Tomorrow (Monday 9 January), I will join in nonviolent direct action by blocking a central London road in protest against reckless driving and the policies of central and local government. This is why.
On two days each week, I work in a building on the Euston Road in London. Leaving the building at rush hour, I attempt to cross the road to reach Euston station and use the tube. I say “attempt” because this is a far from straightforward procedure.
There are traffic lights, but they make little difference to the movement of vehicles along the road. The cars are usually going very slowly, and when the lights turn to green for pedestrians – and red for traffic – a good many drivers choose to park across the area designated for pedestrians to cross. Getting to the other side of the road can be a perilous matter of squeezing between half-moving cars.
And that’s for me. I walk fairly quickly. For people who walk slowly, or with assistance or not at all, it must be much, much harder. My partner uses a wheelchair, as do several of my friends, and I am well aware that they would not be able to get through many of the spaces through which I squeeze on my mission to get from one side of the road to the other.
Of course, not all London drivers are inconsiderate. Some stay behind the line at traffic lights and are attentive to the needs of others. I really appreciate them.
That should not stop us asking why the authorities are so relaxed when it comes to reckless drivers in the city centre. Spend a few hours in the city and you are likely to find yourself wondering why so many people can get away with driving over zebra crossings when there are pedestrians present, overtaking other drivers when it’s unsafe to do so and treating cyclists and pedestrians with contempt.
The real mystery is why there are so many cars in central London at all. I moved to London in 2005, and I’m told that the number of cars was even higher before the introduction of the congestion charge. Of course, there are some people who do need to drive in central London. People with mobility impairments are particularly likely to need to do so, given the appalling inaccessibility of most of the London Underground. There are those transporting things that would be difficult to carry by public transport, and there are people who may feel nervous about travelling by bus or tube late at night. I am prepared to admit that there may be other good reasons which have not occurred to me.
Nonetheless, the reality is that the majority of people in central London have no need to drive. Much of the time, they are likely to reach their destination at least as quickly on the tube. This glut of pointless driving not only harms the environment but makes life harder for pedestrians and cyclists. It slows down people travelling by bus, as well as those who have a good reason for driving. The inconsiderate behaviour of many (but not all) drivers comes on top of this already scandalous situation.
Despite this, those who defend the interests of the motoring industry have a lot on their side: the government, the opposition, Transport for London and the right-wing newspapers. A recent plan by Westminster Council to introduce new parking charges triggered a reaction laughably out of proportion to reality, with the Evening Standard comparing it to the Poll Tax. Westminster Council’s earlier (and now thankfully defeated) plan to criminalise rough sleeping received relatively little coverage by comparison.
Tory MP Philip Hammond, appointed Transport Secretary in Cameron’s first cabinet, said he was going to end the “war on motorists”. There is no war on motorists. It would be more accurate to say that the “cars above all” lobby are waging a war on pedestrians, a war on cyclists, a war on public transport users and a war on disability rights. Hammond has now become Defence Secretary, an alarming development given his tendency to believe that non-existent wars are being waged against him.
It is possible to challenge the power of the motoring lobby, and the oil industry which benefits from it, without attacking motorists themselves. Vast swathes of rural Britain have no meaningful public transport at all. In much of the UK, people have little choice but to drive cars, given the appalling state of public transport. To suggest that these people should have the opportunity to use a bus or a train is to wage a war in favour of them, not against them.
The situation is different in London, where the majority of people have no need to drive. From 6.00 pm tomorrow Monday (9 January) I will join other pedestrians, cyclists and disability equality activists in taking nonviolent direct action outside King’s Cross station (where York Way meets Pentonville Road and Euston Road). With the authorities unwilling to control the traffic, we will take measures to control it ourselves. The action is supported by Bikes Alive, Transport for All and the Green candidate for Mayor of London, Jenny Jones. Ethical drivers can support this action as much as cyclists and pedestrians. This is a struggle for dignity and equality.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. For more of his writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.