The Valley of Pitch

July 14, 2013 at 6:13 am | Posted in Books, Traffic management | Leave a comment
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‘I’m hoping that the Greeks will discover a long-lost patent on the isosceles triangle. They could then threaten to bankrupt all northern economies by collecting unpaid royalties, and then forgive our debt providing we abolish corporations.’
Rob Newman in The New Internationalist, May 2013, p. 38.

Rob Newman is an English comedian. He has written a novel called The Trade Secret. He came across the true story of some Elizabethans who discovered oil, coffee and messenger pigeons in Persia. They left an account of what they saw, including an oil well in Fallujah called The Valley of Pitch.

Sounds like what Canberra is turning into. Ha! The Valley of Pitch – sounds Hellish. There must be a certain number of cars in a town which, when that number is reached, turns the town from a pleasant, large country town full of birds and trees and clean, sweet air into a filthy black valley of pitch – a seething, dirty, polluted city like any other, full of grid-locked traffic, road rage and crammed concrete multi-storey car parks.

Am I exaggerating?

Not by much, not compared with what it used to be like. There’s an overriding assumption in our society that more and more traffic simply has to be accommodated somehow. Two books I’ve read recently dispute that. The authors are not the enemies of cars; of course we can’t go back to horses and carriages and nor would we want to – they just believe that we can regain our civilised towns and cities, making them creative and happy places to live and work in. A large part of the Australian David Engwicht’s work is devoted to helping communities rediscover their lively, humane, friendly communities by making their streets safer. His book is called Street Reclaiming: Creating livable streets and vibrant communities. Pluto Press, 1999.

I’ve mentioned before Lynn Sloman’s Car Sick: Solutions for our car-addicted culture. Green Books, 2006. She outlines ways in which cities can become less car dependent. By the way, she lives in a Welsh village – without a car. She gives examples of successes in lots of countries and even in some places in Australia!

She argues for a move away from a car-centred society to a people-centred society. There is an alternative to the mass motorisation that has made us obese, destroyed local shops and ruptured community ties. If people think about their choices instead of reaching for their car keys all this can be changed. She shows how de-motorisation works: instead of traffic we can have safe streets and vibrant city centres.

She gives the evidence that many surveys have proved that the vast majority of car trips are under five miles. Half are under two miles. There is a startling chart that shows the statistics for “soft” solutions to driving less compared with essential trips, and it works out to 40 % of car trips that there is a green alternative readily available (so would cost no money, no changes in infrastructure etc), 40 % of car trips which could be made with green modes of transport (which would require a bit of govt money – but of course a small bit cf building more roads) and only 20 % of trips are stubbornly resistant to any change – for which cars are in fact essential.

Engwicht has an intriguing parallel with rubbish recycling. There is no time to go into this here but the parallels are amazing – how we changed our behaviour and community expectations about recycling rubbish in quite a short time, and getting people to use their cars less is a process just like that. Both authors quote tons of places in the world where people started cycling more, demanding better public transport and walking more plus doing a range of things to make their streets safer for children and older people etc.

And it sounds really wonderful. And there are places in the world where I’d like to move immediately so I could cycle with no danger and no hostility from motorists in huge four-wheel drives who bitterly resent my trying to cross their road.

The authors say that we made people change their minds about smoking and drink driving in quite a short time. And we can get people to change their minds about only driving their cars when it is really necessary. It sounds hopeful.

Except that in my country it’s different. Australians feel about their inalienable right to drive their car whenever and wherever they want to (and for many as fast as they want to) just about as strongly as most Americans feel about their right to own guns.

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