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Congestion charging: latest round in the fight between cars and cities

In all the massive pre-publicity given to the introduction of congestion charging this week, there was one name conspicuous by its absence - Trammell Crow - the greatest property developer of all time and the author of the highly appropriate aphorism, 'I like congestion, it's better than recession.'

This is a pity because no one else involved in the recent battle over anti-congestion measures in London ever went as far as Crow - the father of modern Dallas - in holding that, far from being a disaster, congestion is actually an indicator of high economic activity. Instead, the conventional wisdom on the subject embraced a horrendous misreading of Charles Darwin, converting his central insight - that the environment is the master of the species - into its reverse, a mad world where the species self-destructively changes sides and goes to work for the environment instead.

Although in the run up to 'CDay' they were billed as one side in a Star Wars struggle between rival technologies - elaborate official detection measures versus the ingenuity of undocumented intruders - London's present anti-congestion policy is really no more than another round in the contest between cars and cities that has been going on ever since mass motorisation began in the US in the 1920s. Unlike central London today, at that time cars were welcomed in American cities. As Richard Longstreth's fascinating book, City Centre to Regional Mall (MIT 1997) explained, the whole urban infrastructure was altered to accommodate them.As yet unbuilt city blocks were turned over to groundlevel parking, and buildings adjacent to department stores were knocked down and replaced by seven and eight storey parking garages.

By 1925, the car was absorbed into the gridiron plan of the American city to an extent that it has never been absorbed into the convoluted plan of an old European city like London. Never, that is, except once, and that was in the 1940s and '50s when the Blitz, and the bomb sites it left behind it, provided the city with cheap and plentiful parking spaces on the scale of their American predecessors for several years. This period must have been the golden age of parking in London and the most harmonious period of car and city coexistence ever experienced, with dual carriageways and drive-in banks in the city and barely two million registered motor cars in the whole country, as opposed to 24 million today.

Clearly it could not last. Cars were not universally popular in towns. As the American planner Victor Gruen put it: 'No automobile, not even a Cadillac, ever bought a thing.' The city's retail interests were persuaded that in the age of the Internet their customers could do without cars and the big squeeze began. Rejecting any connection between traffic congestion and prosperity, the city dismissed the bomb site era and started to plough through more American traffic history instead. This time, they glommed onto the 1940s contest between city-centre retail, designed to catch commuters, and suburban retail, built where people lived and land was cheap.

Rerunning this anti-car contest 60 years later, with a hi-tech variant of a medieval city wall, a few buses and an underground railway, parts of which date from before German unification, seems like a forlorn and complicated enterprise. Perhaps a lot of grief could have been avoided if the eight square miles of the congestion charging area had been physically separated from the rest of the city, Cold War Berlin style, allowing communication between the two communities on foot only and by special adhesive pass holders.

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