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Motorway culture and its discontents

Ian Christie
22 May 2002

The hyper-motorway is coming. Just as Ken Worpole inaugurated openDemocracy's transport debate on the virtues of walking and the vices of what John Adams calls hypermobility, officials at the unwieldy Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DLTR), in London, were hinting that a new wave of monster motorway projects is on its way. The extension of major roads such as the London circular motorway, the M25, to perhaps fourteen lanes is on the cards. The combative dialogue over cars between Martin Pawley and Joel Crawford is, it seems, being resolved in the most emphatic fashion.

We in Britain can thus look forward to the creation of hyper-highways on the American model around our big cities; accompanied by huge expenditure on shielding the contractors from public protests; and by the development of vast service stations to meet the needs of the car and lorry drivers who will, before long, be able to experience fourteen-lane congestion rather than the three- or four-lane variety currently on offer.

A new gigantism in transport and planning?

This development is of a piece with the decision to build a fifth passenger terminal at Heathrow airport and with the government’s recently announced plans to scrap much of the land use planning system to make it easier and quicker to begin vast infrastructure projects and put up factories and warehouses. A new taste for gigantic infrastructure is detectable, and for a relaxation in planning systems that will place environmental concerns well below those of alleged economic benefit. Hard-won advances by environmentalists in the assessment of big projects seem to be at risk.

Apparently the attempts by the New Labour government in its first term of office (1997-2001) to devise policies to reduce the number of car journeys, and to encourage more journeys by foot, bicycle or public transport are now at an end. The remorseless growth in road mileage, the rise in car ownership and the decay of the country’s shambolic public transport sector have combined to make it politically impossible for Tony Blair and his ministers to champion a break with our collective addiction to the car.

But did they ever really want to? Obsessed with an idea of ‘modernity’ that is based on the admiration felt by Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown for American enterprise, expansiveness and productivity, New Labour was never whole-heartedly behind its own 1998 Transport White Paper, which looked forward to a sustainable transport strategy that challenged the primacy of the car culture and promoted public transport, cycling and walking.

The crisis of mobility in congested Britain has not led to a great national debate on alternatives to car-borne hypermobility. To argue for a re-think of the assumptions that more mobility and mileage must be a sign of progress is still to place oneself on the eccentric fringe of transport debate. For all the lip service paid by ministers to ‘sustainable’ or ‘integrated’ transport policy, the reality is that decision-making is rooted in a culture that equates progress and dynamism with roads, speed and car ownership. Above all, policy makers at national and local level remain in thrall to the idea of the Motorway.

Motorway culture resurgent

The UK has made a huge economic and cultural investment in its motorway network. The M1, Britain’s first such highway, was opened in 1959 and hailed as a symbol of progress and modernity. This came at a time when the railway network was in dire need of investment to make it modern and reliable, and when the future of urban transport was being decided. By the early 1960s the decision had been made to wipe out large parts of the railway network on the grounds that they were uneconomic, and the tram systems of cities and big towns had been eliminated in favour of the car.

In France, Germany and the Netherlands the motorway building boom was not accompanied by an eclipse of rail and tram systems. But here the choice was made to follow the American way, despite the obvious lack of American space for great highways and cities dominated by freeways.

The lack of alternatives to the car in the UK, and the spatial sprawl that accompanies car culture, have fuelled demand for motorway transport. It has become addictive – a drug that few positively enjoy but cannot reject. The decision to feed this habit by widening the clogged arteries of the M25 and other motorways is a sign that policy makers too are addicted.

The environmental impacts of motorways are clear enough. Countryside is lost, pollution is produced, drivers and animals are killed, carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, and buildings of stunning ugliness are put up to house the motorway services. Most of all, motorways dominate landscape in a way that lesser roads do not. They carve up whole hillsides, punch holes through ancient downs. All this is bad enough, but the cultural and psychological consequences are perhaps even worse, the more so for being insidious and scarcely capable of being raised in policy debate.

The cultural consequences of motorways

Motorways are quintessential products of the strand of modernity that celebrates and promotes the domination of nature by humanity, the domination of local cultures by national ones, and the centrality of speed and mobility to industrial progress. Huge road-building projects such as the Autobahnen of pre-war Germany, the freeways of the USA and the vast urban road systems of the developing world’s mega-cities all reflect a brutal confidence in this vision of what modern life should be about.

As such, they all belong to a phase of modernity that is unsustainable and ominously bound up with preparations for war, with the overweening security states of the 1930s-50s, and with dictatorial views on what constitutes progress in the developing world. As Iain Sinclair has noted after his heroic walk around the M25, motorway systems seem closely allied to military and security purposes. They are symbols of the top-down imposition of conformist order: at worst, the order of dictatorships, at best that of national and international brands, distribution networks and homogenised products.

The motorway network has played a vital role in the erosion of local distinctiveness in the UK – of foods, dialects, architecture and culture. Like broadcasting, brands and centralising governments, it has helped create a largely affluent society but also a much less varied one. Predictability has spread like a virus through its system. Perhaps worse still, motorways erode our sense of the landscapes in which we live, and of the physical relationships between places.

The motorway system takes us from place to place via a kind of limbo: it suppresses awareness of what lies either side of the tarmac ribbon along which we are moving. Compare the experience of walking on the Ridgeway to that of driving on the M4 that runs parallel to it.

As Adam Nicolson notes in his admirable National Trust Book of Long Walks, to walk a long-distance path like the Berkshire Ridgeway is to become aware of how much you do not know about the land on either side, and to be drawn to contemplate your distant surroundings as well as become intimately acquainted with the ever-changing nature of the track and its margins.

By contrast, driving down the M4 is a process in which you cannot afford to notice the landscape, and the journey is punctuated by stops in service areas which are to all intents and purposes the same place. (An eerie feeling, made yet more queasy by the invariably dire quality of the uniform fast food on sale.)

The more we use motorways, the less we know, and need to care, about the actual topography of the country. It is an experience closer to navigating a ‘virtual’ space such as the Internet than to the slow and unavoidably physical process of walking or cycling through a landscape.

In this sense the motorway erodes the sense of place, bringing us to a uniform space that has all the distinctiveness of an Underground tunnel or the airway travelled by a jet plane. Like the experience of airliner flight, the motorway shrinks the world at the price of confinement in a tube of time and space that is essentially always the same. It gives us a premonition of the world that current globalisation might eventually create – one in which, no matter where you happen to go, you’ve never really left. A world already experienced by the new global cosmopolitan elites of supra-national agencies and corporations – a space made up of uniform hotels, conference centres, headquarters, condominiums, gated estates and terminals linked by airlines and motorways, whose physical hinterlands no-one gets to know.

The lonely crowd

Finally, motorways have been a great force for estrangement – they have helped make ours a society in which families and friends and colleagues are dispersed and atomised. The one compensation might be the speed with which they can take us to meet remote loved ones. But even this is denied us as the hyper-mobile society becomes hyper-congested. An emblematic figure of the age is the wound-up driver in the motorway jam, unrefreshed by a night in a service station motel, mobile phone clamped to his ear as he reports on non-progress to his distant family.

In our hearts, we know all this as we speed or sit stranded on the motorways. It is notable that our motorway addiction has produced few works of art that praise these huge systems of hypermobility. Only the great experimental writer JG Ballard stands out as a poet of the motorways, and then as a distinctly ambivalent one. Ballard sees a strange and disquieting beauty in the Westway flyover in west London, and in the huge motorway loops and slip-road systems around Heathrow airport. He set a whole novel, Concrete Island on a motorway junction, and has expressed regret that the UK has been half-hearted in building vast urban motorways, reshaping our cities in an heroic modernist mould.

But Ballard has also diagnosed a sickness at the heart of motorway culture – a “death of affect” that connects motorways to the deep confusion and loss of soul in a culture whose technologies are out of control. The extreme alienation of his characters in Crash – probably the only pornographic novel in which car interiors and motorways are even more important than the relentless sex – is the possible fate of hypermobile culture.

Are we ready yet to revolt against hypermobility and its discontents? The attempt to build a fourteen-lane M25 is perhaps the decisive test case. If Swampy and his anti-road guerrillas cannot raise an army of supporters against it, we may be on the way to a future of the kind described by John Adams – and one that JG Ballard has already warned us about. Is that what we really, really want?

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