It’s five o’clock on a June Paris afternoon, and the pavement tables outside a small left bank cafe begin to fill with an eclectic mix of home-bound office workers, tourists and the St Germain smart set. A steady stream of cyclists, scooter and motorcycle riders, light commercial vehicles and cars, mostly Euro-boxes, passes by. Some also emerge from the narrow street opposite.
There is plenty to watch. From time to time one of those on wheels recognises one of those who is drinking, and friendly exchanges take place. There is a good-natured buzz on the warm air.
An open blue Chapron bodied-Citroen DS21 glides past, suave grey-bearded middle-aged playboy at the iconic single-spoke wheel, much younger blonde clutching small dog by his side. The cafe customers look on with approval. The Citroeniste smiles and waves.
Meanwhile in London, Big Ben strikes four, and from a St James club several jovial, well-dressed gentlemen emerge reluctantly from a long lunch into a light rain, to be greeted by umbrella-wielding chauffeurs who help them into an awaiting Rolls-Royce Phantom and Mercedes S-Class. Red buses and black cabs splash by. Suddenly the afternoon’s normality is broken by the deep hollow exhaust note of a 1930 Speed Six Bentley, its tweedy, flat-capped driver swinging the green Vanden Plas bodied open tourer out of Jermyn Street with a jaunty flourish, to the delight of onlookers.
In New York it’s eleven on a hot morning, and as steam rises from beneath Manhattan streets, to the background wail of emergency vehicle sirens, a Checker Cab, white Lincoln stretch limo and muscular black Cadillac Escalade, two wise guys onboard, compete for the same piece of tarmac at the intersection of Park Avenue and East 72nd Street. Horns sound and arms are waved, much to the amusement of those sitting outside an adjacent deli as they pause between mouthfuls of pastrami on rye.
So what’s going on here, and what does it all mean?
There is a widely held belief that traffic is not a good thing, causing danger, delays, frustration and pollution. Yes, it does all of these things, but could it also be a positive dynamic element that enriches city life?
That I am viewing this possibility through the eyes of a car enthusiast is freely acknowledged, as is an obvious prejudice. However, in a former life I was a chartered town and country planner, and therefore have some understanding of how urban areas function, and the elements necessary to create vibrant spaces allowing rewarding human interaction.
Some urban spaces function better without motorised traffic as they are of human scale, the Italian piazza and associated narrow Medieval streets being good examples. But just imagine the Champs Elysées and Étoile, Piccadilly and St James, Park Avenue and Broadway without traffic. These spaces are too large to fill with people. They need movement and interest, in other words traffic.
Traffic takes many forms, all potentially meaningful within the urban experience. In Venice it’s the constant flow of gondolas, vaporetti water buses and taxis, private launches and working boats, carrying everything from daffodils to the deceased, criss-crossing broad canals and disappearing beneath bridges into mysterious tributaries.
In Saigon, wave after wave of bicycles and mopeds, some carrying an entire family, their pets and luggage, enlivens the street scene, while in Shanghai there is that intriguing mix of traditional ox carts, bikes, and new money Mercs, Lamborghinis and Range Rovers vying for road space. Each example provides a compelling sensory experience for the observer, reinforcing the Roman concept of genius loci: sense of place. This differentiates Paris from New York from London from Venice from Saigon from Shanghai.
Yet clearly there is a difference between being an observer and being part of traffic. The former experiences the big picture, from arrival in a city to departure, absorbing atmosphere and character. The participant undergoes both the exhilaration and the frustration traffic has to offer, and there are few more mind-numbing driving experiences than gridlock. However, traffic can also be a source of fun and surprise.
On my first visit to the Sicilian capital of Palermo I recall approaching a railway crossing in a Fiat hire car amid heavy traffic. Italian drivers enjoy a not entirely unjustified reputation for being somewhat robust, and in that regard it is often best to just to go with it, for at least they are generally decisive. However, I wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen next.
That red lights were treated merely as advisory in Sicily had already been established during my journey thus far from the airport, but as the railway crossing drew closer red warning lights began flashing, bells rang, and the barrier began to descend. Nobody lifted. As it came lower, first the trucks were reluctantly forced to stop, then the cars, and finally the scooters, but only when no head room remained even for them. A local train slowly trundled past. Then, as the barrier gradually lifted, the scooters shot away, followed by the cars, and lastly the trucks, like greyhounds released from a trap. A scary experience for some, but a life-affirming Italian moment for others.
But wait, you say. Even if I buy this “traffic is interesting” stuff, and those Latin words, traffic must still be bad as it pollutes. Surely health risk must outweigh cultural experience, as the dead don’t have much use for culture?
Not necessarily. Vehicles will become cleaner, whether powered by the internal combustion engine, hydrogen or electricity. Society and clever people will see to that. Trams, particularly original Victorian examples, are a wonderful example of clean transport that adds so much to the colour and vitality of urban areas where they have been wisely retained, and many are the cities across the world that rue the day tramlines were torn up, only later to recognise their mistake and reinstate them at considerate cost. And, as a matter of interest, a traffic engineer once told me that self-regulation is the most effective form of traffic management. In other words, when things become too inconvenient or unbearable for drivers, alternative routes or other forms of transport are chosen, irrespective of congestion charging and the like.
So yes, traffic provides challenges, but also the enlivenment and enrichment of urban life, and I for one could not countenance walking through sterile empty streets devoid of any vehicular movement, denied the possibility of stumbling upon a discretely parked classic, or something equally mobile, interesting or unusual. Furthermore, I look forward to sitting in the sun, nursing a cold beer, and watching the bewildered faces of passengers in autonomous cars navigating the streets of Naples. And what better place to rest my case?