Sunday, 26 March 2017

A chance remark, a horror attack and why cars and violence are so closely linked

During a brief stop-off on Wednesday morning at Brixton Cycles, I fell into the kind of chit-chat that’s a customary part of any healthy relationship with a cycle retailer. Recalling that the staff member serving me had previously complained about cycling conditions on Westminster Bridge, I remarked to him on the news that Transport for London is due to start installing protected bike paths on either side of the crossing.

“It’s good news about Westminster Bridge, isn’t it?” I’d asked.

The parliamentary clock tower:
tourist icon turned site of terror
The comment was to appear darkly ironic within hours, after Khalid Masood, a convert to Islam, deliberately drove a vehicle at pedestrians on the bridge, killing three, before fatally attacking a policeman guarding the Houses of Parliament. Masood was himself fatally shot following his attack.

I’ve had particular cause to ponder my comment, however, because following the attack I was called away from my normal reporting duties onto the effort to try to identify what led Masood to commit mass murder in the name of his islamist ideology. It was the latest of a large number of extremist attacks I’ve covered stretching back nearly 20 years to the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people in a town in Northern Ireland.

As I tried to work out key details of the killer’s life, it struck me how many of the incidents I’ve covered have had some connection with motor vehicles. Two days before another islamist, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, killed a guard outside Canada’s parliament in October 2014, one of Zehaf-Bibeau’s associates had deliberately used a car to run over two Canadian soldiers, killing one. In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, who had planted the two bombs, hijacked a car a went on a high-speed chase through the Boston suburbs. Tamerlan died during the subsequent gun battle when his brother accidentally drove the car over him. The Omagh bomb was planted in a car.

The Westminster attack follows two other recent serious attacks by motor vehicles. In July last year, a driver killed 86 people in Nice by driving a truck at them. In December, an attacker killed 12 people in Berlin with a truck.

The motor vehicle is an ideal weapon, it occurred to me, not only because it is so familiar and humdrum an item but also because it provides the dehumanising distance that’s a vital aspect of many weapons. It’s easier psychologically as well as practically to kill people via the familiar action of pressing down on the accelerator pedal than if one is looking them in the eye and throttling them.

The site of a raid on Hagley Road, Birmingham:
one of many parts of the city made more miserable
by its dependence on a deadly dangerous transport mode

As I rode my bike around Birmingham trying to make sense of Massod’s act, however, I had a further thought. It was impossible to miss how much of Birmingham’s landscape was blighted by the presence of sweeping dual carriageways full of high-speed motor vehicles. It was, in particular, a miserable experience spending time by Hagley Road, the six-lane thoroughfare next to which Masood seems to have spent the last few months of his life. While no-one but Masood bears responsibility for his appalling crime, it is unsurprising that cities criss-crossed by such barriers to walking and cycling end up feeling like atomised, impersonal places where it’s hard to make human connections with strangers.

None of this should minimise the horror of Wednesday’s events. There is something uniquely shocking about seeing coverage of such gruesome events in a place that one knows intimately. Masood’s attack ended on a cycle track down the side of parliament that I use frequently, most recently the day immediately before the attack. I spend a reasonable amount of time around Westminster and had been invited to an event in the Palace of Westminster last Tuesday, though I hadn’t attended.
Cyclists wait by the Palace of Westminster: a familiar sight,
easily transformed by a moment's violenc

It is an appalling shock to be reminded of how quickly a single, malicious act can transform such a setting. One of the injured people, for instance, had to be rescued from the Thames. It had never occurred to me that a person might be thrown by a car over the parapet and into the river. I often roll my eyes as I ride through Parliament Square at how tourists take delight in simple things like being photographed in a British telephone booth or pretending to hold the parliamentary clock tower between their fingers. I will regard the scene differently in future knowing that people engaged in such goofy sight-seeing were mowed down because of one man’s misdirected anger and confused ideology.

There is, it seems to me, an especial horror that the deaths and injuries that Masood caused were a result of a deliberate act. In the aftermath of the attack, some people have sought to relativise the attack by pointing out that the attack’s death toll of four was smaller than the five or so average daily deaths on Great Britain’s roads. But it must deepen the pain of the bereaved to know that their loved ones’ deaths resulted from someone’s deciding they were expendable, rather than from negligence, however blameworthy. There is a clear, well-established legal and moral difference between a premeditated and deliberate act and other deadly driving.
A car crash I encountered on Thursday morning:
a reminder that automotive mayhem is a constant, not an exception 

Nevertheless, motor vehicle terrorism is effective precisely because it can be so hard to distinguish the start of a deliberate, pre-meditated terror attack with a car from normal bad driving. When Masood first started revving his engine and speeding up on Wednesday afternoon, his behaviour can’t have seemed that different from the deliberately aggressive driving I encounter on a daily basis in London. I see countless drivers’ speeding up to grossly excessive speeds to express their momentary fury over having been held up, often by me on my bicycle.

The closer the interest one takes in road safety, the less removed from day-to-day driving an attack like Masood’s appears. In December, the driver of a Ferrari supercar was racing another driver down a street in Battersea, near my home in south London, when he lost control, mounted a pavement and hit six school pupils, including one who was thrown over a bridge abutment onto a car below. This past Saturday evening, the police were forced to clarify they didn’t suspect terrorism after a driver ploughed onto a pavement in Islington, north London, at 50 mph, hitting a group of people queuing to get into a pub. A car combines huge destructive power and ease of use in exactly the same dangerous way as a gun. While there is a moral difference between being willing to race a powerful sports car down a public road around pedestrians and deliberately seeking to kill people, the difference is not as big as the racers would like to think.
Sparkbrook: an area with problems, but less blighted
than many plusher parts

But I was struck anew by how pervasive the dehumanising effects of motor vehicle dominance are when I headed to Birmingham on Thursday to research Masood’s last days. When I first headed west from Moor Street station to Hagley Road, I struggled to find a viable cycle route and found myself on one-way streets wholly dominated by unbroken streams of fast-moving cars. When I finally reached the miserable stretch of Hagley Road where Masood lived latterly, I discovered an area blighted to an extraordinary degree by Birmingham’s planners’ decision to base the city’s transport around private cars. When I headed off to the traditional heart of the city’s Muslim communities, in south-east Birmingham, I encountered still more dystopian roads.

It seemed to me impossible to ride a bike on the fast-moving, six-lane “Queensway” system that carries the vast bulk of the traffic. In places, I resorted, shamefully, to riding down the pavement. The only consolation was that my decision jeopardised barely anyone since so few people walk in such a hostile environment.

One of the ironies of my trip was that the rougher, poorer areas such as Sparkbrook that have produced many of Birmingham’s jihadis were far less unpleasant for a cyclist than plusher areas such as Edgbaston. The narrow streets of brick, terraced houses in the poorer areas at least kept vehicle speeds lower. Even in these areas, however, cars crowded pavements and clogged the streets. Residents clearly preferred their cars to the buses that were trapped in the same traffic.
Orlando's Pulse nightclub: scene of a previous horror

There are, of course, multiple, complex reasons for the spread of violent jihadism. The more I’ve learned about Khalid Masood, for example, the more I’ve been struck by how his act last Wednesday seems largely to have been an expression of nihilistic rage, rather than a defined ideology. I was struck by the obvious similarities with the personal story of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people last June at a nightclub in Orlando, another incident on which I personally reported.

Yet my experience this past week in both London and Birmingham has led me to think that societies where people shut themselves off in cars will always be wary and fearful. A car provides a near-perfect shield for the violent, obscuring their faces and making their intentions harder to read. Like most cyclists, I know the terrifying readiness of many drivers to point their vehicles at cyclists and force their way past. The ultimate threat is a violent one: if you get in my way, I’m more than ready to drive over you.

While there is more work, clearly, to be done on weeding out Islamist ideology and shutting down Jihadi networks, it’s also obvious that western societies have for far too long shrugged at letting drivers wield deadly power with minimal accountability. That danger has seemed until now for most people an inevitable yet unavoidable side effect of cars’ flexibility and convenience as a means of transport. But no other killing machine as potent as private cars is given such free rein in most European countries as motor vehicles are. The logic of a renewed effort to boost alternatives becomes still more compelling as horrors like Thursday’s mount.

The views in this blogpost are entirely my own private reflections and are unrelated to my work for my employer.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Cheshire epiphany, cheap driving - and why Brexit means no respite from clogged roads

It’s the kind of scene that’s probably familiar to anyone who’s tried recently cycling in the large swathes of the UK where the motor car is the dominant transport mode. On Sunday, February 12, I tried to cycle a short distance along the A548 road on the outskirts of Chester, the kind of road that a couple of decades ago on a Sunday probably wouldn’t have had enough motor traffic to feel seriously intimidating. After only a few hundred metres, having suffered a succession of high-speed, close passes, I felt forced to retreat to a cycle path I’d spotted on the far side of the road. But, once I’d dismounted to cross, I found myself stranded for several minutes as a stream of high-speed vehicles raced past me.
A car speeds down a lane in rural Cheshire: an increasingly
common sight as fuel duty tips the scales in favour
of travel by car

It’s a scene that’s growing steadily more common. Provisional figures show there was more traffic in 2016 on Great Britain’s roads than in any previous year and that traffic volumes rose 1.2 per cent on 2015. The rise is all the more impressive for occurring against a backdrop of falls or only slight rises in traffic volumes in London, much the biggest city. There are indications wherever one looks that steady falls in the price of fuel, vehicles’ improving fuel economy and a series of other cuts in the price of driving are pushing ever-greater numbers of motor vehicles onto the country’s roads.

Yet I’m just as struck by the poverty of the debate about how to tackle this crisis as I am by the sheer unpleasantness of the conditions. Whereas the UK a decade ago was engaged in an earnest - albeit ultimately unproductive - debate about how to charge for road use, there is currently no serious debate about what to do. It has become expected at each budget or autumn statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will continue the freeze on fuel duty, even though it has contributed to an 18.9 per cent decline in average petrol prices over the last three years. I have heard little debate about the policy challenges presented by the exemption of a growing proportion of the UK’s car fleet from vehicle excise duty.

It’s a fair commentary on the intellectual vacuity of the current discourse on the subject that one of the main problems Chris Grayling, transport secretary, identified as a challenge for the UK’s road system in an interview in December was “excessive” use of speed bumps. This is the rhetoric one should expect in the immature, early stages of a government, when ministers are caught up in the simplistic solutions they dreamed up while still in opposition. By their second terms, most governments have started to recognise unpleasant, underlying realities and begun to tackle them. It seems clear to me that the abundance of cheap leasing finance is contributing to the misery by making it ever cheaper for drivers to get hold of very large and very powerful cars, whose effect on other road users is particularly intimidating.
Rush hour traffic in central Birmingham, one of the UK's
most car-dependent cities: a result of badly-positioned
speed bumps, presumably

As long as the problems go unaddressed, however, roads in most of the UK will continue to clog up with cars, efforts to encourage cycling and public transport will grow steadily more fruitless and the actions needed to redress the balance will grow ever more extreme.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what one thinks it means to let motoring get steadily cheaper. There is an argument that it’s perverse to argue on principle that any item - especially one that’s indispensable to many people’s daily lives - should be more expensive. I’ve certainly heard passionate arguments from some transport economists that it’s just that motorists should benefit from recent years’ undoubted rapid improvements in vehicles’ fuel economy. It’s also clear that in the UK - unlike the US - taxes on motorists cover the direct costs of building and maintaining the road network many times over. That prompts many people to argue that any extra tax take from drivers represents an unjustified extra tax burden to which the government is right to object.

But it’s impossible to miss the effects of allowing the steady fall in rates. While traffic levels in central London continued to fall in the last quarter of last year, for example, overall traffic volumes on major roads rose by 1 per cent year-on-year. To judge by my experience of dodging speeding vehicles haring down back streets, the rise on minor roads in outer London must be far higher. Minor roads in rural areas are also becoming increasingly miserable to use outside a motor vehicle. Bus travel is falling in many parts of the UK as growing volumes of cars clog the roads, getting in buses’ way. Traffic growth on the railways - where ticket prices mostly go up by at least the inflation rate - has slowed down sharply. As long as fuel duty is frozen, transport policy will remain hostage to the growing advantages enjoyed by cars.

Space allocation in Glasgow, which faces worsening
congestion. I'm sceptical bike paths are the main cause in
cities like this.
It’s even more alarming that there’s so little recognition of what’s driving the increasing congestion in a lot of the UK. When he was asked about the issue in a recent interview with the Evening Standard, Chris Grayling immediately started talking about the poor design of some bike lanes in London, suggesting that the issue in most of the country was the shrinking capacity of the road network, not the growing volume of traffic. While there’s clear evidence that new bike facilities have contributed to the growing congestion problem in central London, it’s equally obvious that the paltry facilities provided for cycling in most of the country take up nothing like enough space to have seriously affected road capacity. Road use is responding to price signals precisely as conventional economics might predict it would.

The action in central London has at least had some of the intended effect. Cycling levels in central London in the October to December quarter were up 5.4 per cent year-on-year, while motor traffic fell again, by 3.5 per cent.

It is also, meanwhile, far from clear that placing a higher tax burden on drivers would be as unjust as opponents typically suggest. There is a wide range of estimates of whether the annual tax take from driving covers the full external costs of motoring - most of which come from congestion. Even the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a respected thinktank, failed to make a clear judgement on the question in a report last February that called the present fuel duty regime “a mess”. But there was a consensus among economists several years ago, before recent years’ freezes, that the tax take was probably falling just short of covering the full costs. The steady falls since in fuel prices, improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and growing exemptions from vehicle excise duty must all have made the situation worse.
London's policies have at least shifted the central London
balance towards cyclists - even if this driver failed
to understand it.

I had particular cause to rue the changes ten days after my epiphany near Chester when my daughter announced that she and her friend planned that day, for the first time, to ride their bikes the 3.4 miles to school in Dulwich. While the outbound journey, which I rode with them against rush-hour traffic, was relatively calm, I found myself repeatedly buzzed even on quiet streets on the way back by high volumes of fast-moving vehicles. If current road conditions left even me, a hardened and committed cyclist, a little shaken and worried about my daughter’s safety, I realised, it was small wonder that she was so unusual in her choice of transport to school.

Yet there’s no mystery about what could be done to tackle these issues. It has been well known for years that fuel duty was bound to do a steadily worse job of controlling congestion as vehicles became more fuel-efficient and started to rely on untaxed power sources such as electricity. Both Conservative and Labour governments have recognised in their later terms in office that a system that charges drivers according to where they drive and the time of day is the only realistic answer to the challenges of charging for road use. In a rational world, the UK’s national transport policy debate wouldn’t revolve around speed bumps and the impact of desultory cycle facilities but around the details of the road-charging system that was inevitably on its way. Policy could move on to managing traffic, rather than falling victim to the inevitable effects of surrendering to it.
An electric, autonomous pod vehicle at Heathrow Airport:
current policies take no account of how roads will be funded
when more vehicles start to resemble this one

But there is, I think, a powerful reason why rational policy considerations are having an even harder time than normal asserting themselves. During the late years of the 1979 to 1997 Conservative government, there had been more than a decade of steady policy development that had made it clear the simple answers were not going to work. Much the same goes for the later years of the 1997 to 2010 Labour government. In contemporary British politics, by contrast, every policy calculation is subservient to the effort to mitigate the unnecessary damage of pulling out of the European Union. I sense the distraction of dealing with the distraction of an incompetent, unpredictable president is having a similar effect in the United States.

The effects of that policy stasis are visible in far more places than beside the A548. Long years of declines in road deaths have halted or started to reverse. Pollution is growing worse. The pleasure of a quiet bike ride along a winding country lane is increasingly interrupted by the speeding of vehicles taking the route their navigation app tells them will be least congested. It is hard in many parts of the UK to avoid the feeling that the country is being slowly strangled by this surrender to the motor car. I’m unlikely in the immediate future to have much respite from worrying about the riding conditions for my daughter or the many others suffering the effects of current miserable, directionless policies.