Nobody has a good word to say for traffic congestion. It brings delays, frustration, pollution, and financial costs. For many people, it epitomises all that is wrong with unregulated, unplanned, privatised economies - they never had congestion in the Soviet Union.
Congestion is the bane of modern life, yet no more than we deserve. It is the result of our commodity-obsessed stupidity. In Joel Schumacher's 1992 film Falling Down, a demented Michael Douglas finally cracks under the stresses of modern American life - in a traffic jam. The heat, the fumes, the flies and the sweat all accentuate his sense of suffocation. He has to get away, breathe again, decongest his tubes, empty his barrels. Traffic jams feature, too, in Jean Luc Godard's critique of consumerism run wild, Weekend (1968). Following one gruesome pile-up, a hysterical woman runs back to the carnage, not to help the dying, but to rescue her Hermes handbag.
We see congestion as an urban disease; since the 19th century, city routes have been described as arteries. Now, Doctor Livingstone (Ken Livingstone, that is) thinks he has found the cure, with his proposals for road charges in London. But what if the mayor's diagnosis is wrong? Is it possible that traffic congestion is not a symptom of urban disease, even less a sign of social meltdown, but rather a mark of robust health? Just as physicians no longer advocate bleeding, nor try to stimulate the flow of the humours, perhaps traffic congestion is another aspect of circulation that is best left alone. Before dismissing the idea, just try thinking of a decent world city that is not regularly gripped by gridlock.
Congestion is slow-moving traffic. Nothing more complicated than that, although it is worth noting the discriminatory definition of "traffic", which is generally applied only to motor traffic (20 cars waiting at traffic lights indicate traffic congestion, whereas 20 pedestrians waiting to cross the same road do not). If we don't have congestion, then, we have two alternatives: either fast-moving motor traffic or no motor traffic. Is either situation actually any better than congestion?
Speeding up urban traffic dominated the minds of planners and city administrators throughout the 20th century. The visions of Le Corbusier and the brutal realities of Robert Moses's New York freeways are only the two most widely known cases. "A city made for speed is made for success," wrote Le Corbusier (or, at any rate, his translator Frederick Etchells), but the statement is really a tautology. The etymological route of speed is from the Old English spowan (Old High German spuon): to succeed or prosper. The connection between the two notions still appears logical in many circles - a successful economy or business is one in which money circulates, and profits accrue, speedily.
But money is an abstract and increasingly amorphous concept. Cars are not. Allowing hard, heavy, speeding vehicles to come into contact with fleshy mortals is a recipe for disaster. Cutting the death toll has consistently dominated the minds of planners. Modernists such as Le Corbusier and Moses engineered new types of urban road on which only motor vehicles were permitted, but there are obvious limits to this approach. Not only is the cost prohibitive, in terms of money and destruction, but there are people inside those vehicles, heading to a place where they will want to get out, walk about, stay alive.
So, in cities around the world, planners sought ways to enable speeding motorists and vulnerable non-motorists to coexist. It has proved a tortuous exercise, and one based on a notion of compromise: that it must surely be possible to allow motorists to enjoy reasonable speed while affording pedestrians a reasonable chance of survival. Since 1934, Britain has had a speed limit in built-up areas of 30mph, and most other countries have a similar limit. This looks reasonable because, following 20mph impacts, roughly 95 per cent of pedestrians survive, while at 40mph only 15 per cent survive. In this mood of give and take, pedestrians have been contained and controlled, apparently for their own good. Walking through many urban areas has become a pinball experience of pedestrian barriers, bollards, street signage, constricted pavements, walk/don't walk signs, pedestrian underpasses, overpasses, and jaywalking restrictions. Yet, in almost every city in the world, the violence inflicted on human beings by motor vehicles still far outstrips the violence inflicted by crime. Not much of a deal.
Then there have been the other costs associated with trying to manage the competing claims of speed and safety, in particular those of the countless research institutions, university departments, engineers, planners, systems analysts, etc, all apparently dedicated to finding better means for managing motor traffic. Plus the costs of installing and operating their solutions: the one-way systems, tidal-flow roads, urban clearways, gyratories, underpasses, overpasses, eyes in the sky, traffic lights, parking restrictions, speed cameras, and so on. Few of these experts would deny that somewhere in their heads was the kernel of that modernist vision - flashing tail lights on elevated freeways - but the tabula rasa was mythical. These were real cities and real people's lives that had to be devastated before they could be rebuilt. Despite all this physical and mental exertion, average road journey times in London have remained unchanged for a century.
Could it be that traffic flow is largely a self-regulating system - that these interventions are pointless? Engineer larger roads for higher speeds, and in no time you find them choked with new cars making new journeys. Perhaps the pinnacle of underachievement was the one-way system. This achieved the Holy Grail of a sustainable increase in vehicle speed, an increase almost precisely matched by the increased distance that has to be travelled to get through the system. Brilliant. Those academicians of road science begin to resemble bleeding 18th-century physicians.
Most traffic engineers now accept that you will never sustainably speed up urban traffic flow by expanding road capacity. In many quarters, the approach has shifted from accommodating speeding motor vehicles to discouraging them. Yet had it proved feasible to speed up vehicles in cities, would it even have been desirable?
We have all come across those isolated urban roads on which the traffic flows rapidly, and experienced the uniform desolation of such areas: the noise, the threat, the filth, the absence of street life, the human and commercial casualties. J G Ballard's Concrete Island depicts life in such an environment taken to its extreme; cowering non-motorised individuals scratch a primitive survival among the ruins left by highway engineers, while oblivious motorists drive by. There's nowhere here to stop. This is non-place; transit space. If we want to see a real-world example of the free-flowing built-up area, we can look to the new American sprawls such as Dallas-Fort Worth. Here, no one in his right mind would think of venturing anywhere except by motor vehicle. The cars can speed along without killing too many people because there are so few people, no street life. If you really wish to tackle congestion by getting urban traffic flowing rapidly, and you don't want carnage on the street, you must kill the street. Not a great option.
The other approach, the one currently finding more favour in most European cities, is to restrict motor vehicles entering city centres. Without parallel measures to slow down the remaining vehicles, speeds inevitably increase, and, indeed, this is the main intention of many restriction policies. Livingstone's congestion charging is really a misnomer - it is speed that drivers will be paying for, and with it will come increased danger, severance and blight. If urban traffic speeds increase, and other conditions remain unchanged, more people die.
The sophisticated approach, then, is to restrict both the number of motor vehicles and their potential speed. It is the approach found in Amsterdam, for example, and in many smaller towns throughout the UK, such as Cambridge, Bath and York.
Although it arises from well-meaning liberal politics, it produces the kind of urban experience perfected in Disneyland - controlled, shallow, one-dimensional. You could call it branding. In such circumstances, individuals are less able to impose themselves on their surroundings, and thus tend towards passive consumption. This is the mark of the polite, tourist cities - places to view, rather than live in. Such cities are devoid of the glamour, excess and public egos that make cities exciting - that make them, and consequently us, feel big. They have all the guts and sincerity of the Truman Show. There's less accidental death in such places, but there's less life.
To repeat, congestion is slow-moving traffic. In cities, it is good because slow-moving motor traffic is better than fast-moving motor traffic. It is also good because living with cars is more fun than living without them. Cars are big toys, and they should make us happy. When the auto-pioneers were trying to spark life into their machines, they didn't imagine their creations carrying frustrated commuters from a boring job to some bland home. There were no advertisements that claimed "buy this, it'll make your life really dull". Cars are dream machines that allow us to transcend our everyday lives and our everyday surroundings. Just like their narcotic equivalents, it is only when we let them become part of our everyday lives that problems begin. Congestion is the great moderator. It forces us to confront the self-destructive consequences of dependency. Sure, some will be too weak or foolish to do anything about it but, faced with congestion, most of us will take control and moderate the auto habit. Enjoy those drives, so long as they are enjoyable.
When we indulge in the pleasures of motoring, we would do well to remember the madness of it all. A car is not primarily a tool, for undertaking tasks. Almost all motoring journeys were simply not made before the invention of the car. When they were made, it was not to meet some pre-existing need, but to explore the possibilities, playful possibilities. Today, driving is like watching television from a comfortable seat at home. There is the screen, a controlled environment, personal audio, interactive technology, soft upholstery and that comforting sense of privacy. Indeed, an average couch is of similar width to a car. In our motorised world, we roll our couches out on to the street, and propel them forwards at 30mph. Is it reasonable to expect that no one should get in our way (not that there is anything reasonable about the whole surreal business)? And why, in the midst of such excessive indulgence, would anyone want to rush?
By its very nature, congestion is a shared experience; the urban crowd of the automotive era. Its etymology is from the Latin congero, to bring together. This is not an urban disease, but what cities are all about, their very essence. Just as the crowd was celebrated as the apogee of the urban condition (while simultaneously feared by the powerful), so it should be with congestion. It exists because there is somewhere worth going to, or being in, together - the city. That somewhere ceases to exist if congestion is eradicated.
In Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, the black youth of Atlanta create gridlock on their way to Freaknik. This is not a cause for frustration, but part of their celebration. They climb out of their cars, pump up the volume and flaunt themselves - their blackness, their sexiness, their togetherness - in the faces of the horrified white patricians staring down from one of their privileged private clubs. The youths' dancing challenges the most basic social and mental categories through which power operates: reason, separation, circulation and progress. This is not rational, not in the right place, not going anywhere, and things don't come much better. It is a very literal return of the repressed, a triumph of the human over the system.
That's what congestion is: the triumph of the human over the system. And, most humanly, it encourages thought. Even the snarl-ups themselves raise philosophical questions - it is surely a willed downfall of Nietzschean proportions to have humans imprisoned in their escape machines. But the very slowness of congestion also affords us time to contemplate our surroundings - to dwell upon them in a way that is impossible when speeding through. City-centre congestion is seldom dull. The comings and goings, repulsions, attractions, emotions, expressions, fashions and bodies offer flanerie of the highest calibre. This is feasible only because of the congestion - such street life does not exist where motor traffic is racing by.
If you are sat in an appealing car, the chances are that everyone else will be taking notice of you, too. A similar kind of mutual consideration, a taking notice, is acted out in slow-moving funeral processions. Slowness allows the world to dwell upon the deceased, while the mourners contemplate an emptier world.
It is thoughtful communication, born out of slowness, that features in a closing scene of the 1953 film Genevieve. Two veteran cars have been raced from Brighton to London. They are side by side at a red traffic light, moments from the finish line, when an elderly gentleman strikes up a conversation with one of the drivers. That model of car was his first, the one in which he courted his future wife, and his memories are flooding back. As the lights go green, the driver must continue either with the race, or with his new acquaintance. Momentarily, he is torn, but then, with an emphatic adherence to human values, he steps out of the race to embrace his new friendship and take the elderly couple out for a spin.
The increased pollution of congestion is no more than a technical problem requiring zero-emission vehicles. And the increased frustration is no more than an attitude problem. It is time to rethink congestion, to recognise the benefits it bestows. It can be mad and bad, but it's a city thing.
Sandy McCreery runs the MA in spatial culture at Middlesex University. This essay will be in Autopia: cars and culture, edited by Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, published by Reaktion next spring