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Who owns the roads?
Historian ROBERT POOLE describes how common rights to the highways were abandoned decades ago.
"Do you think you own the road?!" The cry of outrage reserved for the selfish fellow-motorist expresses a universal belief: the roads are public, and should be free for all to use. There is a right to drive as basic as the right of way. When the roads are blocked, when the public highway space fails the public, everyone knows that something is wrong. But what? The current crisis over the use of public highways has some interesting parallels in the crisis over public common lands in the enclosure movement of some 200 years ago.
The common right to use the roads is widely valued. If you have a car, it makes sense to use it on the public roads, even though the benefit to you is exceeded by the cost to society in terms of pollution, danger and delay. The public highways, like the commons, are becoming overstocked, and the time is approaching when they will lose their common value - indeed, it has already arrived in the form of the gridlock. Already, enclosure-style solutions are being heard: privatisation, toll roads, pay-as-you-drive. And the outcry against the loss of the common right to drive threatens to be as sharp as that against the loss of other common rights two hundred years ago.
Well, that's how it may seem to today's motorists, but from the point of view of other road users, common rights to the highways were abandoned decades ago; the effective "enclosure" of the roads began with their domination by the private car after the war. Any old photograph of a pre-war street scene shows how far this has gone. The ordinary streets are full of people walking all ways over them, children playing, dogs, stalls and barrows. The streets are as public as the market place. In period drama, the coach owner who cracks his whip and drives on, sending the poor pedestrians cowering to the edges, is always a villain. The private car since 1945 has done just this, albeit less dramatically. The roads have already been privatised, and the new owner is the car.
What is to be done? Things are not as bad as they seem. The "enclosure" of the roads is no more inevitable than the enclosure of the commons. Some historians have argued that the large-scale enclosure - we might now say privatisation -of common lands in the 18th and 19th centuries was made inevitable by the sheer pressure on them. Enclosure was a sad necessity, to save for a private few what had already been lost to all.
But the commons were managed effectively for centuries after they came under pressure. Manorial courts put down abuses of the commons, "stinted" or rationed grazing, and generally managed common resources pretty well. The commons did not fail; they were confiscated.
In the same way, we know that the regulation of public streets to curb domination by one class of traffic can work. Furthermore, unlike the enclosure of the common fields, the motorisation of the public highways can be reversed. They have not yet been confiscated; legally, they remain a public resource, not a motorist's monopoly. We also have tried and tested means to make shared use work. We can apportion road space to different classes of user, with wider pavements, cycle tracks, bus lanes, shared-car lanes, zebra crossings, tramlines and so on. We can also apportion roads by time: loading in early morning and evening, cycle access through pedestrian zones during commuting hours, pedestrianisa-tion during core hours, and so on. And we also know how to design roads to allow motor vehicles and other road users to mix safely, through traffic calming, streetscaping, residents' parking, and all the design tricks of the Dutch footstreets.
To some, this may seem like carving up the public roads into little private packets for separate classes of user; in the UK the old Cyclists' Touring Club hostility to separate provision for cycles was born of such a fear. Viewed in perspective, however, it is the right regulation of the public roads to ensure that they remain genuinely public. The private car is over-grazing our common roads, and we want them back.
The history lesson, then, is this: there need be no "tragedy of the commons" on the common roads. The public highways, though sorely abused, remain public. Regulation can work, and we need not fight a class war between motorists and non-motorists to settle the issue, for most of us are both. It takes vision, and a long-term vision at that, to see what direction things are moving in, but we have more than visions to go on. We need look no further than an old photograph, or a "reclaim the streets" party, or a well-designed cycle priority route, to see what a real public highway looks like. Down with the underpasses and barriers, and long live the truly public highway!
De Motu Urbanorum
The things we share