Online Archive  
Issue 4 - April 1972
Travel On Tyneside
How often, when stuck fast in a traffic jam, have you been beguiled by advertisements tempting you to 'hop on a bus', 'let the train take the strain', or be 'car free, care free'? For most people the reaction is probably to swear silently behind closed windows, in the lonely isolation of their expensive metal boxes, at the suggestion that they have chosen the wrong form of transport. Meanwhile in the stationary bus, passengers enjoy a break from the lurching and pitching, and stare out from the smoky overheated interior, through filthy windows at the line of cars impeding their progress. The only people to move are the pedestrians, quietly choking on the fumes from idling engines.

The scene is so familiar that we rarely stop to think how wasteful it all is, or that the situation is getting progressively worse. Will the future bring only complete stagnation as cars, buses and people are locked in mutual paralysis? It would be conventional to suppose that society will let the balance of forces bring about a suitable change before this final collapse. More likely would be the idea that planning should modify our behaviour by persuasively adjusting the system, a little at a time in response to the immediate problems. A third alternative? Complete coercion; outlawing the car, rediscovering bicycles, feet and public transport.

Tyneside faces the same problems as London, Tokyo and New York City, but with major advantages that it seems intent on squandering. We have less cars, we are smaller and less centralised. More than two thirds of all journeys are made on public transport. We have a major bypass through the Tyne Tunnel. Despite all this, we have not learnt the basic message of all urban planning: cars and cities don't mix.

In consequence, the city is being torn apart to cater for the private car. Motorways are scything through the centre and the suburbs, dividing coherent social units into isolated blocks. Before they are finished they will be overcrowded - so the net improvement will be nil.

Newcastle has just speeded up its smoke control programme to give us clean air in five years. Relatively clean air, that is, as all the extra cars we are encouraging will give us our own version of Los Angeles smog. Ald Thompson tells us it cannot happen over here, but he is wrong; it already has. See 'Nature', February 18th, for the report of photochemical smog in the Berkshire countryside last summer.

At a recent meeting of Tyneside Environmental Concern, Dr T M Ridley, Director-General of the Passenger Transport Executive, outlined the future for Tyneside's public transport, but complained of unfair competition from the cars. The more cars, the worse the bus service, the more passengers leave to use cars; which slows the buses, which ...

So who made the decision to pander to the private car? Not me, said Dr Ridley; the expert excuses himself by hiding behind his terms of reference. Irresponsible, said Counc Jon Davies, who excused the politicians, by saying they cannot be expected to understand the whole problem.

To get off the merry-go-round, and back to sanity, we need greater restrictions on cars - and not just through parking charges; they don't work well enough. There are many methods of accomplishing this, but it is more important to emphasise the necessary changes in public transport. Speed and reliability can be improved by bus priority lanes and roads. Suburban bus terminals with purpose-built free car parks and encourage people to Park'n'Ride. And the buses should be redesigned to assist shoppers.

The city is ringed by small bus stations. These should be linked by a simple circulating bus service, preferably free, and very frequent, to cut out the miserable 10-15 minute walk to shop or office.

All bus services should be integrated with rail transport, including the new underground system. The capacity of this system will far exceed that of the roads, and at much less cost.

What of the other transport that crowds our cities? Freight carrying by road is ludicrously inefficient, having only the advantage of door-to-door service. On short hauls this is essential, but for inter-city traffic, rail freight is a far better bet. Reorganising the rail service along the lines of containerisation for dock handling would enable rapid mass freight transport between large centres, followed by transference to small short-haul lorries to cover the last ten to fifteen miles. Such freight centres could be suburban, not inner city, enabling maximum clearance of town roads.

These problems are immense, though even trivial alongside those of London (see Time Out's feature in March). They need co-ordinated far-sighted planning. As long as we remain in love with the car as the ultimate symbol of freedom, mobility and status, we will reject the necessary solutions. And as long as car-owners squeal, the politicians and experts will not have the courage to put people before roads.

One day, of course, the oil will run out, but by then it will be too late. They have not even thought of this. When asked what will run on Newcastle's East Central motorway in 30 years' time, Councillor Jeffcock said "I haven't the faintest idea". But then, Coun Jeffcock is unlikely to be alive in 30 years' time, so why should he worry?

Ken Pollock
(Tyneside Environmental Concern)