Don’t get me wrong. I like cars (I think I’ve told you before about my perfect, photographic recollection of every car made anywhere in the world before the Clash’s third single). But I’m also the crazy fuck standing on the kerb outside his house in his pyjamas yelling at the ladies in their black-windowed 4x4s (because you need absolute privacy on the school run) as they speed up the hill, gunning their torquey five-and-a-half-litre V8s to overcome the nasty 1-in-40 incline. Because I am prematurely old and because, when behind the wheel, I already so pathetically hug the underside of the applicable speed limit as to make even my smug self feel slightly sick, I want cars to slow down.
They go much too fast. We’ve surrendered our streets to speeding half-guided weapons, armoured shrines to luxury, seclusion, individual liberty and generalised disregard for others. I’m no knee-jerk green or slow-witted communitarian (really, I’m not) but we’ve got this seriously wrong. Cars are now so large, so heavy, so powerful and so lethal on contact with anything softer than, well, another car, that they’ve caused us to suspend centuries of fragile urban civility in favour of a kind of low grade warfare – and we barely notice because we know no better. We can’t imagine our streets and lanes without nose-to-tail Vectras and Freelanders and Mondeos.
The balance of power on our streets is now so uneven that a walk to the shops for me and my kids is a miserable, stressful ordeal when it could be a rewarding interaction with our otherwise-quite-nice semi-rural environment and an opportunity for conversation, play and friendship. No such luck. Roads are important – they make possible trade, movement of labour and ideas, communication between communities (which is what keeps the inbreeding under control) but in their present, terrifying form they’re rigid and divisive and socially unhelpful. The stream of over-specified, over-powered and over-weight cars that fills them needs to be slowed down: we need calmer, more friendly and usable streets and a change to our attitude to getting around. If we can adjust to travelling more slowly (at least by car), I imagine a generation of cars built to a different standard: a capped maximum speed of 10 or 15 mph will mean there’ll be no need for Euro NCAP ratings, airbags or safety cages.
Cars will change radically: the dominant design metaphor won’t be the bathysphere or armoured car or cruise missile on which most cars are modelled but something lighter and less forbidding: cars will be made from folded waxed paper, parachute silk, porcelain, lacquered wood, wicker. Temporary cars of papier maché, spun sugar, ice or woven reeds will come and go like Mayflies before being folded into the recycling bin. The dead art of coachbuilding will be revived: your hydrogen-powered chassis will get a new body once a month – something seasonal, perhaps something you knitted yourself or grew in the garden or whittled in the shed. We’ll be less precious about our cars, too: jamming your squashy, wipe-clean, Liberty print motor into a parking space that’s actually a bit too small will cause no stress at all and nobody driving a blue plastic car (purchased from Ikea) at 5mph can succumb to road rage. Of course, a big, cultural change like this would probably cause Jeremy Clarkson to emigrate or throw himself from a bridge but there’s probably a downside too…