“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: (1) It’s completely impossible. (2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. (3) I said it was a good idea all along.” Arthur C. Clarke
Yesterday evening a group of us met up with Climate Rush in a London square. After a couple of brief rousing speeches we cycled to one of London’s busiest and most polluted junctions and reclaimed it from the cars. Lying on the floor with the pressure of four lanes of motorized traffic baring down, irate drivers pumping their horns and police taking our photos and removing our bikes it did occur to me that we might be mad. Then I realized that either we’re mad, or everyone else is. Here’s why I think the band of rebels lying on the floor are the sane ones.
The car is a magnificent invention; give it an open road and it can get you from A to B quickly, easily and in style. However, the car spectacularly fails in its stated aim of increased mobility, when it is one of many thousands, in an enclosed urban setting. We all know, too well, what cars in cities do, because we have no way of avoiding them. They sit in long, noisy queues belching out toxins. Today traffic in London moves no faster than in the age of the horse and cart. The only difference is that then we got manure whereas today we get climate change, increased rates of asthma and illness and 4000 untimely deaths.
The harm caused by this deranged use of city space goes far beyond pollution. It is a massive missed opportunity reducing the well being of all city dwellers. The cars which are switched on, engines running, pollution smoking out the back with their negligible human cargo are actually dwarfed in number by the cars that are not polluting or carrying human cargo but are just sitting in between buildings. Cars in London are used on average for 4 hours a week. For the rest of the time they just take up space. Cars in use and cars parked, together take up the vast majority of London’s road space despite only being used in 41% of Journeys .
Is it really sane to fill our densely populated urban space with vast numbers of largely empty machines which contribute nothing to the well being of the metropolitan population? Once we have ring fenced key arteries into the city, along which essential freight can come in, why don’t we re-imagine what we do with the other roads? Most people in London cannot afford to run a car but all of us must suffer their negative consequences. Could we not, through a democratic process, agree better uses for the shared space between buildings?
It is highly likely we will want cycle lanes and paths for walking, but perhaps these could be tree lined or pass through orchards? Inner city kids are driven nuts with nowhere to play or let off steam. Let’s have sports pitches, basket ball courts, action zones and playgrounds. Let’s stop hauling all the food we eat into town from miles away. We can convert southern facing roads to urban farms with communal composting areas. All of these changes will boost residents well being and make the city a better place in which to live.
To the furious commuters blasting their horns we were a bunch of whack jobs hell bent on ruining their otherwise delightful, slow crawl through town. For those of us lying on our backs praying to survive the day there was something else going on. We successfully managed to take and hold one of London’s busiest junctions long enough for the story to get into the media. In doing so, maybe we can spread the idea that the space we have in cities is vital for our wellbeing and that filling it with cars is bonkers. When everyone is doing something one way you are considered mad to suggest another way; but pretty soon it will seem obvious that our cities should be car free. Until such time we will continue to lie down in the road and stop the traffic. It is the right thing to do.