A recent journey took me back to England for a week and I was stunned again by the proliferation of vehicles there. By and large cars in the UK are about 30% smaller than in the US but with a population a fifth of the USA crammed into a space about the size of California, and many of them car owners, you can tell that there?s likely to be something of a problem on the roads.
To compound this problem many thoroughfares in Britain were designed to cope with horse drawn carriages or pre-war levels of traffic and no amount of modernisation can solve the congestion. The great North Circular Road is a good example: a sort of English semi- Peripherique that takes traffic round the northern suburbs of London. Parts of the North Circular are four lanes wide, beautifully surfaced, and perfect for speeding round the city but suddenly within a few hundred yards the road becomes a simple two-lane blacktop making its way over a bridge and squeezed between sets of dirty houses that must be hell to live in.
No matter what time of day you?re travelling you are doomed to find yourself in a major jam in most British cities, and the constant modernistaion and upkeep of the roads doesn?t make travelling any easier. Then of course you need somewhere to park. Any city street, town or village in England is now invisible below chest level: all you can see is an endless length of shining metal, glass and rubber. But while the cars get faster and more luxurious the average travelling times get slower…and here?s the conundrum.
While prepping for a recent job I decided to check out the work of a director who seems to specialize in car commercials – mostly for the British market. One commercial shows a car hurtling across the desert in a race with a massive train to see who will be first to make the level crossing. The car wins of course. In another a 60 year old Dennis Hopper driving through the bleak terrain finds himself driving alongside the 25 (?) year old image of himself from Easy Rider. Conclusion: drive this car (a Peugeot I think) and you?ll be an Easy Rider free to go wherever you like. In a third, which was at last in a city, Steve McQueen had been brought back from the dead to race some nimble little number through the streets of San Francisco to park in a garage along with his hog. At the end of the spot the bike disappears inferring that with this car in your carport you won?t be needing a Harley and a biker chick to get your kicks. Ironically the traffic in San Francisco is now so bad you?d need a permit and a whole bunch of traffic cops to get up to the kind of speeds we see in the commercial.
My point is we?re all buying into a big pile of car-doo here. How many of us actually get to drive down the endless grey ribbon with the warm wind in our hair and our foot on the floor? If you live in Europe you?re more likely to be stuck in traffic than zooming down the open highway. Even if you live in Arizona or New Mexico and have an endless stretch of road in front of you you?re not really allowed to drive over 65! None of us will EVER live this automotive dream!
The car represents so much to us all: prosperity, success, status, freedom, nostalgia, power – but are we really getting any of this? If only public transport were better. It?s more sociable, you can actually WATCH the scenery go past and you can read a book. Oh yeah I think trains are really sexy too. Ever got it on on a train? Fabulous!