or harm. Over the years it has steadily been allowed to reduce the public transport services to a joke and a travesty, and nobody has dared raise a hand to stop it.


The United States has always believed itself to be a step ahead of the motor vehicle (in contrast to this country which has always been a step behind it), but the net result, in the towns, at any rate, has not been very different. Driving magnificent motorways into the towns seemed a wonderful idea at the time, but all they did was to attract even more traffic and congest the centres still further. In the interests of the car, the Americans have assassinated their towns as decent, pleasant places to live in. Los Angeles has spread itself into a vast, inhuman sprawl over thousands of square miles; only now, after spending thousands of millions of dollars on super highways is it belatedly trying to put right its mistake with a new public transport system.


In this country and most of Western Europe the crunch has still to come, but it is not very far away. After the meters come the devices for charging for using road space—all very ingenious but a wonderful example of the fundamental idiocy of capitalism. The Buchanan report puts forward all sorts of inspiring ideas but one of the first very mundane things Mr. Marples is going to use it for is to provide independent weighty backing to his plans for restriction.


We referred to the idiocy of capitalism and it is true. Hundreds of thousands of cars, each taking up about 70 square feet of road space to carry seldom more than one passenger, crawl into our cities between certain fixed times in the morning, and crawl out again at another fixed period in the evening. It is only matched in idiocy by the way in which the urban public transport systems are geared to millions of commuters doing the same thing by bus, train, and tube. Many of these same commuters have themselves left a car in the garage taking up useful space at home or littering the streets, a car which they probably never take out on a journey worthy of the name more than once a week, plus the fine week-ends in the summer when they sally forth en masse to join the traffic jams, and the annual holiday when they often meet the same thing. The situation certainly has its ironies, as well. It is hardly more than ten to fifteen years ago that no Socialist meeting could go its allotted span without some questioner asking “And what are you going to do if everybody wants a motor-car under Socialism?,” the implication being that there would never be enough to go round and matters would end in a mad free-for-all. How far away those days seem now! Today we are hardly asked the question—nobody questions that production will be a problem.


Capitalism itself has in fact already solved the problem of the production of the motor-car. Its real problem today is how to cope with what it has produced; how to reconcile social production with individual ownership. Its politicians, its experts, its planners, all accept without question that whatever else may happen the cars must still come rolling off the assembly lines in their millions. The Buchanan report puts forward the most grandiose schemes, all to deal with 13 million cars by 1970 and even 20 million by 1980; a BBC discussion on the report mentioned a figure of £9,000 million for town rebuilding alone and everybody seemed to think that that was quite normal to allow half a nation of car-drivers to go from one side of a town to the other or to stop half way through to do the shopping. And as for the really revolutionary suggestion—the one that would operate under Socialism—that perhaps we already had enough cars and that all that was necessary was for them to be utilised sensibly as a supplementary to a comfortable, convenient and generally well-run public transport service, this side of the equation was obviously not thought of, let alone considered.


The fact is that the cars will continue to roll from the assembly lines but that capitalism’s governments will do only so much to accommodate them as the necessities of private property will allow. Most of the Buchanan proposals, for example, will probably be quietly shelved; the government has already turned a cold eye on the suggestion that land for road schemes should be compulsorily acquired at a “reasonable price,” and hardly anybody believes that much of the drastic re-planning mentioned in the report will ever be realised.


What we shall probably get, as is usually the case, is a hotchpotch of a compromise that will ease the system where it is being pinched hardest with the rest left to look after itself as best it can. There will be restrictions in one form or another to keep the city centres reasonably free for commercial traffic and give essential services, such as getting the workers to work, more scope to operate. No doubt, also as usual, the wealthy will find ways round the permits and licences, and the charges will be chalked up with all their other odd financial items on the side against business expenses. Priority will also certainly be given to such things as motorways to carry capitalism’s merchandise more quickly and thus more cheaply. But anything to do primarily with making our cities convenient and safe places to move about in, beautiful places to look at, and enjoyable places generally in which to live, will be well down the list of priorities. In other words, little is going to be done to rid us of the noise, the noxious fumes, the congestion, the waste of resources, the deaths and injuries, we mentioned earlier; indeed, they will probably become worse.


In short, we see little prospect of capitalism coping with the car, save perhaps in the sense that it will have to intervene to some extent to save itself from being strangled economically. And, to judge by the way it has been setting about the job so far, it looks as though it will not do even this too successfully either.


Where are you going? We may well ask. But wherever it is, or wherever you think it is, you’re not going to find the car much of an asset.

Stan Hampson