Having done it for 17 years, I know that commuting into Central London is taxing process. Taxing in terms of money certainly, but also in terms of time, physical and mental energy, often productivity and stress. As I live about 40 miles west of the capital, this involves a bus and a train, and then a Tube journey from Paddington to my office, a journey of a bit over one and half hours if it goes well. It was partly this, and partly my academic interests in thoroughfares and mobility, which led me to read Movement: how to take back our streets and transform our lives(2022), by Thalia Verkade, a Rotterdam-based journalist, and Marco te Brömmelstroet, a social scientist and expert in urban planning at the University of Amsterdam, who has a large Twitter following as “The Cycling Professor”.
In Movement, this collaboration has produced a lively and radical piece of research-driven investigative journalism which seeks to ask “why has traffic taken over our public space?” Traffic, and especially vehicular traffic, has become such an integral part of life that we don’t stop to question why this is, or indeed why it should be. A sign which declares that a road is “closed” for a street party is closed to cars, but open to people; yet the language of “road closure” is do obvious that it blends in. This bias in language reflects historical trends: we have become vastly more mobile since 1950, but while distances travelled have increased, the time we spend travelling remains broadly the same (this is Marchetti’s Constant). If a mode of travel comes along which cuts the time it takes from home to work by 25% then, in the long run, we do not spend less time travelling, we get either a better job or a better house, and the travel time remains the same. It is also for this reason that simply increasing capacity of the transport network will never solve the problem of congestion: make a six-lane motorway into an eight-lane motorway, and you will not reduce the density of traffic, you will increase the volume of traffic. This is the law of economic gravity in action.
Many of the book’s key insights are framed as Direct Message exchanges between Verkade and te Brömmelstroet, with the former framing questions and developing the narrative in a journalistic way, and latter providing scholarship-driven perspectives. This sets a lively, conversational tone in which the book’s main argument is conveyed. It is remarked, for example, by te Brömmelstroet that the “pain of half a century of spatial planning” has stemmed from an assumption that the prerequisite for a better quality of life and escape from the rat race is the ability to travel further, faster, more comfortably and more cheaply, in response to Verkade’s observation that changing the status quo is painful. The implied opposite of this is what do we do to improve the spaces in front of us. The discursive narrative between the two convincingly establishes the former as a neoliberal myth, into which various powerful interests have become heavily invested. Interestingly, this includes in some cases organisations which are supposedly committed to furthering the interests of the passenger/pedestrian.
The central plank of Verkade and te Brömmelstroet’s thesis is that “car logic has colonized our thinking” to the extent that it becomes difficult to imagine roads or routeways as anything other than dangerous areas to be navigated with the most extreme care, and where the motorcar has unquestioned right of way. Verkade presents three images of the junction between Benthuizerstraat and Bergweg near her home in Rotterdam, from 1908, 1932 and 2020. The change is certainly striking: the scene in the first image is, in Verkade’s words “like a village … [t]hese streets weren’t through roads: this was an area where people strolled about.” The same scene depicted in 2020 is now “one of Rotterdam’s most dangerous junctions”. The evidence amassed for car-colonization is certainly compelling, and its consequences sobering. In general terms at least, the idea that the car has colonized our way of seeing mobility; and realising this critically is a point of epiphany.
A key question which the book touches on throughout, but which I felt never entirely answers, is how the idea of car-colonization really extends to different regions, cities cultures and countries. Writing this reflection from the perspective of one who works (but does not live) in London, this meta-question raises further issues. Few would argue that the coming of the automobile in London was over decades, and remains, a badly negotiated hotchpotch of compromise, conflict and congestion, as an ever increasing volume of traffic elbowed its way along centuries-old streets and between ancient buildings. I get a reminder of this whenever I go into work. Near my office there is a junction linking Waterloo Bridge with the Strand and Aldwych, which is a rather terrifying spaghetti junction of cycle lanes, bus lanes, carriageways, pedestrian crossing and pavement. One is frequently reminded that one moment of lapsed concentration (or road rage) by a cyclist, pedestrian or motorist could have dire consequences (see pic below).
The car may also have colonized our thinking on London, but I suspect it has probably met more colonial resistance here than in other places. The iconic place of the London Underground in London life, and in London’s genus loci, underlines to this. Witness, for example, the reaction when the authorities tried to remove the Thames from the Tube map in 2009. Contrast on the other side the grid plan layout of many US cities, with their all-sweeping angular logic designed clearly with the car in mind (see Deidre Mask’s wonderful The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth and Power (2020) for a discussion of this). It is perhaps also the genus loci of London, and the UK’s other ancient cities, that efforts to negotiate better, or at least more progressive relationships between the car and the public space have riled conspiracy theorists linked to climate change denial, and other “globalist” themes. Current plans by the London administration to expand the city’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) for example, which have the aim of removing older, polluting vehicles from the city centre, have met with objections that it is “a grand conspiracy to take away … freedoms through mass surveillance and enforced fines” (although there are more mainstream concerns raised by unions about the ability of low to medium paid workers being able to get to work). Similarly, the notion of the “15-minute city”, where residents like within fifteen cycle or walk from all the amenities they will need, has been described as “an international socialist conspiracy”, and led to unruly protests on Oxford. The 15-minute city is, apparently, a plot to constrain us within pre-defined geographical areas, and to shadow our footsteps with automatic cameras if we seek to leave them.
The glimpse of an alternative has recently emerged, again in the neighbourhood of my own workplace. Westminster City Council’s Strand/Aldwych pedestrianisation project has seen vehicular traffic routed round Aldwych to the north, closing our section of the Strand to traffic and opening it to pedestrians (and cyclists) – see picutures. The result is wonderful – a clean-feeling open space, framed by the spires of St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes. The ability to traverse the space gives a greater feeling of open skies. It is a space where you can sit, socialize, eat lunch, or just wander (and, in my case, sketch sometimes). It is clearly not a solution to improve the through-flow of traffic in the city; but what it might do as the project progresses is promote “flow”, as described in Movement, the state in which you think, feel and exist more freely, “that blissful feeling people can experience when al their attention is in the moment, often leading to flashes of inspiration”.
Movement was also grist to my own research, into historic vernacular thoroughfares and routeways. The archaeologists Jim Leary and Martin Bell pointed out in 2020 that much historical and archaeological research into routeways was hamstrung by a residual suspicion that it is a topic of pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology, stemming from Alfred Watkins’s enormously influential but methodologically flawed Old Straight Track (1925). I believe we can add Verkade and Te Brömmelstroet’s analysis of car-colonization to this as a reason for limiting our scholarly imagination about the history of routeways, and our assumption that they are passive conduits, whereas they exert massive proactive influence of our lives, culture and history.
In summary, Movement is a work of activism, public scholarship and journalism that I found hugely energetic and energising. It is a book which deserves to be read by anyone who cares urban citizenship, the public spaces in which it happens, and the history and culture that those spaces encode.