London’s transport problem could soon bring the capital to a halt

By George Monbiot. Published in the Evening Standard, some time in 1997

When Hammersmith Bridge is closed for a year’s repairs in ten days’ time, the chaos that governs west London will progress to calamity. Similar crises lie in wait all over the metropolis. Everywhere, traffic jams are getting longer and tempers shorter. London is coming closer and closer to gridlock.

There is now so much traffic in London, and the margins of error are so tight, that a single road closure or perturbation on the Underground can transform the streets of whole boroughs into furious, fuming, stagnant rivers of steel. Drivers have nowhere to go but through the ceiling, pedestrians choke on the modern equivalent of a pea-souper. By any measure, the capital is in crisis.

The source of its malaise is not hard to identify. For years now this chromium cuckoo, the private vehicle, has been allowed to push all other national interests out of the nest. Nothing – be it human health, peace of mind or the national economy – has been deemed too precious to sacrifice.

Every year, up to 10,000 people die prematurely in Britain as a result of vehicle pollution. According to a study by Lancaster University, as many as 15 million of us have had our health damaged by traffic fumes. Congestion, accidents and lost working time mean that cars now sting the taxpayer for £25 billion a year. Unable to play in the streets any more, our children are growing up alienated, dependent and socially stunted.

However much it is given, the cuckoo seems always to want more. An area twice the size of Birmingham is now dedicated to car parking in Britain; even so, the pavements and public spaces reserved for humans are being swallowed up. As the government has drained the Exchequer in a desperate attempt to accomodate it, all other means of moving around have been starved of resources. Whenever you get stuck on the tube or have to wait an epoch for a train, you are suffering from the rapacity of the private vehicle.

The worst, however, is yet to come. The Department of Transport calmly predicts that traffic volumes will increase by between 27 and 44 per cent within the next 14 years. Anyone in Cuckooland who has managed to preserve his sanity can surely see that we cannot go on like this. Unless something pretty drastic is done soon, the quality of life in London and elsewhere will drop so precipitously as to become intolerable.

There is no reason on earth why London need suffer like this. In Holland, Germany, even Brazil, cities have chosen to tackle the source of the problem, rather than just the symptoms. They have accepted that if the disease is too much traffic, then the cure is less traffic, not more space for traffic to expand into. It would not be difficult for London to do the same. A report launched today by the London Transport Activists Roundtable (London TAR) shows how a few straightforward measures, like green commuter plans, safe routes to school and home deliveries by shops, could reduce London’s traffic by a third within ten years.

This is surely what everyone in Britain now wants – everyone, that is, apart from the leadership of the main political parties. Under pressure from both the public and the Treasury, the government has finally accepted that building roads generates more traffic. But as far as positive measures are concerned, it is still stuck in an intellectual traffic jam. Its new strategies for cycling and air pollution, while welcome, fall a million congested miles short of the solutions our cities so desperately need.

As for Labour, one can’t help wondering who Tony Blair has been talking to, when he complains that he doesn’t know what to do about traffic growth. Even if he has managed to avoid all contact with environmentalists, you’d have thought he might have bumped into his own frontbenchers, a few of whom have been saying progressive things about the problem since before the last election.

It’s time, in other words, to start knocking some heads together. There has never been a better opportunity. On Friday, the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, devised by The Green Party, Friends of the Earth, and Plaid Cymru, gets its second reading in the Commons. It proposes a five per cent traffic reduction by 2005 and a ten per cent reduction by 2010. So far 220 MPs from all parties have signed up to it. A vivid display of public feeling could easily turn this into a majority.

The bill leaves the government to decide how the targets should be met, but there’s not much doubt about what needs to be done. Studying London TAR’s proposals would be a good start. Reducing the burden of lorry traffic by moving freight back onto the railways is essential. We must make life harder for the private car, with more road space dedicated to buses, bicycles and pedestrians. Charging a higher uniform business rate for parking than for office space would discourage the use of company cars. Rather than building ever more superstores, multiplexes and millenium domes – which encourage car use – we need to create a healthier environment for local businesses.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s surely time to force MPs out of cloud cuckooland and into the real world. Chauffered around in limousines at the taxpayers’ expense, with policemen to part the crowds at Westminster before ushering them into special parking spaces, front benchers are possibly the only people in Britain who don’t realise just how urgent London’s crisis has become.

We can’t, in other words, afford to wait for our representatives to wake up. It’s up to us to demonstrate the will, and demand that they provide the way. On Wednesday, the brow-beaten people of London have a chance to show MPs what they think, with a mass lobby of Parliament in support of the bill. It’s time we got together to push the all-consuming cuckoo out of our nest.

A rally in favour of the bill starts at Central Hall, Storey’s Gate at 12.30pm, Wednesday 22nd. The mass lobby of Parliament starts at 2.45pm.