As someone who wants both our road and rail infrastructure to be re-designed using best practice from around the world, I see a lot of work ahead. When faced with a task of such proportions, it is easy to wonder not only what it would be like after the goal is realised, but what it would be like if it had happened already. A popular concept explored in storytelling is that of the “Alternate history.” An example of this type of story is Watchmen, but it is a common theme, especially in science fiction (often facilitated by some sort of time travel). This morning I rode into Manchester from Macclesfield and I started to consider what my ride would be like if we, much like the Dutch, had halted and reversed the decline in walking, cycling and the railways back in the 1970s, through measures including restricting the growth, convenience and public subsidy of private motoring, together with investment in rail and either maintaining nationalised ownership of the railways, or at least not botching its privatisation.
I started to think about the wider changes which would have resulted in this alternate history. Roads which are effectively “Urban motorways,” would likely be absent, preventing the terminal decline of many town centres such as Rochdale and reducing the resulting sense of social isolation and community division. Casualties from road accidents and (more commonly) negligent motorists would have been much lower for quite a few years. Helmets and high-vis would be an irrelevance as we move away from blaming the victims of traffic crashes, and the slice of UK GDP sent overseas to prop-up dodgy oil-producing regimes would also be a bit lower. The arduous task of replacing a great deal of our ageing electricity-generating capacity with renewables would not also be occurring at the same time as plans to electrify a 30-million strong fleet of frequently-used private motor vehicles.
However, I realised that things in this alternative history weren’t all rosy. I started to consider how the sense of social isolation, desperation and fear fostered by our current road network has inspired great works of art, films, literature and music. Would Radiohead still have recorded “OK Computer,” in 1997 if the consequences of the British transport experience, producing feelings of social isolation and desperation, had been significantly reduced? Would Michael Caine have been “Harry Brown,” if there were no high-speed urban motorways which necessitated pedestrian underpasses? He certainly wouldn’t have had to kill all those people in order to cross the road, had that road been more civilised in the first place and we would have missed out on a great film.