17 April. Commentators on the impact of the lockdown on the roads have been comparing traffic to the 1950s. The density is down to levels not seen since the post-war years when car ownership was still largely the preserve of the middle classes, and the railways carried a large, if declining, volume of freight.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to test this thesis. I had to break my house arrest for the one permitted purpose, a medical appointment (not related to Coronavirus) in Manchester, which is a round trip of 150 miles. It was the first time I had started my car, or passed through my front gate, for almost a month. I was both curious and a little nervous as I set out on the journey.
What I found was a change, but less of a transformation than I had expected. The roads were quiet, but not deserted. They felt less like one o’clock in the morning as six. There was a good deal of heavy traffic and about as many cars. The lanes around my house still were obstructed by tractors, one carrying an immense harrow which threated to decapitate any passing motorist. Despite all the closures in retail and manufacture, there were goods to be transported, and a fair few people who apparently had necessary journeys to make. Britain still seemed to be alive and, relatively speaking, busy. The roads felt not so much empty as carrying the traffic they were originally designed for. There were no queues at lights or roundabouts, no bottlenecks as the Manchester conurbation was reached. When Charlotte and I drive in for a play or a concert, we leave at least half an hour for delays. This time I swept in and out of the city without a moment’s loss.
There is more to the experience of roads than the statistical density of traffic. I was a passenger in the 1950s and 1960s, buying my first car out of tutorial earnings as a Cambridge postgraduate in 1972. My parents owned a series of Morris Minor Travellers, the iconic half-timbered estate. They were for their time reliable and versatile. But against any modern car, they were slow, noisy and cramped. We three children were jammed together on a beltless back seat. My Volvo is incomparably more comfortable, more spacious, more pleasant to drive, and safer. The roads may have carried fewer cars, but they took them through rather than round the built-up areas. My route to Manchester would have had to negotiate the high streets of Welsh market towns and the city suburbs. My actual journey time yesterday, along the A5 and the M56, door-to-door, was 80 minutes in each direction for 75 miles, an inconceivable speed in the fabled fifties.
Whether we shall all get back into our cars once the lock-down is over remains to be seen. The only way to enjoy the benefits of the 1950s without the inconvenience, is to revive the post-war networks of public transport (but with better trains, trams and buses).