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23 September 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

'I hate driving in my car'
Londoners are being asked to sign a pledge against the four-wheeled demon.

by Austin Williams

Imagine the scene. Groups of youngsters lining up to sign a pledge that they will fight the cravings for grown-up love affairs, that they will not capitulate to their objects of desire. These kids would rather walk that extra mile than be falsely wedded to a passing fancy. They pledge to do the right thing - what might be called the Silver Walking/Cycling Thing.

The 'Good Going' pledge, introduced by local authorities across London in the past few weeks, states that the signatories will do their bit for the environment, their fellow man and for the city they love. Short and sharp, it reads:

'I know I can improve the health and quality of life for everyone living, working, visiting or being educated in London by reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions in the capital. That's why I pledge my support to Good Going - travel awareness in London.'

From the moment that they sign, they pledge to cycle, walk and use public transport 'where possible'. Even though they should fight the temptation to get in a demon car, the pledge allows for car sharing or using low-emission vehicles when this is an option. For the uninitiated, Travelwise ('a one-stop shop for all your travel needs') helpfully explains that car sharing is when 'two or more people share a car and travel together'.

Given the desire for local authorities to make participatory democracy as convenient as possible, Tower Hamlets council, among others, states that you should email them with the words 'I pledge my support to Good Going', and that'll do. You could probably do that from a laptop in the car.

The innocuous Good Going scheme has been devised by David Pye, erstwhile principal transport planner for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Not a man to use one word where 10 will do, he says that he wants a 'cost-effective way of running a wide-ranging, far-reaching and very high-profile travel awareness campaign that will be of relevance to and embraced by all sectors of the community'. The campaign aims to recruit 50,000 pledge cardholders by November 2004. At the time of writing, two weeks into the campaign, 67 people have signed up. However, by offering a range of 'London-wide and area specific offers and incentives' the organisers hope to boost numbers in the remaining six weeks.

Whether people respond cynically, grab a goodie bag and get back in their car is not really the issue. The pledge only suggests that you use alternative transport to the car when this is a viable option - which is a trade-off that we make every day. That local authorities seek to formalise such choices shows their curious understanding of democratic engagement, as complicating, regulating and ratifying simple day-to-day decisions. The notion that authorities might improve the transport infrastructure to allow residents to make real choices is not even on the agenda.

Good Going is the latest in a long line of pro-walking initiatives that have grown in popularity recently - mainly with local authority officials and their sustainable transport consultants than with actual residents.

One regular feature on the annual pro-walking calendar is the national and international Car-Free Day on 22 September which as usual will include street parties and carnivals stretching across the highway to block traffic (1). When street parties happened in the past, the party was the objective and nobody in their right mind expected to drive through it. Today, the objective is to ban cars and the party is a manipulative device. Rather than simply aiming to provide a free cup of tea and a sandwich, these markets and festivals are being swamped with 'worthy' objectives. Leytonstone in east London, for example, is holding a carnival with the intention to 'raise awareness of the health and environmental benefits of sustainable living and sustainable transport' (2). That should be a hoot.

One thing that is missing is any real discussion about transport
ITV has joined in the fun, offering stepometers to anyone who walks to the Princes Trust 'Worth the Walk to Trafalgar Square' event, where you will find a range of activities 'from live music, DJ's and creative business stalls'. A cycle-share scheme has been set up and 20 orange bikes are being donated as an act of international friendship, 'to reflect and nurture the relaxing, hip and civilised brand values inherent in the Dutch city break product' (3).

Lottery-style prize draws are being offered for those loyalty cardholders who have taken the Good Going pledge. But these overbearing and contemptuous attempts at behavioural modification are likely to elicit an increasingly pragmatic public response to local authority political campaigns.

One thing that is missing is any real discussion about transport. The whole active participation thing is a sham, summed up by fact that it requires nothing more that a passive signature on a piece of paper, which is meant to be your own personal statement of intent. This is compounded by the fact that there are no real obligations with which to comply.

There is a cynical and manipulative undercurrent behind these campaigns, shown particularly in the way in which children are being targeted to pester their parents to change their ways. The Good Going campaign has enlisted the help of the Go Go Crew, a cartoon band 'with street cred' that is supposed to appeal to youngsters and teach them the importance of alternative forms of transport to the car. 'Moreover', says the website, 'children will often take this message into the home and by doing so will put pressure on parents and guardians'. It emphasises that even though the cartoon band is designed with '"cred" and "attitude" they still know right from wrong which is vital' - and 'while children will associate with the Go Go Crew, they have been designed so that their parents will not resent or be alienated by them'.

Talk about treating adults as morons. The fact that local authorities are either too lazy or too cowardly to have the argument out, and are using children as an undercover stage army to worm policy decisions into people's homes is something that George Orwell couldn't have dreamed up.

These insidious campaigns appear to engineer a disparity between adult and car - but the disparity that is actually developing is between politicians and politics; local authority and electorate; and more worryingly, between parent and child.

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project.

(1) See mobilityweek-europe.org

(2) Pedestrians Take to the Streets on Car Free Day, Waltham Forest Direct

(3) Bikes for Londoners from the cities of Holland, Good Going website

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