Nearly 100 years ago, Claude Friese-Greene filmed a travelogue called The Open Road. The film is a documentary showing scenes of life in Britain in the decade after the First World War. The country and countryside were in transition. Horse-drawn agriculture rather than mechanisation was shown, and the film even showed oxen pulling carts. Not a tractor to be seen, though Ford was producing them in Ireland at the time. The road network was being tarmacked but, in many rural areas, rutted tracks and un-tarmacked roads were the conditions that the Friese-Greene’s Vauxhall had to overcome.
Britain was about to enter the motoring age. In 1920 the number of private cars registered was 187,000. Four years after the film was made in 1930, that figure rose to one million and, by 1939, 1.523 million cars were registered. Today that figure is now over 32 million.
The film shows a lost world of dusty country byways, few cars, and urban scenes where public transport (buses and trams) predominate. There were scenes of poverty dressed up by Friese-Greene as picturesque. Nowadays those picturesque village and coastal properties would be ‘restored’ second homes. Friese-Greene’s Vauxhall is shown driving on roads that were empty of traffic. Windermere is shown with narrow roads and no traffic to speak of, yet today it is nose-to-tail with motor traffic, especially during the tourist season.
Friese-Greene was in some ways too successful. The idea of The Open Road has remained with us as an icon and something to aspire to. Advertisements for cars, especially SUVs, often reprise The Open Road, by showing SUVs with a happy nuclear family (two adults and two children) heading off on the open road, with no other car in sight. In reality, the actual experience of car ownership is of delay and frustration on our motorways and trunk roads, and congestion in our towns and cities.
Since the time of The Open Road, cars have become more numerous, heavier and larger (since 1970, cars have become 25% larger and considerably heavier).
The Clarksonian fringe
The fantasy of The Open Road is a partial explanation of the activities of what I have termed ‘the Clarksonian fringe’. These latter-day Toads of Toad Hall pooh-pooh things they consider ‘anti car’. From breathalysers and seat belts to roadside cameras, low traffic neighbourhoods, and of course ULEZ, they actively oppose them, sometimes by breaking the law.
The Daily Mail and Daily Express extol the vandalism and destruction of Transport for London (TfL) ultra-low-emission-zone (ULEZ) cameras, and the current government and Conservative county councils have given counsel and in some ways tacit support, based on the war against the car sloganeering. It is therefore ironic that these upholders of ‘law and order’ are supportive of a vocal minority of motoring refuseniks, who are using means that would normally be criticised as being anti-social. As it turns out, 95% of the vehicles entering the ultra-low-emission-zone are compliant, and therefore the bonanza of fines that TFL’s critics have laid out as a defence have not really been sustained. Some 52,000 non-ULEZ vehicles sounds a lot but, in the context of London, it’s a small number. In the future, even this number will shrink to a nullity.
The Open Road documented Britain’s transformation from a horse-drawn society with an unchanging social and built environment, to the modern age of connectivity in which we live today. Now another transformation may be happening, because of climate change, changing work patterns, and a desire to live in a world where the car becomes the servant, rather than the master of urban life.
There is little point in replacing 32 million fossil-fuelled cars with electric versions, as all that will do will be to replicate the traffic problems of today with green energy vehicles.
To reduce congestion, the autonomous car and bus might need to supersede the vehicles we know today. The government is supportive of this technological change, but the anti-ULEZ warriors are just as likely to indulge in a little machine-breaking, as they do over ULEZ cameras. In California, driverless cars were pulled from the road, after several incidents. In my view, digital autonomous vehicles will not be able to operate in an analogue highway system for several years, and will therefore require their own lanes, similar to bus lanes. This may not be possible everywhere and there could be a conflict over who has the priority in limited road space, as there is over bus and cycle lanes.
Our transport systems have limited sustainability. What we have at present is a car-dominated, car-reliant, built environment, where human beings have to fit in with the car. The car has out-competed public transport and cycling. Even walking in some urban environments is trammelled, as increased vehicle numbers and limited road space, have seen cars parked on pavements, near high-density pre-car era housing. Efforts to restrict the car face constant resistance. The same people who dislike ULEZ don’t like LTNs either, and the government’s review of the low-traffic-neighbourhood network is not helpful.
In rural areas, the car’s dominance is total. Rural public transport is in steep decline or is non-existent. Direct Response Transport or DRT public transport schemes are being tried in some areas, but they are very expensive to set up and, in 95% of council-run services, they run at a loss. The Open University has examined why they fail, yet new schemes continue to be funded in very similar ways.
Return of rural isolation
Rural areas are becoming as isolated as they once were before The Open Road was filmed. Many rural communities now contain elderly inhabitants, as rural communities are now synonymous with retirement. How will the elderly be cared for and how will they socialise, if access to a car is a prerequisite for rural living?
What we have not yet built is a non car-dependent community on any scale. There are examples such as Culdesac in the USA and the original garden suburbs and garden cities of the Edwardian era, which were intended to be walkable communities. However, the same Clarksonian car rights fringe has been vocal in its complaints, and conspiracy theories abound over the iniquities of 15-minute-cities As a result the transformation to a sustainable urban life has been held back. As for the so-called garden towns and cities planned for the near future, they appear to be little more than slogans used by the major house builders to get around planning restrictions. I will be looking at these in a future article entitled ‘In search of Arcadia’.
In 1926, the industrial areas and metropolitan areas of Britain suffered from pollution caused by coal burning and noxious industrial processes but, in contrast in rural areas, pesticides were little used, and the post-war slump in agriculture, caused nature to flourish. The Open Road is a charming piece of mid-20th-century whimsy and, as such, it recorded a bygone way of life.
In 2023, the post-war deindustrialisation of Britain, and the intensification of agricultural techniques created a reverse effect, where nature is becoming reliant on urban-refuges and, as a result, urban areas are becoming important in sustaining nature and biodiversity.
One thing The Open Road did not show was the death toll on the roads. In 1926, the year The Open Road was produced, 4,886 persons died in road accidents. By 1930 it had reached 7,300. Something had to be done, so driving competency tests, MOTs etc were made mandatory in the 1930s. The death rate eased over the decades as cars became safer and more safety legislation was introduced, but still rose sharply. Today the death rate hovers around 1,800 to 2,000, with much larger numbers of cars on the road.
Failure to upgrade human beings
Motor vehicles have been upgraded for safety in the 100 years since The Open Road was produced, but alas it has not been possible to upgrade pedestrians and cyclists, and they are still being mown down in large numbers by motorists, who also have not been upgraded in line with their vehicles’ safety management systems.
On 11 November each year, we remember the dead from two world wars and subsequent conflicts. Perhaps we should also have a day of remembrance for the millions killed and injured by cars in the 100 years since The Open Road was produced.
The Open Road can be seen free here.