The Post-Car Age – Considerations

Thinking about the end of the car age: the Guardian has been running a series asking readers to consider urban life in the future. This article gathers views on life after the car.

This is not we had in mind when private transport was envisaged: theguardian.co.uk
This is not we had in mind when private transport was envisaged: theguardian.co.uk

I have an ambivalent attitude to cars. The image shown here captures one reason why I think cars are monsters and quite possibly the biggest scam ever perpetrated on society. When you arrange everything to suit the car there is nowhere worth going to. Cars by and large worsen all the problems they are meant to solve. Had we been a more prescient society around 1900 the car would be as practical an option today as helicopter travel. If cities had stayed as dense as they were then, the train and some buses and bikes would be all we needed and only a few determined people would insist on “motoring” around in those areas far from town and city.

Set against that is that in isolation, motor cars are rather fascinating machines, an astonishing fusion of engineering and aesthetics which reflect the great complexity of society spatially and temporally. I like cars in a hypothetical sense, for what they could be and not for what they are.

Thus I feel it’s not inconsistent to present the Guardian’s musings on life after cars. I think it might be quite pleasant if car ownership fell by a half; I don’t want to commute and I resent all those people getting in my way when I want to tour randomly. From a pedestrian and citizen point of view, cities without cars very much more pleasant than cities designed

Pre-car urban planning. Appeasing the car prevents this kind of building. Aarhus, Denmark.
Pre-car urban planning. Appeasing the car prevents this kind of building. Aarhus, Denmark.

to appease them. I could spend the rest of my life walking the classical city cores of London, Rome, Basel, Cologne and Paris and using trains to get to points in between. I think that a major goal for planners is re-engineer the automobile-centred suburbs. Not just because it’s good for the planet but because it’s good for people.

It’s profoundly undemocratic that only a few get to live the life of car-free ease with supermarkets, work and schools all within a ten minute stroll of the front door. I also feel that when the dull mass of commuter-traffic has died down we can get back to loving the car as rolling sculpture, as entertainment and as a form of recreation.

Above all, the car as servant is wonderful. For people whose lives have been made to depend on them, the car is a master: gobbling income, consuming space, taking time for maintenance and repair. We don’t need that.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

4 thoughts on “The Post-Car Age – Considerations”

  1. I agree with Richard entirely, yet I’m ashamed to admit that I have only been car-less for one year of my life since I passed my driving test 46 years ago – the first year I lived in London. My memory is of a very cold winter and interminable night-time waits for buses that turned up full of drunken people. I have since armed myself with an arsenal of alternatives (cars, motorcycles, cycles) in order to avoid using public transport though, in the odd quixotic desire to bond with my fellows, or on occasional return visits having dropped off one of the above-mentioned alternatives to be fixed, I have kept in fleeting contact with our city’s public transport system. Generally, it’s a lot better than it was in 1973, though rush hour on the tube is not really pleasant.

    Which, of course, makes me sound like a nasty snob – which I hope I’m not in reality. I actually like walking in London, and I’m very happy sitting in a park with my fellow humans. But something about public transport, in London at least, brings out the unpleasant side in both me and my fellows and it has become worse in many ways with people inhabiting their iBubbles of alternative reality, virtually unaware of what is actually happening around them. In fact, I would happily forego my cars and bikes for the theoretical future city that Richard hints at, where municipal machines glide to a stop at regular intervals, revealing rows of vacant seats and people stroll in leafy squares discussing higher things.

    Most politicians haven’t a clue about public transport. London’s last mayor, though preferable to my political leanings, was an idiot when it came to the bus system. The long bendy buses were totally unsuited to London, which must have been obvious to anyone except the non-driving Ken Livingstone and whichever of his advisory cronies were wined and dined by Mercedes in some sprawling grid city to sell the idea. Our current mayor gets my grudging approval for getting rid of the bendy buses, but decided to enter the world of vanity bus manufacturing with the contrived new Routemasters. These are already beginning to look irritatingly dated and are unlikely to be around in 2050.

    1. What do you think makes ‘bendy buses’ unsuited to London, when they work quite well in most other cities? To me it always appeared like a combination of misuse by London transport (i.e. putting them on the wrong routes and not adapting those to the new equipment), disingenuous reporting in a certain (highly biased) press, and British customary rejection of anything new/foreign.

    2. I think they’re best suited to post-war cityscapes but not a town whose main streets were laid out for horses and carts. I admit to feeling self-conscious writing ‘bendy-buses’. For a while it became a reactionary mantra to rank with ‘health and safety’ and ‘benefit scroungers’. In fact, I’d always admired bendy buses in Germany, but their deployment in London was not good. There are too many tight radius corners and roundabouts which made them moving roadblocks (which might conceivably have been Ken L’s intention to discourage motorists) and also a danger to cyclists (which I’m sure wasn’t). In the suburbs they could have been fine, but they seemed to predominate in the centre. Possibly driver training could have been better. Despite the Routemaster that jumped a red light back in the 70s and nearly sent me and my scrawny Citroen to oblivion, London Transport driver training used to be excellent. These days there are some very bad bus drivers around, some just passively so, unable to judge gaps, some actively so, angry, fast and self-righteous. Is there any centralised driver assessment and training, or is it just left up to each private company?

  2. When I lived in Ireland I hated public transport. It has changed a lot since the 80s: there are bus-timetables and electronic boards to tell you about ETAs. I also now understand bus routes which I didn´t when I was ten. If people hate PT then it´s more to do with the quality of the PT on offer than the principle of PT in question. The Swiss do a very good job of it and so do the Germans. I even use the bus quite a lot here in Aarhus (my bike was out of commission for three weeks – don´t ask) and it´s essentially really quite alright. That said, I do live in town and the actual city centre is just 12 five or six stops away. When I want to travel out of town to a suburban locale it gets a bit less enjoyable not impossible. I do really wonder about the whole point of spending two months´salary on a car I don´t really need. In a perfect world, they´d have carried on building as they did up to the 1900s and simple let drivers work out how much annoyance they were prepared to put up with and buy/not buy a car accordingly. What the planners did not expect was the the number of cars seemed to increase in line with the carrying capacity of the roads. I am sure that the decrease in population density of cities plus the increase in traffic means journey times are the same now as they were in 1920. That is, the amount of time spent on a given journey is much the same as before but you travel further because things are farther apart. No gain at all. I hate post-war suburbs and all that was built to please cars. It´s inhuman. We must be able to do better before we run out of land.

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