1986 was the year of car dependence. Thirty years on, have politicians learned nothing?

Another happy day on the M25. Image: Getty.

Anniversaries are big news: the media like them because they offer pegs for rehashing previous news stories and, sometimes, reflecting on the past. But recent weeks have seen a couple of 30th anniversaries that the media have more or less ignored, but which had profound consequences for the way we travel.

First, there was 29 October 1986, the day the M25 opened in its entirety. The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher performed the opening: there are pictures of her on an otherwise deserted motorway, a practical illustration of the “Great Car Economy” that she praised in later speeches.

The new motorway had taken over a decade of planning and construction, and the M25’s origins went back much further still, to post war planning for London and the surrounding South East. Latterly, it had been one of three Ringways, orbital motorways around or in London, and the only one that was finished. These were supposed to solve London congestion and respond to rising car ownership and use. The same thinking led, in 1989, to a government road building programme, described by the then Transport Secretary as “the biggest road programme since the Romans”.

But in fact, the M25 became a by-word for traffic jams. Rather than acting as the “bypass for London”, it generated lots of local traffic, spurred in part by developments around it, like the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex. Extra lanes were added in the 1990s, but traffic, and therefore congestion, increased alongside those extra lanes.

The M25 became an illustration of a truth, increasingly accepted during the 1990s and 2000: that it’s not possible to build your way out of congestion, because road building simply generates traffic. When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, it scaled back the road programme and commissioned a series of “multi-modal studies”, including one for the M25. The main consultant on that study described widening the M25 as being like “digging a ditch in a bog”, and recommended forms of road charging or traffic restraint instead.


All of these lessons appear to have been forgotten. We are back to an era of road building, with a widespread belief that it’s possible to meet demand for road use by building and widening roads. The “predict and provide” forecasts and models that justify road building, based on extrapolating past trends, are still in place, despite noises about moving to a range of scenarios instead. There is serious talk of double-decking the M25 to cope with future traffic growth, especially around Heathrow with its proposed third runway. Issues of air quality and climate change are ignored, because of a belief - one not founded in any serious research - that by 2040 all cars will be electric, and possibly driverless too.

The second anniversary came just a day later: on 30 October 1986, bus services outside London were deregulated. This was supposed to reverse previous declines in bus use; but if anything, it accelerated it. “Bus wars” broke out on various city streets, as rival companies raced to pick up passengers. Integrated ticketing and low fares policies, like that adopted by South Yorkshire Council, disappeared. 

Gradually the industry consolidated, and indeed has invested in new buses and on upgrading the offer on key routes. However, the industry's focus on “commercial” profitable routes has effectively prohibited the cross-subsidisation of council-subsidised, unprofitable ones as well as evening and weekend services. This, alongside local council cuts, has meant a near-total disappearance of socially necessary services in some areas. 

These two days in 1986 saw two major events that together massively increased people’s dependence on cars as the only way to get around. Buses became less useful and attractive as an alternative to cars for many journeys; government investment became focused on roads, especially for local transport outside the big cities.

These plans were combined with a deregulation of the planning system. Nicholas Ridley, the architect of bus deregulation as Transport Secretary, moved on to the Department of the Environment and on appeal allowed through a large number of car-based out of town shopping centres and housing developments. The abolition of the metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council, also in 1986, furthered weakened attempts to link land use and transport planning.

Some of these decisions are now being reversed. The creation of an elected mayor for London, with Transport for London as a co-ordinating and planning authority, is seen generally as a success, and next year there will be elections for mayors for some other city regions, like Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Merseyside. A new Bus Services Bill will give these mayors powers to franchise bus services in their area, reversing bus deregulation and creating new and stronger partnerships between councils and bus operators.  New sub-national transport bodies like Transport for the North are being created, too.

But we still require a framework for providing and investing in alternatives to car travel rather than simply adding lanes to roads and tackling “pinch points”, which usually just moves traffic jams elsewhere. Until the lessons from the M25 have been fully learned, we will continue to suffer from the 1986 transport and planning deregulation, and the congestion, pollution and car dependence that it has brought.

Stephen Joseph is executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport.

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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