Saturday, 10 April 2010

Get your kicks on the A57

I have an essay, ‘The future of roads’, in the latest issue of the journal Soundings. It’s not available on the web but here’s the opening. If you carry on along the A57 it goes all the way to my home town, Glossop, and ends up in Lincoln. Another long and winding A road is the A34, which takes you all the way from a roundabout on the outskirts of Winchester, on to the Newbury bypass, and ends up as Oxford Road in Manchester.


You can learn much about recent British history and politics just from driving along a single stretch of road. Our collective hopes and fears about the kind of society we want to live in lie buried in the asphalt. The history of roads is the history of ourselves: our desire for community and our fears about its fragility; our natural instinct to expand the possibilities of life set against our premonitions of death, destruction and loss; and our fierce arguments about what is valuable and beautiful about the world. But this history, like the road itself, is full of loose ends and detours, unfinished stories and stalled narratives.

Take the A57, which begins at the junction with Liverpool’s Dock Road, about five minutes drive from where I work. You head out of town on the Prescot Road, a 1930s landscaped parkway lined by semis in that Stockbroker Tudor style that Osbert Lancaster called ‘bypass variegated’, the work of the speculative builders who were stopped in their tracks by the postwar planning system. Then the road suddenly becomes a bendy single carriageway as you are shunted off what used to be the dead-straight A57 onto the downgraded, detrunked road. By the time you reach Eccles on the Manchester outskirts, you are trapped in a maze of roundabouts, before the A57 finally has its motorway moment: the Mancunian Way.

The Mancunian Way, or A57 (M), is the illegitimate child of the City of Manchester Plan, published a month after VE Day in June 1945 – one of the most ambitious of the great provincial postwar planning schemes. It planned to rebuild Manchester over the next 50 years, sweeping away its obsolete Victorian infrastructure and replacing it with ‘the city beautiful’, a vision influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement. Mancunians would be moved out of their city centre slums and factories to live and work in the arcadian outskirts. The new Manchester, wrote the City Surveyor, Roland Nicholas, would shake off the prewar drift into ‘depopulation, economic decline, cultural apathy and social dissolution’, and enter ‘a nobler, braver age in which the human race will be master of its fate’. Opening a huge exhibition of the plan at Manchester City Art Gallery, W.S. Morrison, Minister of Town and Country Planning, called it a ‘stupendous feat’ and ‘an example to the rest of England in constructive and positive planning’.

These ambitious plans depended on one thing: roads. Nicholas opened his discussion on Manchester’s existing roads with the then obligatory quote from Le Corbusier (‘If once we consider seriously the problem of the street and arrive at a solution, our existing great cities will be shaken to their foundations and the age of town planning will have begun’) and reminded his readers not to be lulled into complacency by the quiet wartime traffic. Prewar tinkering like road widening and one-way streets had ‘served only to defer for the time being the evil day of complete strangulation’. Traffic saturation could only be halted by a complete overhaul of the roads. ‘The time for expensive makeshifts and unsatisfactory palliatives is past,’ he argued. ‘We must have a road network properly designed to serve its essential purpose – the smooth, safe and speedy passage of a vastly expanded volume of motor traffic.’ His solution (copied by other cities, including London) was to alter the road pattern from something like the spokes of a rimless bicycle wheel to a spider’s web – four ring roads linked by lots of radials. Wherever possible the new roads would be parkways, with trees and flowers on the verges and central reservations. In the centre, roads would be widened like Baron Haussman’s Parisian boulevards, the River Irwell covered over with a giant roundabout and whole streets flattened to make a processional route from the town hall to the law courts …

Mundane quote for the day:
A man on his own in a car
Is revenging himself on his wife;
He opens the throttle and bubbles with dottle
And puffs at his pitiful life. – John Betjeman


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