As Austin Williams pointed out during last week's debate on the congestion charge, '10 years ago you had to be a bit of an anorak to talk about transport'. And although he suggested that 'now it's the hot topic', it does seem that you still have to be a man, of a certain kind. Maybe it is ridiculous, as another contributor protested, to refer to 'Mondeo man' in general as 'someone to stigmatise'. But from this debate, one would assume that this being is quintessentially male - despite the fact local authorities everywhere are clamping down on 'the school run' as one of the key contributing factors to congestion and, hence, women and children as a prime target in the attribution of blame.
There was no sign of this constituency at this debate, although the case for the congestion charge as a form of outrageous imposed moral censure, constraining the freedom of the (male) individual in an unacceptable manner, generated a great deal of passion both on the platform and the floor. It did sound rather like the last vehement protests of Mondeo man in his death throes, so wildly exaggerated the accusation seemed to be.
According to Tony Gilland, Science and Society director at the Institute of Ideas, 'congestion is an attempt to regulate our lives - to make them smaller, and duller' and, moreover, 'a thriving centre requires a degree of congestion'. Perhaps, but does he really mean the congestion manifested by narrow streets of steaming nose-to-tail metal and throbbing engines?
Strangely, no mention was made of the successful measures taken by other European cities to limit vehicular traffic in urban centres - for example, Copenhagen, where the economic and social triumph generated by the progressive elimination of cars was demonstrated by Jan Gehl in last year's UDAL annual lecture. Instead, Williams was at pains to suggest our perception of vehicular congestion was 'just a paranoia'. It was also suggested that the problem of congestion was no different 100 years ago, without any reference to the fact that the motor car hardly existed at that time.
It fell to Lord Julian Hunt to endorse the congestion charge as 'the first step' towards a more integrated environmental policy, and a long-overdue indication of recognition that 'transport and the environment' go together. Francis Terry pointed out that, as people who pay the charge should benefit from a better journey, it effectively represents value for money. If, on the other hand, it is true that the congestion charge represents a 'deadend' solution in the absence of any true spirit of enterprise or political vision - even, perhaps, part of a sinister 'politics of population control' - none of the speakers had any alternative 'big idea' to offer. Perhaps this will only emerge once we can write off the charge as a failure.
The debate on the congestion charge, organised by the Transport Research Group, was held at the Bloomberg Auditorium, London EC2. Two further debates take place today (20 February) and 27 February. For details contact mail@transportresearch. org. uk or visit www. transportresearch. org. uk