The politics of traffic are a dead-end: why it’s time to replace the M8

Depending on who you listen to, Glasgow is either uniquely well suited to play host to COP26, or outrageously ill-prepared.

Amid growing political rancour ahead of next year’s local elections, it’s hard to agree on any fixed reality about the city’s true state. Have the libraries actually closed, or have they just not reopened? Are the streets actually overrun with vermin, or do they just need ‘spruced up?’

But, despite so many competing issues, few facts of Glaswegian life are more polarising than the six lanes of motorway that bisect the city centre. Those who doubt this should look at the response to ‘radical new Glasgow Twitter account’ @replacetheM8 this week.  

When the world’s leaders gather for COP26 such divisions may come home to roost. Glaswegians will experience weeks of disruption alongside the occasional taste of what a post-carbon city could actually be like.

These include hitherto impossible to deliver measures specifically for attendees – like a multi-modal public transport pass (offered by Transport of London for decades), free electric busses, and the closure of a large section of the Clydeside Expressway. Business as usual can be suspended, at least when you have the excuse of making room for presidential motorcades.

A different, more egalitarian city might have taken the latter measure anyway – for no reason other than the fact that this urban motorway connects to the M8 next to a primary and nursery school. Following a landmark ruling last year attributing the death of a nine-year-old school girl to air pollution caused by London’s South Circular motorway – such concerns are no longer mere abstractions.

Instead, Police Scotland have already warned off protestors from seeking to close the M8 because doing so could ‘effectively bring the whole of the Scottish road network to a standstill.’

If Scotland’s transport system can be crippled by closing down a section of motorway in one of the nation’s most densely populated locales, we need a new transport network.

Good COP Bad COP

This is why the disruption of COP26 should be used to lever the radical steps that Glasgow, and so many other crumbling car-centric cities, need to take.

The M8 is a great open wound in the heart of a city that has made an art out of mourning its lost potential. Replacing, rather than spending millions on repairing this great absurdity is a necessary condition for any meaningful transformation to a low carbon city.

This deadly piece of infrastructure both embodies and enacts the awful realities of Scottish inequality – how many who commute to the city centre would happily send their child to be educated by the roadside?  

This conflict between the right to car ownership and the right to the city is likely to become ever more bitter. Such division stems from the way our politics was fundamentally reshaped by the great shift to road travel a generation ago.

Writing in the 1960s, Raymond Williams observed that road traffic was the perfect metaphor for social relations in capitalist societies:

“…looked at from right outside, the traffic flows and their regulation are clearly a social order of a determined kind, yet what is experienced inside them – in the conditioned atmosphere and internal music of this windowed shell – is movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes.”

Put another way, our politics remains the politics of traffic – the ‘private’ act of driving has long been central to public policy – but on a deeper level too, the mentality of being sealed off from society has profound consequences.

“All the other shells are moving,” notes Williams, “in comparable ways and for their own different ends. They are not so much other people, in any full sense, but other units which signal and are signaled to …”

Perhaps it is inevitable that political discourse today is beset by a kind of mass road rage – by the colossal lack of self-awareness demonstrated by people who complain about being ‘stuck in traffic’ at precisely the moment that they constitute it.  

Because driving extends the private realm out into the public spaces of society it erodes the need to share and negotiate public space: and with it basis for democratic participation.

As the climate crisis heats up the debate about the place of cars in society; the car industry, like all others embedded in pumping out carbon, promotes a double bluff. There is a deliberate attempt to confuse the social and cultural consequences of car culture and the wider utility of efficient transport infrastructure.  

The car has indeed brought greater mobility, flexibility, variety and choice to millions. It has broadened out the horizons of where we choose to live, what we consume and where our day-to-day lives begin and end. It sometimes provides these social goods to those who need these things most, such as the elderly.

But the crucial distinction that gets lost is that these public goods are not premised on individual private ownership of cars – let alone the current regime which equates car ownership and driving as something close to a fundamental democratic right.

The notional autonomy of each driver is promoted in countless baroque advertising campaigns as so much virtuous self-determination. But the allure of the open road is a fiction, particular to a certain set of cultural ideas and values. It is also politically sacred – which is why even the most dangerous and anti-social crimes of the driver seldom result in a lifetime ban.

Like many forms of moveable wealth, the car must be updated and elaborated for purely symbolic reasons. Just as the mastery of horses was once associated with nobility, cars offer an outward display of status and differentiation from the trudging masses.

This perfected consumer industry – that brought us novel forms of mass death through lead poisoning and the epic disaster of planned obsolescence – is only incidentally defined by utility. Though many commuters genuinely do require a complex and dangerous machine to make their lives bearable; none of them require a machine capable of traveling at 200mph.

Creating a ‘great car economy’ was the lesser known but equally disastrous twin project in the creation of a ‘property owning democracy.’ Such social engineering on a revolutionary scale leaves us with a seemingly incurable ideological hangover: a ‘common sense’ mantra that  casts any moderate re-balancing of transport policy as a ‘war on drivers’.

A transport network built around cars is fundamentally undemocratic. No one believes that car ownership can be universal. Drivers want fewer cars on the road, not more: the privilege is not to be extended to poor communities at home, let alone the millions of newly affluent citizens of India and China.

Restorative Justice

Glasgow’s politics is a bit like the city’s incoherent layout itself: you step out in one direction only to find a flyover blocking your path, you retrace your steps and find yourself back at the spiral footbridge where you started.

The council wants to reduce car use by creating ‘twenty-minute neighbourhoods,’ while mothballing local venues. They build a drive-thru Burger King and a Starbucks, and call it a ‘Global Green City.’

But COP26 represents an opportunity to decisively reverse car-centric policy in order to escape the dead-end politics of traffic. Instead, we need to promote genuinely public transport to undercut car journeys and invest in the enormous benefits that are accrued when we define mobility as an asset that is held in common. The ability to live connected lives between different places is indeed an enormous privilege – but it does not belong in private hands.

Demolishing the section of the M8 that ploughed under historic communities would be an act of restorative justice that would make Glasgow healthier in both mind and body. More significantly – acting to take such ‘radical’ measures would show the world that carbon-intensive transport systems are no more permanent and immutable than any other man-made network.

In response to the limited, curtailed and private autonomy of the car – we must assert that the freedom to walk and reacquaint ourselves with our cities, and each other, is a far greater prize.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Wullie says:

    Fabricated song and dance about nothing, Glaswegians have more to worry about than the M8.

  2. David Mackenzie says:

    Many thanks for this on-the-ball article. The addiction is well-embedded but we have no option but to acknowledge and deal with it.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    There is a very good article contained in this which examines well the problems associated with motor traffic, across the world and, specifically, in Glasgow.

    I was born and brought up in one of the areas – Anderston – which was destroyed by the M8 and the Kingston Bridge, and, ironically, worked one summer on the road and Bridge. The urban motorway had a fragmentising effect, by separating much of the city from the centre and by disconnecting communities which had been part of the same community, with a main road, which had several zebra crossings between them. And, it produced high levels of airborne pollution .

    But, remember, being an industrial city before any other city, except Manchester, airborne pollution had been even worse in the preceding two centuries. As someone who has chosen never to own a car, I want to see the motorway removed and the streets returned to people, cyclists and the 20 minute neighbourhoods (at which the author seems to sneer.)

    Where the article fails in its bombastic cavilling Nd disdainful tone of ennui in implying the problems of the city are the fault of the current council, and, by implication the Scottish Government. In this he is simply anticipating in the mob behaviour being fomented by the media, the Labour Party and some local authority trade unions.

    The physical, social and health issues relating to Glasgow are complex and have many factors and go back more than 200 years. The low life expectancy can be explained by a sophisticated factor analysis.

    The current council, has, since it was elected in 2017 made consistent efforts to change the city away from the domination of the car. It is a minority administration and, even with Green support has to work hard against a deeply ingrained car culture and a very hostile media.

    However, Mr Silver seems to be one of those who think that blame and sarcasm, change minds and remove problems. He has ca’ed the feet from his own article.

  4. J Galt says:

    The central pinch point of this hideous scar is the Kingston Bridge, a 1960s structure, probably as well constructed as the rest of the rubbish thrown up then. It’s carrying weights and traffic levels way beyond what was the norm when it was constructed – despite several shoring-ups, just like the first Forth Road Bridge it must be reaching it’s limits and will hopefully soon start to crumble and be condemned.

    Then the fight can commence – every councillor, MSP and MP should be made aware in no uncertain terms that support for the expenditure of the enormous sum for it’s replacement will result in a vigorous campaign to un-elect them – regardless of party.

    In the 1940s there existed a superb plan for the rationalisation and modernisation of Glasgow’s disjointed suburban railways and their integration with a similarly modernised tram and trolleybus system with reserved rights of way in the new suburban schemes. The car lobby won the day and it was never implemented, instead there followed the wholesale destruction of one of Europe’s finest urban transport systems – the Glasgow Tram System replacement with an unloved, shoddy diesel bus system and with at most, grudging, piecemeal improvements to the railways. I would say it’s time to dust it off, however looking about me I doubt we have the competent people, civic and governmental systems capable of implementing it without making a complete fuck up.

  5. Graham Ennis says:

    A purely technical note to this:
    Lithium battaries today are about at one quarter of the capacity of the battaries coming in les than 10 years. The foremost is the sodium tech.
    Regarged from wind power of tidal power, or solar, it is net carbon Zero.
    The infrastruture of our society cannot be changed now, in time, for the coming climate crisis, but it can be made zero carbon at point of use. Discuss.

    1. Mark Bevis says:

      Okay, here’s some thoughts.
      60% of a car’s carbon emissions are in its manufacture, so it doesn’t really matter if it is powered by diesel, petrol, gas, coal, electricity, micro-nuclear fusion or even pulled by a team of horses – a car (or any other vehicle not made by hand) can never be carbon zero.

      There are 1.4 billion cars on the planet. There is absolutely no way there is enough mineral resources to make a 1 for 1 replacement of every petrol car with an electric powered one, even if you wanted to.

      “The metal resource needed to make all cars and vans electric by 2050 and all sales to be purely battery electric by 2035. To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes of copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.”

      “The infrastruture of our society cannot be changed now, in time, for the coming climate crisis”
      Yes. Although it’s actually a civilisational crisis, the climate crisis is merely one of the symptoms (see my post on the Code Red article, which I see you just commented on)

      Every new car deployed, every ton of concrete laid, every mile of tarmac put down, every hour the bulldozer drives, every foot of altitude the crane lifts, from this moment on, will merely hasten the collapse of global industrial civilisation. Which nobody wants to see, even though it is necessary for the continued existence of humans and 90% of all the other fellow-earthlings past 2050.

      The simplest thing thing Glasgow governance can do in this article’s case is – once they close the M8 for COPOUT26, simply keep it closed afterwards. Just don’t bother re-opening it, and let cycles, horses and people use it freely. I am sure Glaswegians themselves will make better use of it than any council committee, industrial lobbyists or government official can ever think of.

  6. Cathie Lloyd says:

    This is great and I love to see Raymond Williams quoted here. But in all this sustainable travel, please bear in mind those of us who can’t do ‘active travel’ due to age or disability. They/we need to be factored in not excluded!

  7. Chris Ballance says:

    Great suggestion – good article, thanks.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    Indeed, you could argue that car culture was an attempt to create an equestrian class to support the elite class of greater property-holders.
    We might even discern substrata in this segment of hierachy around the world, which could be destabilising (such as private toll roads, or armoured vehicles against more lightweight types). All privileges, nothing to do with needs. The need is to rapidly de-car societies, which may be opposed by the bulk of equestrians.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      You’re right there, SD. The collective will is against banning cars. That’s why no politician dares touch them.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        But, that is not an argument against seeking to change this ‘collective will’. Many people know that they are shackled to a car because of the wilful running down of public transport and the separation of places of employment from local housing. Many would stop owning private cars if such things were addressed.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          No, indeed. That’s the process of democracy: argument and the emergence of a general will dialectically therefrom.

          I’m not sure that the separation of places of employment from local housing caused our enshacklement to the car. Rather, was it not the democratisation of motoring and homeownership that enabled Middle Scotland to escape the city for the suburbs in greater numbers, the perception being that suburban living offered a better quality of life?

          Now, I don’t know about the cities; but I live way out in the sticks, and public transport provision is far, far better than it was when I lived out here in the 1960s and ’70s (though it’s also much more poorly used). I’ve used Shanks’ pony and public transport all my life, and it’s a bit of an urban myth that it’s worse now than it was (though my legs aren’t what they used to be, alas!).

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Mons Meg, how much is spend on advertising each year to convince the UK public to buy more new cars? I have seen figures suggesting this runs into billions annually, although some reliable source would be helpful. What would happen if car adverts were banned, similar to how other toxic products have had their advertising restricted? As the very purpose of advertising behavioural modification, what would happen if that was taken away? The automobile industry seems to think it is getting its money’s worth. Furthermore, what if that resource was spent in other ways, perhaps to improve the image of public transport or human-powered travel? To put it another way, how much is car use down to General Motors rather than the general will? The documentaries Who Killed the Electric Car? and Revenge of the Electric Car are interesting in suggesting how the dynamics of corporate strategies, government policy and public consumption pan out in this area.

        As for not touching fossil-fuel-burning cars, their manufacture is being banned by politicians around the world, albeit in phasing-out policies spanning decades rather than years, at the moment.
        That is something liable to tipping point effects as investment in automobile manufacturing increasingly looks like a dead end where the last people involved could face significant losses.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Yes, advertising, as argument, does play a role in shaping the collective will. It presents a series of claims as to why you should buy a car per se and why you should buy it from Volkswagon (say).

          Protecting the public from some arguments by banning them is paternalistic and tyrannical. Enabling the public through education to critically evaluate every argument that makes a claim on its belief (i.e. to do philosophy), on the other hand, is democratic and liberal.

          Rather than banning advertising or argument of any sort, we should as a society be teaching critical thinking skills (philosophy) to our children and grandchildren.

  9. John Monro says:

    Thanks for the article, Christopher. I live in NZ now and in this otherwise quiet little country that lives mainly on slaughtering millions of large sentient mammals, felled trees, milked cows (which also eventually get slaughtered along with half their offspring (so called bobby calves) 1.6 million of them, at the ripe old age of ten days, and shorn sheep, you mightn’t know that we are a more highly urbanised nation than the UK. NZ has the third highest vehicle ownerships per capita on the planet – almost twice that of the UK. Auckland, (now called Tamaki-Makaurau by the more progressive parts of our society and Radio New Zealand) , a city of 1.6 million, is a third of NZ’s total population. Built almost entirely around a LA type motorway system, with poor public transport and very little commuter rail.. Yet Auckland is a city almost immobilised by the traffic – surprise suprise, every effort to relieve this congestion by yet more “roading” as we say in NZ makes the problem worse. Wellington, a city I used to live in until recently, learning nothing, is building a massively expensive new motorway to encourage yet more traffic into the city. My wife, a Kiwi, tells me that getting a car as a teenager (you could drive then at the age of 15) was the norm and she was surprised when she came to the UK how few young people had cars. . I mention this, just to put Glasgow’s problems in some perspective. I was a medical student in Glasgow in the 60s so and early 70s saw first hand the destructiveness of these urban motorways in this city. I never travelled on these roads later without some sense of guilt and shame.

    But you express ever-so-well the sense of entitlement and separateness that being in command of the car, and thus in command of the road and your expanded space, brings you- your very own little mobile palace of control. You also write very well of many of the wider social issues, which mirror my own concerns of the last several decades. The car is truly a monstrous vehicle of sociopathy – whether it’s resented pedestrians or cyclists or speed limits, or the destructiveness of new roads and motorways, or the car-centric, anti-social planning of housing and estates, or the sheer space occupied by cars, moving or parked, in cities and in the the car-lot clutter of our suburbs and towns and villages, the lead poisoning inflicted for decades or the noise, the deaths and maimings, or the particulates, the many thousands of deaths in the UK alone due to the car’s pollution, and now, most existentially threatening of all, in its global scale, the floods, droughts, fires and glacial melts. And it’s the sociopathy of the car’s insatiable demand for money and resources, diverting untold billions of pounds away from societies’ more humane needs such as housing, effective public transport, affordable renewable energy and efficiency, health and social services, justice and policing, and communal facilities and a wise investment our environment. But are we not all totally addicted to all this? We must be to ignore all these pathologies for our impoverishing and damaging personal transport fix. Top Gear’s massive popularity is the proof that when we worship the car, we reduce ourselves to a perpetual infantilism. Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, has an unenviable position as having one of Europe’s worse drugs addiction and misuse problems and the social misery that this brings. But I could state, with some justice, that our addiction to the car is infinitely more damaging to our societies and our future than the problems these poor wretches bring themselves and us.

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