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International Socialism, Winter 1964/5


Constance Lever

Urban Crush


From International Socialism, No.19, Winter 1964/5, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Traffic in Towns
(The Buchanan Report)

HMSO, 50s.

The private car used to be proudly exhibited as the symbol of successful capitalism and of the prosperity and individual freedom it brought. Today this symbol has started already to devour us and itself. Today there are 10½ million vehicles on the roads and they are creating vast problems. Projections indicate a likely increase to 18 million by 1970, 27 million by 1980 and 40 million by 2010. The destructiveness is first of all human: the road accidents which account for nearly 1/3 of all accidental deaths; the time and frustration involved in the journey to work and generally in getting from place to place; the noise, the fumes, the barrier to pedestrians caused by moving cars and the ugly clutter of parked cars which are ruining the cities. But the costs are also economic and place a burden on the present system. The cost of accidents, in compensation and damage, was estimated at some £230 millions in 1961. Congestion probably cost more than this and it interferes with general economic efficiency. The Buchanan Report dramatically documents both the human and the economic aspects with probably greater emphasis on the former, and points out how impossible the situation will rapidly become.

The roots of the chaos lie deep in our present system. Modern capitalism seeks to rationalise and plan production (though still for the irrational profit-making motive), and such planning from above requires great concentration of power and easy access for each to others of the decision makers in the ‘corridors of power’; nor in a hierarchical system are they willing to see their subordinates removed too far from under their eyes. Thus increasingly the centres of cities are taken over by offices and housing is driven out. Above all the metropolis, centre of government, swells and swells at the expense of the rest of the country. The resident population of London falls by some 35,000 each year, but the number employed there rises by 15,000 each year.

There is concentration of power and so of jobs and there is scattering and atomisation of people, driven to the suburbs and much further to find homes, and this contradiction creates the twice daily tidal wave which is the largest factor in the traffic problem. Private cars (wasteful of road space and hard to direct) are trying to run along roads which must be publicly provided, to concentrated destinations at concentrated times (both of which are determined for the drivers by the social system).

The ill effects of these contradictions can only be overcome by a massive expenditure on roads. The Buchanan report faces clearly the size of the problem and indicates the scale and direction of possible remedies, broadly in terms of the removal of traffic from living areas and its concentration on a new and efficient system of urban motorways which will converge on two or three level centres. Yet when all this was done (assuming any government could give such priority to expenditure on roads) most people would still have to travel to work by public transport, because it is physically impossible to provide our present towns with a road network which could carry everyone who wished to travel by private car. Buchanan does not seriously consider the possibility of reconciling the contradictions which create the problem. Public transport is dismissed in a few paragraphs as an undesired though unfortunately necessary makeweight. No study is made of the costs or possibilities of making public transport efficient cheap and pleasant enough to replace the car in towns, largely if not entirely. On the other hand it is beyond his frame of reference to discuss the possible reorganisation of town structures, choosing the location of employment in terms of human needs. For this a reorganisation of the structure of power would probably also be necessary.

The Buchanan Report is a readable and realistic assessment of a problem which concerns everyone, and it also presents a number of ways in which we can start thinking about dealing with it. It is a pity that a sometimes superfluous proliferation of photographs and illustrations has raised the price to fifty shillings.

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