A longer read for the lockdown – Winning the battle for our roads

This is the first in a series of articles exploring how we can improve the places we live and work

Entire neighbourhoods in Maartje van Putten’s city were being demolished to make space for the motor car, and still it demanded more. Bicycle use was falling year-on-year. Worst of all, road deaths were soaring.

The place was Amsterdam, the year was 1971. 400 children had died on the roads in the Netherlands that year – an agonisingly high toll. It could have continued, as it did in most other countries. Instead, Maartje and thousands of other Amsterdammers – including many mothers worried about what the future held for their children – decided to take a stand.

Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the child murder) was a grass-roots movement and Maartje van Putten was its first president. They marched, they blocked roads, they even got arrested. Many motorists were outraged: how dare these people take away their right to drive wherever they want at any time. But campaigners persevered. They sat down with politicians, they talked, and in time the politicians listened.

In the 1980s some Dutch cities experimented with cycle paths, helping stem the decline in cycle use. Then Delft introduced a proper cycle network and saw cycling increase. Others followed their lead, and a new direction of travel was set.

The 1970s presented an opportunity for change: the oil crisis hit and protest was in the air. That wasn’t enough though. It still required a concerted and widespread campaign over several years.

2021 finds us in another period of change. The Coronavirus crisis has forced us to re-examine how – and why – our society works the way it does. While many people want everything to return to the way it was, others seek to build something new.

This series of articles looks at our relationship with the built environment: transport, building, green spaces and planning. Where we are now, and where we need to be. The first article tackles the thorny issue that drove Maartje van Putten and thousands of others to take to the streets in the 1970s: our relationship with the motor car.

How we travel has been the topic of heated debate in recent months. Drivers and cyclists have engaged in pitched online battles over who gets roadspace. The government is consulting on whether to ban pavement parking across the country. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and Ultra-Low Emission Zones have sparked debate and even criminal behaviour, and temporary Covid-19 measures to give more space for social distancing have faced criticism.

For over half a century the motor car has been our abusive partner: always taking, always wanting more, always demanding everything be done on its terms. We’ve been in this relationship for so long, we see it as normal. We don’t even realise there’s an alternative. We can never quite bring ourselves to leave.

Promoting active travel and public transport is a public good with a whole range of benefits from safety to health and speed to wealth. We all stand to gain if we make bikes, buses, trams and trains better options than cars, and people choose them for more journeys.

Doing nothing should no longer be a serious option. We are in the midst of a climate emergency. Five people die in collisions on the road every day, with many more dying or becoming ill from air pollution and lack of exercise. We could tarmac over every inch of urban green space, build enough flyovers and underpasses to make a ’70s town planner blush, and give our towns and cities entirely over to the motor car and we would still be sitting in traffic jams.

Banning cars is not realistic either. Motor vehicles will remain a major form of transport for decades to come. The flexibility and adaptability of cars is hard to beat for many journeys. Even the Netherlands still has more journeys by car than by bike. Cycle-friendly, flat and compact Holland hasn’t managed to banish the car after 50 years of investment in alternatives – what chance do we have?

But we can do more. We can cut pollution, improve health and move everyone around efficiently.

We can reclaim our roads for people, putting vulnerable road users first and allowing cars onto residential streets only as guests, not gods. We achieve this by designing residential and minor roads to slow down vehicles: narrower carriageways, tighter radii at junctions, visual cues for drivers to reduce speeding, 20mph limits and physical traffic calming where needed. We can create school streets and play streets where pedestrians and cyclists have clear priority, or cars are banned altogether.

We can give bike and scooter users safe, direct, end-to-end routes with secure parking and high quality changing facilities. Some of the road space currently dedicated to cars, vans and lorries can be reallocated for cyclists and mobility scooters.

We can discourage car drivers from rat-running or driving into busy town and city centres when good alternatives are available. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and modal filters help prevent rat-running. Where there is good access into a town or city centre by public transport, we should be looking to reduce car parking and increase pedestrianisation.

We can design our communities so most places we want to visit – like schools, shops and offices – are no more than an easy 15-minute walk or bike ride away.

We can reduce the hefty taxpayer subsidy given to every car driver, shifting gradually towards a situation where car drivers receive similar subsidies to other transport users. Because so much of the cost of running a car is up-front (purchase, insurance, repairs, servicing), it makes sense to use your car as much as you can when you’ve got it. That needs to change, so more people have access to a car for occasional trips but don’t feel the need to use it every day.

None of this stops people using a car where it remains the best option. That will be the case for many longer journeys, areas not well-served by public transport, people needing to carry larger loads, those with limited mobility, trips needing to be made at unusual times and a variety of other situations. Indeed, getting just a fraction of people out of their big metal boxes and into more efficient forms of transport will free up road space for those who do still need to use a car.

If the result is a happier, healthier, smarter and wealthier society, would that really be so bad?

What can you do?

These articles aim to deliver change, so in each one I will suggest practical action that local campaigners and councillors can take. To start rebalancing our relationship with the motor car in your area, look for one place that would really benefit from a school street, play street, low traffic neighbourhood or modal filter and campaign for it. Pitch it as a trial if there aren’t already other local examples.

The image above is by the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, shared under Wikimedia and Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication – Batjanschool te Amsterdam krijgt klimrek zeilschip spandoek Stop de kindermo, Bestanddeelnr

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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14 Comments

  • Jenny Barnes 5th Jan '21 - 11:43am

    Apart from anything else, there’s the assumed human right to store one’s metal box on the public highway for free. If you rented someone’s drive round my way it would cost £1500 a year – quite the subsidy.

  • neil sandison 5th Jan '21 - 3:13pm

    Good article I think it makes an assumption the cycles and disability scooters have to share the same road space but with good planning and development these can also be provided in existing or planned open spaces. Sustran have with county councils done a lot of work on this . but you have to be prepared to face down developer grumbles and think strategically about your town centres and produce viable networks to employment , school , public building networks . in these cash strapped times councils will not invest unless they can see reasonable levels of use emerging from your proposals .

  • Paul Barker 5th Jan '21 - 4:37pm

    One thing thats easy to do is begin closing sidestreets at one end. Motorists would still be able to drive from their home to the main roads but would not be able to use short cuts. Its easy & cheap to do, all you need is some concrete blocks. Councils could start by asking Locals if they want their street included, that would begin the conversation.
    Eventually the only through roads for Vehicles would br Bus Routes.

  • James Fowler 5th Jan '21 - 5:43pm

    I liked this article, thank you for posting it. I’m going to offer a few thoughts though about some common assumptions (made here as well) about roads and car ownership.

    1. Why are full roads seen as a failure meaning that no more should be built? Note that if stations or ports are full this is seen as a success and the justification for constructing more capacity.

    2. The road network is the (unacknowledged) political twin of the NHS. Both are free at point of access, disparaged yet also hugely popular, and politicians meddle with them if they dare.

    3. There is a saturation point for car ownership – which we may have already reached. After all, you can own as many cars as you wish but you can only drive one of them at any one time. The roads = more cars argument had its best years in the 1960s-80s when there was genuinely unmet demand. If you check out the stats at the DoT, car ownership has essentially tracked population since the millennium.

  • Paul Holmes 5th Jan '21 - 11:11pm

    I am interested in the comments about tax payer subsidy to vehicle owners etc.

    Vehicle users pay £40Billion a year (5% of total Govt income) in fuel and road tax and the Government spends around £10Billion a year on road building and maintenance.

  • Iain Roberts 6th Jan '21 - 8:39am

    Hi Paul – that’s a good point. The answer is that there are many other costs associated with driving which we often ignore. Emissions (pollution) cause damage to buildings and the environment and incure huge costs to the NHS. Collisions have a cost to the NHS. Congestion has a cost to the economy in lost productivity. We’ve got used to quietly ignoring those costs, but they need to be included.

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Jan '21 - 9:33am

    https://ipayroadtax.com/no-such-thing-as-road-tax/when-will-drivers-start-paying-the-full-costs-of-motoring/

    This site calculates car externalities at £58Bn, tax etc at £48Bn: a collective subsidy to car drivers of £10Bn.
    There are 40M cars in the UK, if half are parked on the public highway that’s £3Bn at £1,500 a space.
    And for we pedants, it’s not road tax, it’s Vehicle Excise Duty- a tax on CO2 emissions. Nothing to do with roads.

  • Have we any solutions to the difficulty for people who live in terraced houses with no driveway that provides charging points for electric vehicles?

    Would it be possible to retro-fit charging points to lamp posts in these areas?

    We need to encourage people to use electric cars so we can reduce pollution in our towns and cities, but charging can be particularly awkward for people with no driveway.

  • Antony Watts 6th Jan '21 - 9:44am

    There is another aspect: pollution. Cars today are our worst polluters emitting tons of CO2 and Nitrous oxides. The design of cars is also always towards bigger and faster, fatter and longer.

    So, we need a trend to smaller cars, slower cars, electric cars.

    Especially electric. Today 54% of new car sales in Norway are electric, and they have Europe’s best charging infrastructure, by far. UK sales are just 7% and we have a terrible charging structure – read nothing at all. Our approach is not “planning” but “market driven” which has lead to a scattering of over 50 companies exploiting the electric car owner with tawdry schemes to charge your car – membership, deposits, special RFID cards. Our government BEIS needs to get a handle on this and create a public pan-UK charging infrastructure, by 2030 there will be 10m BEVs on our roads, these will need 10m home charge points PLUS 1m on the road charge points for journeys over 200miles (there and back, or 100m away).

    This is the major reason, range anxiety, we do not have a booming BEV market, it is not the availability of batteries or car prices as you would be told by most of the automotive and popular press.

  • Richard Underhill. 6th Jan '21 - 10:02am

    Paul Barker 5th Jan ’21 – 4:37pm
    We have experience of doing this. The County Council employed a firm of consultants, who measured the volume of traffic turning into a rat run from a B road and suggested closing one end of the road. Shortly afterwards a meeting was called of several sheepish county councillors and the MP, all Tories, who blamed the consultants, reversed the proposal and did not try again.
    More positively we noticed that a petition with 1000 signatures causes a debate at the council, although the Tory Mayor managed to time the debate to avoid a politically inconvenient time. After she had done that I wrote to her to complain and she denied in writing that she had the power to do that. Many roads have been narrowed by a lack of off-street parking. Since then there has been an increase in electric cars. the owners of which need to run cables from their homes to their vehicles, creating trip-wires for pedestrians and mobility scooters. Some houses built with gardens at the front are being covered with hard materials such as tarmac or concrete, which might be considered for planning permission unless gravel is used to help rainwater run off.
    I confess that we have done that with gravel after buying the house. The rainwater does
    not reach higher than the damp-proof course on the house, we do not have much through traffic, and do like to drive a car up to our own front door, while cursing the developers of previous owners. The purchase of petrol and/or diesel cars will be legal for about another ten years. so, no hurry and electric cars will gradually get cheaper as mass production in giga-factories are built following the meeting in Glasgow of which the current PM is hopeful despite the fall in his popularity at present which could cost him his seat in a general election.

  • Paul Holmes 6th Jan '21 - 12:03pm

    @Iain Roberts. So using the figure of £40B paid in Road Tax and Fuel Tax and £10B spent on building and maintaining roads that leaves £30B towards the total £122B cost of the NHS. Probably more than covers the entire respiratory illness costs of the NHS – if all we are measuring is finance? Although of course we should not just be measuring finacial costs and benefits.

    If we extend costings into wider areas such as those Jenny Barnes refers to (physical inactivity for example) we would also need to look at other factors too. Iain notes that congestion delays causes business costs in lost time. But equally if we removed cars, vans and lorries altogether, then business and indeed society would collapse overnight.

    Apart from the movement of goods many people could simply not get to work if they had to rely on public transport-which outside major cities does not provide a viable service. Even where it is available it has to attract users. For example one study towards the end of the November Lockdown indicated that car journeys were already almost back at pre Lockdown levels because users were unwilling to sit in congested buses/trams/trains and risk catching Covid. Far from everyone becoming lithe, lycra clad cyclists many factors, including age, illness, infirmity, carrying heavy loads, moving children around, weather, hills and distance; all mean that the car remains attractive to many. As Iain notes, even in the flat compact cyclist heaven of the Netherlands most journeys are still made by car.

    Those of us who campaign for environmental improvements have to recognise that, in a democracy, we have to carry the public with us. Using partial costings and berating car drivers whilst telling them to use often inadequate and sometimes non existent public transport will only achieve a negative response. To be fair to Ian he does carefully point that out in his article.

  • Paul Holmes 6th Jan '21 - 12:40pm

    So what can we do whilst recognising that cars cannot be removed overnight -or indeed ever? The replacement of petrol/diesel vehicles with electric (and maybe Hydrogen) over the next 10-15 years will of course eliminate most of the air pollution issues but not the congestion ones. To speed this up the Government must take major action to rollout numerous easily accessible charging points but local Councils can be ‘trend setters’ via Council owned car parks and planning requirements.

    Iain points out good local examples that can be achieved on 20mph zones and so on. In my area we are campaigning hard on all sorts of local environmental issues and when we ran the Council implemented many measures. But many do quickly run up against national rules, policies or lack of them.

    For example some 25 years ago I remember a US IT firm that located to our area and wanted to expand its premises including staff parking. No was the answer because they wanted more new parking places than ‘green’ requirements allowed in order to encourage bus usage. But at night and in the early morning when various shifts started and finished there simply were no buses running.

    So what are our national policies on subsidising public transport (in the way that was abolished outside of London by Thatcher after the 1983 GE)? What are our national policies on creating a national network of Charging Points? What are our national policies on legislating against plastic packaging? What are our policies on the cost of replacing domestic gas boilers with more expensive green alternatives?

  • Peter Hirst 6th Jan '21 - 12:48pm

    This is where personal behaviour comes in at least for those of us who own a car. Government can make driving more expensive though fairness bites if taken too far. When a car gets a MOT the mileage is recorded and perhaps some adjustment to vehicle duty could reflect the year’s increase. Mostly however it is educating and improving public transport along with reducing the need to travel. There is the whole issue of moving homes and the costs and social upheaval involved. We could campaign for cheaper rents.

  • Matt Wardman 7th Jan '21 - 6:43am

    @Les Bonner

    People with terraced houses seem able to cope perfectly well without a personal petrol station at their house, so I don’t think universal charge points are necessary.

    I think the suggestion is an artefact of infrastructure not being quite there yet in convenience – but it will be in a very few years.

    The answer to people running out of charge at home will be similar to petrol – the RAC and AA with a mobile charging pack in their vans, or people having a small battery pack (weight for weight we are already quite close) like an emergency can of petrol, which will get them to their local charging station.

    The number of people without off road parking is something like a third aiui.

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