Monbiot: We’re on the verge of carmageddon

Paris traffic
CC BY-SA 2.0 Bob Hall

The very first TreeHugger post mentioning Guardian writer George Monbiot, in January, 2006, was about The Anti-Social Bastards in our Midst- namely, drivers. Looking back, it is really a good read in this election year, about how the car has changed people and politics:

When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation which recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions. We drive on the left in Britain, but we are being driven to the right.

Now he is writing about cars and drivers again, in his latest, Our roads are choked. We’re on the verge of carmageddon.

It was a mistake – a monumental, world-class mistake. Cars for everyone was one of the most stupid promises politicians ever made. Cars are meant to meet a simple need: quick and efficient mobility. Observe an urban artery during the school run, or a trunk road on a bank holiday weekend, and ask yourself whether the current system meets that need. The vast expanse of road space, the massive investment in metal and fossil fuel, has delivered the freedom to sit fuming in a toxic cloud as your life ticks by.

He goes on to note that cars are killing us, that they are “ a disaster for the climate, public health and our quality of life.” He’s not just whinging on either, but making concrete suggestions, for a 21st century transit system. Ideas include:

  • Make public transport as convenient as private with apps and minibuses.
  • Add safe and convenient bike lanes.
  • End the manufacture of gasoline powered cars.
  • Reopen old rail lines.
  • Dedicated lanes for intercity buses
  • New settlements around transport hubs.

He concludes:

What is difficult about any of this? What technological barriers stand in the way? None. Transport is among the simplest of our problems to solve.

It’s also one of the most intractable problems. And that’s because it is so political; going back to his 2006 article, he noted then that it was all about social engineering, British style:

It is strange to see how the car has been overlooked as an agent of political change. We know that the breaking of the unions, the dismantling of the welfare state and the sale of council houses that Margaret Thatcher pioneered made us more individualistic. But the way in which the transition from individualism to the next phase of neoliberalism – libertarianism – was assisted by her transport policies has been largely ignored. She knew what she was doing. She spoke of “the great car-owning democracy”, and asserted that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”. Her road-building programme was an exercise in both civil and social engineering.

Much the same can be said of the North American scene today. It’s really instructive to read two Monbiot rants written a decade apart. Because the old post is truer now than it was then, as the War on the Car becomes such a dominant political issue in cities everywhere.

Monbiot: We’re on the verge of carmageddon
Actually, we have been down this road before...

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