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Pros and cons of cars

A view from the past

3rd October 2018

John Dickinson lived from 1844 to 1912. He spent most of his life in Timble, in the Washburn Valley, and moved to Otley in later years to be closer to where he did most of his business. I've enjoyed reading his diaries, edited by Ronald Harker: Timble Man, Diaries of a Dalesman.

The diaries give lots of interesting insights into the times Dickinson lived through. His world seems very different to ours, but then - especially towards the end of his life - not so far off our modern one.

Walking and hedgehogs

He does a lot of walking. When living at Timble, he's often off early on foot to Otley. For example, on Sunday 20th April 1878, Up by 6. Walked to Otley by 9.

Because there were no cars at that time, there were more hedgehogs. 20th June 1878: Got tipsy at Robert Fishers. Came home soon after 10 to bed. Brought a hedgehog home. It knocked about wonderful during the night.

In 1891, the diarist notes, I drive in my own conveyance now. I think it would be a four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle.

Motor cars

Motor cars came into use on British roads in the early 1890s, and by 1908, Dickinson was much aware of them, and made some observations. He saw the upside. After meeting Mr Irwell of Leeds at Middleton:

'I came back in his car. We came back in 17 minutes. These cars are a wonderful invention, run smoothly and in a measure annihilate space. What may come in the way of flying machines will most likely to be still more wonderful.'

When it was only Mr Irwell who had a car, that was fine. The trouble is that now there are lots of Mr Irwells, and cars annihilate space in more ways than one. And for reasons I don't understand, everyone is buying enormous cars these days. The roads aren't getting any bigger, but more space is annihilated per car.

John Dickinson also noticed the inconvenience of cars (and bikes) when he was walking:

'To Pool to see Mr Tankard and walked back. Immense number of cyclists and motor cars passing. The dust nuisance will be awful in dry weather. Something will have to be done about it.'

There are plenty of other problems that have come about with mass car ownership. Cars drive walkers and cyclists off roads, as soon as there is any significant volume of traffic, and they cause local and global pollution.

If our diarist could recognise some pros and cons of cars in 1908, we ought to be able to identify some more, since we've had 110 years to think about it.

Doing things differently

I believe we've made a massive mistake in allowing cars to dominate far too many of our spaces. We just accept that children can't play in the streets where they live - we're so used to it that we can't even imagine doing things differently.

There's an astonishing tolerance for the idea that it's up to vulnerable road-users (on foot and on bikes) to avoid getting killed by drivers. One commenter on this site wrote, I would rather [give way to cars when they cross a cycle path] than be knocked down by a turning car - just as one does on foot in town. I don't think that's the way it should be. Is all the responsibility on the potential victim?

I feel we should do things differently.

The first step is to consciously recognise the pros and the cons of cars. Then we would stop blithely accepting the danger and pollution they create as inevitable, and realise that although they are useful, they also blight our lives. We need to take some decisions about how and where they may be driven*, and which spaces we should keep for people.

*Not over the grass at the north end of Harrogate cricket club as a shortcut/rat-run, as I saw one driver do this morning.

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