Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Drive to Work Day 2012

Today was London's first Drive To Work Day, what the organisers called an opportunity to "enjoy the freedom of London streets empty of pesky cyclers and walkers." The results were fairly predictable, although not too different from what anyone who travels frequently in central London might expect. Lots of cars moving very slowly. Even without cyclists leaving their bikes at home and public transporters leaving Oyster cards in wallets, hundreds of thousands of motorists were out in force to prove the satirical point.
By chance Drive to Work Day was also the release of the UK Census data, where amongst many car and public transport gems was the fact that 42% of Londoners now survive happily with neither a car nor van. This fact is struggling to filter upwards, under Mayor Boris Johnson the price of bus travel has risen faster than the congestion charge, a bizarre decision to incentivise personal car use over public transport. At central government level, the freeze in fuel duty is evidence of similar priorities.
Closer to the ground, business and local government seem to be better attuned to a changing world. The Borough of Camden have just announced a trialled closure to through traffic on streets that serve Covent Garden, with the aim to improve conditions for residents, retailers and shoppers. Private sector interests are hoping to remove the metal "bus wall" that dominates Oxford Street, Britain's main shopping destination. The notion of Peak Oil has quietly been joined by the arrival of Peak Car, and developed nations are showing a definite trend of cars left at home. It was long ago that General Motors started making more money from financing arrangements than selling cars outright, and this year they turned to MTV's owners, Viacom, in the hope of making cars cool for a generation who hasn't grown up under their parents' infatuation with the motorcar. Smartphones, 3D films, and Nintendo Wii have made the combustion engine appear more than a little dated.
Of course there are also the human costs associated with car culture, London last week saw the death of its fourteenth person on a bicycle, and pedestrian deaths went up by 33 per cent in 2011. These statistics seem to have done little to alarm either Transport for London, the Mayor's Office, or the public at large, which presents the uncomfortable truth that tragedy is calculated as value of human life versus the extent to which motor traffic has been normalised in our collective conscience. Over in the US, Chicago has started to figure this out and take action, they recently adopted the Scandinavian approach of making zero fatalities the central principle in transport planning. Any other walk of life and this might be a bit of a no-brainer, somehow the dehumanised world of urban transport - where people are defined not as people but by their mode of transport (cyclists, pedestrians, drivers) - has developed not only an aversion to common sense, but also a pretty strong immunity to the emotions of death.

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