Saturday 4 June 2016

It's About The People, Stupid

I'm back from a week away on the Norfolk/ Suffolk border and as usual it has given me some thinking time.

As usual, I have managed to get some reading in; this time "Street Smart" by Sam Schwartz, the former Chief Engineer of New York City, aka Gridlock Sam. Part autobiography and part traffic engineering manual, this highly accessible book shows how Schwartz realised the futility of building more roads to solve congestion and the need to enable multi-modal transport in order to free our towns and cities from the overuse of the private car. Schwartz uses his own experiences and plenty of international examples to make his points.

I also finished "The Prostitute State - How Britain's Democracy Has Been Bought", by Donnachadh McCarthy. Many people know McCarthy as a co-founder of Stop Killing Cyclists, but as a senior Liberal Democrat party officer, he saw first-hand how lobbying, big business interests and media barons have attacked UK democracy for their own (mainly financial) ends.

What have these books to do with a civil engineering blog? Well, Street Smart is kind of obvious, but the Prostitute State shows us that being in the grip of powerful corporations and media barons prevents our political leaders making the changes needed for a more sustainable (in the widest sense) country. This is pushing against the need for change realised by people such as Schwartz.

My trip away was car-based which makes me part of the problem, but as I have said a great deal, there is not the infrastructure to enable such a trip to be made by other means (at a cost to rival the car) and to see why we have this status quo, we simply follow the money as McCarthy demonstrates.

But, there is positivity out here. Despite the continued austerity in the UK (and the poor weather for half-term), the towns and villages we visited were still busy and it was nice to see people shopping in independents (which is something we can all do to keep money in local economies). There was an interesting contrast in the North Norfolk town of Cromer;

The top photo is of Church Street which is the main road through the town. There are plenty of shops there, but it is not a place to linger. Contrast with the bottom photo of High Street in the old town. The interesting thing is both streets don't allow parking at all. Church Street is restricted because of motor traffic flow reasons and High Street because of people traffic flow! (access to off-street premises and loading is still permitted)

For me, this is a small case in point of how we deal with our towns and cities. We have spent years rearranging our places for the movement of motor traffic. The movement of motor traffic is promoted and enabled because of the interests of the few as highlighted by McCarthy and so the cycle continues with places more congested with the gridlock highlighted by Schwartz. 

Perhaps my links are tenuous and perhaps by bias is being confirmed, but I'd sooner wander around narrow, motor traffic streets than roads maximised for motor capacity (which is never enough) any day. Things are very complicated to unravel.


  1. Don't feel bad about using a car to go and visit small communities (would I be right in guessing that Norfolk and Suffolk are Germanic names meaning poeple's communities in a Northerly place and vice versa for Suffolk? I've been studying Dutch, and I know a few words in German, so this would make a lot of sense to me) a long way from your home in London. The Dutch do it too. In fact, they have even better rural road provisions than the UK does. 120-130 km/h rural motorways are the most common, and the network is denser and safer than the UK. 80 roads are also much safer with more of a clear zone, a divide between the two directions more often, slower speeds given the possibility of head on crashes, safer side road junctions, etc, and low speed rural roads where you can easily hit things like cyclists or trees.

    I really hope the UK is smart enough to stay in the EU. UKIP is almost as bad as Trump. Almost, because at least they haven't declared bankruptcy (yet). And why does this situation these days seem a lot like the situation in Russia in 1916?

  2. Just been to Woodbridge (by train!). Towns and villages like this and Cromer would be far better than they are if they seriously pedestrianised, moved to to cycling and public transport. Woodbridge has huge amounts of wasted space for car parking, yet life can easily be weaned off / go cold turkey about car dependency.

    Maybe the revolution needs to start in the small towns and villages ?

  3. Quote; "Maybe the revolution needs to start in the small towns and villages?"
    I could see this happening, particularly in those small towns and villages which rely on tourism and thereby clean and attractive environments where people can amble along as per the High Street photo. Unfortunately it would still need councillors with guts to initially drive the idea through, over the almost inevitable objections of local business owners.

    Andy R.

    1. Equally, it could be an opportunity for local business owners to be reminded that they don't own the public highways (they would still own exactly the same politicians as at present, who in turn also don't own the public highways) and that the subsidies they receive through them are entirely discretionary. If they are so convinced that their business needs motoring, they could always arrange and pay for their own private motorways to their premises---or move their premises onto existing public ones instead, local or otherwise...