London’s Ring-Roads: How to Solve the Traffic Problem

The ultimate argument for capitalism has always been that at least it works. The problems can be acknowledged, but while efforts to solve them are made the basic task of running society has to be accomplished; and in this capitalism passes the empirical test while Socialism remains untried. Unfortunately, it is quite untrue. Profit, the nest-feathering for which capitalism exists, is irreconcilable with social well-being or simple efficiency. The effect is that of a Fred Karno circus where the acrobats fall down, lions eat tamers, prancing horses have the botts and blazing hoops won’t light; but the ringmasters explain continually that with a change of management the greatest show on earth will get things right.


Thus, the politicians promise and plan for productive growth of which the system is incapable. Houses and flats are built by the million and the need for homes only grows. Schools everywhere like glittering palaces, and the attainment of literacy still elusive. The technical achievements fall flat, knackered by built-in obsolescence and cost-paring: each new wonder — motor-car, TV, household machine — leads at once to proliferation of repair shops in testimony to the models’ failure to work. The vision of space-travel is of men on their backs under non-starting rocketcraft all over the universe, with tow-in-and-mend stations on every star. Whatever capitalism does is done with atrocious inefficiency, its non-viability a comedy with tragic results.


Motors, Motors Everywhere
An outstanding example of this is the present-day struggle to accommodate road traffic. Generally, authorities find only one solution to attempt: the building of more and bigger roads. A new scheme for London was published at the end of February — a “box” of ring roads through the outer suburbs, girdling the city and linking the motorways which radiate from it. The existing ring-roads, North and South Circulars, have long become permanent traffic-jams in which the eight-miles-an-hour pace of Edwardian horse-traffic is seldom achievable. The box will take twenty years to build. It involves, of course, widespread destruction of homes and surroundings. At Blackheath on the south side it will go underground, not to spoil the select character of the area. To the north the intended route is through Epping Forest, which was rescued in 1870 from being nibbled-away by private enterprise to be eaten instead by governments and public corporations.


The question is: what is achieved? There are inevitably objections to the scheme, chiefly from the people whose lives will be affected by it. One argument says that the new roads are not necessary. Jeremy Bugler, writing in The Observer on 25th February, proposed that making more roads simply incites traffic congestion and that the occupants of sixty-nine cars could be put in one bus. Answers like these add to the confusion of capitalist practice. For one thing, the prime purpose of highways — and the most pressing today — is the commercial one of transporting goods. For another, the implication that people ride in cars unnecessarily for psychological (“status”) reasons is only a part-truth. The underlying fact is that the purchase of cars, their fuels and components is thrust relentlessly at everyone. Attributing the outcome to psychic weaknesses is to add insult to salesmanship.


Objection and Reconstruction
No doubt the new roads are necessary, in the same way that London’s Third Airport is necessary: given what goes on in capitalism. Indeed, the objections to the ring-road plan closely resemble those to the sites named in the airport controversy. The ruination of historic and attractive places; hardships and losses created; the noise and nuisance a major highway brings; and agreement that the thing is needed if only it is put somewhere else. The great weight of objections, too, comes from the better-to-do — conscious, apart from anything else, that they have bought better surroundings than most people get. The inference is that areas where poorer-paid workers live could be demolished without regret. In itself, that is true enough (the only thing to do in a sane society with great chunks of working-class housing, not necessarily old, would be to blow them up). But the well-off can, if they lose their fight, choose other agreeable surroundings. For the poor, the position is still as Engels described it in The Housing Question in 1872:


  I mean the practice which has now become general of making breaches in the working-class quarters of our big towns . . . from considerations of public health and for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally-situated business premises or owing to traffic requirements, such as the laying down of railways, streets, etc. No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else and often in the immediate neighbourhood.


Augean Stable on Wheels
From such an upheaval, something effective should result. The strong probability, however, is that before ten of the twenty years are up the inadequacy of the half-build road system will become a major public argument; that new schemes will be announced for relief highways and other radial roads; and that palliatives for the traffic problem will redound in the Sunday papers. A new dilemma is emerging now from motorways and ring-roads in that the approaches to them become protracted snarl-ups, the gain in movement creating a compensatory loss. There are several instances where a town’s by-pass road has grown so congested that traffic takes the town instead; the authorities’ response has been to drive it back by shutting-off the town route, making congestion worse.


One needs only to look at any urban area to see the problems and contradictions. The destinations and amenities the car is believed to bring to hand are inaccessible from it: workplaces, shops, stations, public lavatories surrounded by traffic prohibitions make the approach more tortuous than by pedestrianism. The most characteristic example is a public telephone in its commonest place, a busy spot. The motorist cannot get near to use it, but when he does so on foot conversation is made near-impossible by the noise of the traffic.


Needing the free flow of traffic, capitalism lacks the competence to obtain it. The brothers Goodman in their book Communitas give a plan of what a traffic-orientated commercial city should be like. The metropolis is seen as a gigantic department store, with the highways as its corridors (elevated or tunneled as well as at ground-floor). Intermediary streets are abolished; the highways lead direct to the central container where homes, workplaces and institutions can all be driven into. Round this automobile city is the recreation land, stadiums and holiday camps and imitation wild parks. The authors’ point is this the way to do it if you want that sort of thing. Yet capitalism urgently wants that sort of thing, but cannot manage it.


The reason is simply the conflicting pressures which refuse any coherent development. Whatever the public and the journalists may think, every local councillor knows that “planning” is simply scrabbling for the least unsatisfactory compromise available at the time. The limiting factors include the contrary demands of commerce and industry; the strength of the property market; government policies over housing and population distribution; and, of course, cost. One of the aims of nationalization was to reduce these self-conflicts in capitalism (incidentally, one of the earliest nationalizations, in effect, was bringing highways under corporate control to facilitate traffic movement), but it has done little or nothing. So far from executing an ideal communal will, the nationalized industries and undertakings have to compete in the melée with everyone else.


Another Kind of World
Can Socialism do better? The cause of all the chronic dilemmas and idiocies of capitalism is organic: its structure on the class ownership of the means of production. There can be no hope of solutions or efficiency until this fetter is broken. Given its replacement by common ownership, social cohesion and planning of the environment we want become possible for the first time.


Some immediate changes in town life on the establishment of Socialism are apparent. With the end of the use of money, numbers of buildings or their uses become obsolete. Banks (and the accountants’ and brokers’ offices which invariably live over them); labour exchanges and social security buildings; rates and rent offices, insurance offices, betting shops, estate agents’, solicitors’. There is the immense multiplicity of shops, for competition not convenience: supermarkets, electric wares and furniture stores juxtaposed down the Hight Street, each selling exactly the same as the others and vying for trade with special offers. The nationalized boards’ own showrooms, where electricity and gas are flogged as if in mortal combat with the popularity of rush-lights and turf-burning. Add, too, the socially wasteful services — repairs and replacements for rubbishy products and those made to “agreed standards”. To visualize the town with all these gone is to see a surprising difference in its shape, but the greater difference is in its function. Other, still more radical, changes can be envisaged: a new conception of housing, for instance.


The Real Alternative
The frequency and use of the motor-car arise from this general pattern of social life. A comparison can be made between Jeremy Bugler’s desire to get commuting drivers out of their cars and into buses, and the quite different conditions which would exist under Socialism. In the first, the suggestion is for legislation: to ban cars from town areas, or to promote bus services by subsidy, or both. In Socialism, the kinds and conditions of work would be very much different from those of today. Commuting, the life of hurrying from work to watch TV and sleep in the same way that a boxer returns briefly to his corner between the rounds, might be chosen by the specially dedicated but would no longer be enforced on millions. Housing comes into it as well. When giant office blocks are built on the most expensive land in the centre of cities and housing developments on the cheapest at the outskirts, movement becomes the least economic and the most troublesome.


Likewise, road transport. One can subtract a great deal which for obvious reasons will cease to exist under Socialism, and the craziness out of which money is made — “carrying coals to Newcastle” is a cliché for the height of uselessness, but they actually do it for capitalism (no doubt in forty-ton lorries). Whenever an alternative to lorry transport — the rehabilitation of canals or railways for example — is perceivable, it has to be discounted on the grounds of cost.


The question of the roads in general is one of social organization and motivation. With those changed fundamentally, new functions and attitudes appear; the motor-car will have a different evaluation. But where problems do arise, the resources and intelligence of society can be applied to solving them. Mankind can choose, and that is the essence of a responsible, free society. Marx and Engels saw Socialism as ending the division between town and country. That does not mean the town consuming the green fields; but it may mean pastures where a ring-road box has been.


Robert Barltrop