There have been a few airport trips this week, relating to the kids and their near-future plans. Most of my long-distance driving over the past few years has taken place (a) in the middle of the night; and (b) in France, but this week I’ve seen Britain’s drivers raw in tooth and claw. French drivers have their own issues, but British drivers are awful in unique ways. I blame the class system.
I’m old enough to remember the days before the M25 was a thing, when the North Circular was London’s main péripherique, and when we still called Heathrow London Airport and nobody was used to the idea that Gatwick was also a London Airport. The M25 was an orbital designed by vested interests, and was built with a rat in its foundations. To be effective, this round-London route should only have junctions with other major motorways: nine of them, plus the two ends that meet at the Dartford crossing. But because it was built with 31 junctions, it has always been used by local traffic. Furthermore, because there were so many fucking junctions, as with any ring-road, a process of in-filling took place, with warehouses and shopping centres, and other businesses locating themselves conveniently close and adding to the traffic.
The perceived wisdom is that it has never had enough capacity. Built with 3 lanes per carriageway, it now has 4 for most of its length, and in places there are 5 and even six. Of course, every time the 4 drops down to 3, there’s a pinch point, a bottleneck, and the traffic grinds to a halt. The Highways Agency spent billions installing so-called “smart motorway” technology, and introduced variable speed limits, which are of course largely ignored and stop-start concertina traffic is the norm.
It’s grim down South.
Much of this travesty was carved into areas of outstanding natural beauty, but how people endure living down there, I don’t know. It’s a choking Ballardian dystopia of stress, aggression, and recklessness. It’s no better in the towns just off the motorway than it is on the actual road. And of course, it’s much worse in the summer because there is always more traffic on the road in summer, and more roadworks, and more accidents, and more bombed-out drivers with matchsticks holding their eyes open. Even the road surface of the Southern M25 is a nightmare: slabs of concrete with expansion joints, and a flubber of rubber on the corrugated road that continually feels as if you’ve got a flat tyre.
When the going is clear, Gatwick is just 1 hour and 45 minutes from where I live. On Monday I managed the total journey in about 4 hours, which was not too bad*, adding just half an hour of sitting in slow-moving traffic. On the Thursday leg, however, there were accidents everywhere and the there-and-back journey took 5 hours and 30 minutes. This adds up two two extra hours sitting in a low gear, breathing diesel particulates and observing the terrible behaviour of other road users.
At one point, the driver of a red van got road rage as I pulled into his lane (because the lane I’d been in was becoming an exit); he angrily pursued me, moved into the lane outside me and then drove parallel to me, hoping I suppose to scream through two layers of glass into my face. All the while, he’s more focused on the perceived slight of someone getting in front of him than he was on his own safety and that of others around him. Me? I just pulled in front of him again: he was so intent on intimidating me that he left another gap in front.
Another driver, a woman in a red BMW, got bent out of shape at one point when two lanes were filtering into one. There’s a clear protocol here: merge in turn. Only she didn’t want to, and further down the road, almost pulled recklessly into oncoming traffic because she wanted to take a short cut (?) to the roundabout ahead. Steam, presumably, coming out of her ears. Male, female, van, car, motorbike: people are driving around like maniacs and it’s not safe out there. I mean, do motorcyclists think we see them in our mirrors as they flash between lanes of traffic? You can’t be looking in your side mirror all the time, for fucksake.
Saw a woman just tonight, driving a car coming towards me and tapping away at the screen of her phone whilst also barely controlling her steering wheel. Hope the kids in the nearby school feel safe.
But in all of this, quite the most bizarre and irrational habit is what happens when there isn’t standing traffic. When the traffic flows, or starts to, some people still just sit in the same lane. Traditionally, this is the middle lane. When the lane count rises to five, however, the lane they’re hogging is the fourth one, and there are often three more or less empty lanes on their inside. So of course then people start overtaking on these inside lanes, which is dangerous but understandable. A moment’s inattention, and everybody is sitting in a jam again.
My oldest daughter was in Copenhagen: a capital city where you see children, where there are ramps for bikes in the underground stations, where there is as much space given to pedestrians and cyclists as there is to cars: sounds like paradise.
*It was still horrible, but everything is relative