I suppose I’m one of the few people who really love the road, not always at the expense of growing and breathing things, but for travelling, with others, along its length.
Roads are about communication. They are about making connections, meeting people and making things happen. The essence of the road is the journey, the travelling rather than the arrival. Few things compare with the state of deliciously hypnotic alertness, that feeling of being in a suspended dimension which so completely encapsulates a good journey. The journey has its own timescape and the road its own fluctuating landscape. The physical act of travelling binds us to the earth and to our human history in a way which is more real and marvellous than anything technology can yet offer.
If the Eighties were about the urban environment then the Nineties are about the environment which connects urban environments. The debate in the Nineties is less concerned with the effect of architecture on the development of drug abuse and vandalism in our inner cities. Rather it is about those areas between our towns and cities, the acres of Shellgrip and Tarmacadam and the areas surrounding them.
Today we are anxious about the erosion of the “Green belt” and the demise of our public transport systems. We worry about pollution from fossil fuels and congestion as car ownership escalates in direct proportion to the current political dogma promoting freedom for those who can afford it. We are terrified of accidental death, random violence and crime on the open road.
Today we spend more and more time on our roads but the quality of time spent travelling is falling. The architecture of our road environment is unimaginative and often dangerous. Road users slump at the wheel through boredom, cyclists and motorcyclists die through colliding with unfriendly street signs and barricades designed with no thought for the injury they may inflict on the human body. Drivers are trained and not educated, mirroring the decay in our education system.
Consequently, they fail to understand what all the roadside and in-car graphics want them to do, never mind the level of technology and science in the average family car. Too much emphasis is placed on the obviously covetous characteristics of transport products: the marketing, rather than development of secure and intuitive vehicles. The road we depend upon for safe space to enjoy our journeys decays along with our inadequate driving skills.
It’s not surprising that we get frustrated when the car is a better driver than the human behind the wheel. We all want to be Jeremy Clarkson but we misunderstand our driving ability in vehicles beyond our comprehension. Small wonder we lose our temper.
lt beats me why anyone should be surprised that “road rage” exists. We now understand that there is a connection between the urban environment and delinquency, so why shouldn’t there be a connection between the environment which surrounds our roads and drivers’ delinquency? Roads are for travelling on, not merely for getting from A to B, or getting nowhere at all if they’re congested, under perpetual repair or just badly sign-posted.
The time has come to look at transport in a more holistic way. Fossil fuels will be phased out or limited in their application. Road-building programmes will give way to improving existing stock along with an overhaul of public transport systems.
Smart materials which repair themselves will make road repairs a thing of the past. Street and road furniture will have crumple zones and be constructed out of human-friendly materials placed at a safe distance from the road. Signage and cockpit controls will become informative and intuitive and the unending boredom of thousands of miles of motorway relieved through landscaping, art, design and architecture. Service stations will put an end to greasy offerings along the famished road.
Our heritage was borne on the back of horsemanship, shipbuilding, locomotives, the British racing car and the evolution of the bicycle and motorcycle – not to mention aeroplanes and Tarmacadam. Let’s forget about garden festivals and other short-term, site specific celebrations and use the millennium as an excuse to put some spirit back into our British roads.