Motoring: Bridges close, roads are ripped up - and the British grin and bear it
Saturday 22 February 1997
And then, in a masterpiece of strategic planning, other local authorities decide to rip up Putney High Street (main connecting road to Putney Bridge, the nearest eastern river crossing to Hammersmith Bridge) and Chiswick High Street (one of the main connections to Chiswick Bridge, nearest western river crossing) at precisely the same time. To put it in a typically British understated way, "There are lengthy tailbacks".
Tailbacks! Putney and Chiswick bridges have become giant parking lots for much of the day. You half expect a little bloke wearing a yellow NCP jacket to come up and tell you to park closer to the car in front.
Has there been a groundswell of outrage in forcibly isolated SoWeLo, caused by such inept transport planning? Have Londoners and transport firms, who must be losing truckloads of money because of the partial paralysis of our city, been up in arms? Have the eco groups been digging holes in the ground for Swampy and his mates to mount protests against all the extra exhaust pollution caused by these wasteful traffic jams? In fact, there has hardly been so much as a peep.
No, the British keep their upper lips stiff and grin and bear it, just as we always do. This is an admirable quality of the British in many ways, and I'm convinced it helps win wars and avoid revolutions. But it does not make for efficient government, a discerning electorate or good public services.
Add a growing anti-car sentiment and it's easy to see why the tardy Hammersmith Bridge repair programme is being met with such down-in-arms languor. We all know we should use cars less in London. Ergo, anything that makes motoring more miserable is OK.
A Japanese friend, in town for a few weeks, couldn't believe it. He tells me that in Tokyo workmen attack road repairs as English football fans attack post-match pints. They work primarily at night to avoid causing traffic delays. And they throw as many people and as much equipment as possible at the job, to finish it in the shortest possible time. Major roadworks are often completed overnight.
About the only good news in the whole sorry episode is that the Department of Transport has finally promised to come up with a computerised Street Works Register by spring, so that in future local authorities don't all dig up their roads at the same time. The words "long" and "overdue" spring to mind.
I am one of the few SoWeLo inhabitants who does have a Tube station nearby and, owing to the congestion in the area, I've been using the Tube rather more recently. But is it just my imagination, or does the Underground also seem to be going down the tube? The other day, I was stuck in the middle of a tunnel near Baker Street station for 20 minutes in a train packed with overcoated people in increasingly stifling heat. There were two messages over the PA: the usual signal failure was to blame, but assurances that we would soon be on our way were wildly optimistic. A child was crying and some people were becoming fretful, a young American woman among them. "How can you people put up with this?" she screamed in frustration. Of course nobody answered. There was nothing to say.
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