the motor vehicle is one of the most useful tools, as well as one of the most fascinating toys, that man has ever invented. But used wastefully, selfishly and stupidly, as it is being used throughout capitalist society today, it is causing casualties on a military scale (nearly 80,000 people have been killed on British roads since the war), threatening to disrupt the cities and overrun the countryside, and destroying the most agreeable features of town life with its danger, noise, fumes and congestion.
This may sound absurdly pessimistic, but that is only because the scale and complexity of the problems raised by universal car ownership are not widely understood. The motorist who is regularly caught in traffic jams on the way to his work or on a weekend outing naturally thinks that his problem will be solved if the bottlenecks on the road are removed, roads widened, flyovers introduced at intersections, or an entirely new motor road like M1 built to take the through traffic. There is, in general, no understanding of the fact that the motor vehicle has not only effected a revolution in our personal habits, but has made the entire system of streets and roads inherited from the past out-of-date and almost unworkable. The effects of this revolution are farreaching, and the problems it raises cannot be solved by simple remedies.
Before we begin to discuss the nature of this revolution we must grasp the size of the problem, and attempt to forecast the future growth of motor traffic, on the assumption that present trends continue. If we assume (and it is, of course, a big assumption) that the standard of living of all sections of the community will rise far enough and rapidly enough to enable every adult who wants to do so to own a vehicle for personal transport, the potential demand is fantastic. The new town of Stevenage, for example, has adopted a standard, for the building of garages, of 1.25 cars per house. But in recent American developments 2 cars per house is normal, and 3 cars per house is not unknown.
The volume of cars on the roads and the flow of traffic are both increasing at a rapidly accelerating rate. In 1946 there were only 3 million vehicles of all kinds on the roads, and fewer than 2 million private cars. Since then, the total number of vehicles registered in each year has been increasing at about 8.2 per cent compound per annum. At this rate the number doubles in 9 years, and trebles in 15. There are now some 8½ million vehicles in use, including more than 5 million cars. If present trends continue there could be 16 million vehicles in 1967 and 24 million (including 13½ million cars) in 1974. But even this would not bring us to the goal of a car per family, let alone a car per adult.
Traffic volume has been increasing almost as fast as registrations, by about 7.4 per cent compound per annum. But congestion increases far faster than traffic. As the roads become more and more loaded beyond their capacity, so congestion can be expected to increase more rapidly still, and with it all the losses that congestion causes. The roads now carry far more goods than the railways, and have become an integral part of the industrial equipment of the nation—conveyor belts along which flow raw materials, finished products and innumerable bits and pieces in process of manufacture or delivery. No manufacturer would ever tolerate within his works the degree of inefficiency that he does in the delivery of goods by road. There is a big element of exaggeration in the much-publicised figure of £500 million a year, which the road lobby likes to quote as the loss caused by congestion, because this figure includes losses in non-working time. But the real losses are not far short of £200 million a year, and are increasing.
The reason why the volume of traffic increases more slowly than the number of vehicles registered, and congestion more rapidly, is of course the inadequacy of the entire road system, which has never developed at a rate commensurate with the growth of the motor industry. There is evidence to show that, if the road system was considerably improved and if vehicles could move freely, traffic would increase more rapidly than the number of vehicles; partly because the building of new roads exclusively for motor vehicles generates new traffic, and partly because the degree of congestion has for long been so serious that it deters many motorists from using their cars as much as they would like to. In London, for example, only 7 per cent of the population working in the centre travel to work by car. The rest travels by public transport. But if there was no congestion on the roads, and if there were enough parking places at the other end, as many as 80 or 90 per cent might go to work by private car.