People generally feel more able to express anger when anonymous or remote. Confrontation in the real world, whether verbal or physical is rare; most interactions with strangers in public are screened by a default resting brute face; but, if forced into proximity, submissive politeness. “Excuse me…” “I’m sorry” “thank you..” People swear when they’re “screened”, at the telly, or at strangers when driving.
There are exceptions. Drunks who clash with others and make instantaneous decisions that end in snogging or punches; then casualty and police cells or texts from unknown numbers heralding further adventures or bemused regret.
Then there’s traffic. Traffic used to be straightforward. 95% Cars, 4% buses, 1% everything else. Roads were linear; they were regulated by traffic lights and roundabouts. Parking was easy. Hydrocarbon pollution was triumphantly invisible because, compared to the coal-blackened, industrial cityscapes of the 1960s and 1970s it looked a lot cleaner. There was a motoring paradise in the 1990s, when decent brakes and better performance made cars faster and safer but before speed ramps and cameras and traffic management became a philosophy. Pedestrians were in danger, cyclists were rare and car insurance was expensive. Ram raiding was a career and “joy riding” was a thing.
Now the “joy riders” twoc (taking without owners consent) mopeds or trail bikes. You’ll see the latter wheelying up Shields Road, 50 yards from Clifford Street Police Station and the former with two up on the moped, with woolly hats instead of helmets, an average speed of 35 mph and a disregard for traffic lights, white lines or anyone’s safety making them faster than anyone else. I last saw them running a red light outside the Crown Court on the Quayside. This is deplorable and difficult to understand rationally, but it’s hardly rare behaviour compared with their fellow road users. Most cyclists, due to their reluctance to reduce momentum, don’t like to stop. A mixture of badly designed and inadequately maintained so called cycle lanes, but in reality unconnected pothole repositories, leaf collectors and illegal parking zones for everyone with hazards on makes them worse than useless. The chew-on with council contractors faffing on with them (Heaton roads are becoming generational) adds to the congestion and the confusion. The fact that, as a group, they are probably the highest percentage of traffic offenders with the lowest level of legal restriction causing the least amount of injuries only makes everything more confused in the constant arguments.
They can hardly be blamed though, as no example exists of good road using behaviour, except by middle-aged motorcyclists too scared to speed and teenage drivers supervised by black boxes analysing their deportment. Otherwise, the variety of things on and off the road is becoming comically absurd. The recent sighting of UFOs in the USA (Balloons with radar deflectors and sophisticated data collection acting as a stratospheric honeytrap in my opinion) are about the only things that haven’t been seen in the Collingwood Street to Mosley Street Saturday night drag race. There, everything goes in semi-static fury from bin waggons to Ferraris, from Harleys to Hondas, from white van man to white powder driven, from the man with his Superman armour on a motorised wheel to Druscilla from Heaton on a tricycle to the just-legal not breathalysed kids on orange scooters to the lads on the unlit bicycles doing their Deliveroo duty; and a thousand taxis with drivers who follow and obey the screen. All in a hurry all delayed; all incredibly entitled. All ready to defend their bad behaviour and community irresponsibility with “so what, everyone else does it.” The problem being that they’re half right.
This carsick selfishness is not much better on a Tuesday dinnertime. What should be an easy job, moving some art equipment from Central Newcastle to Central Gateshead is an absolute nightmare because of the last 200 yards. A town that used to be famous for only one thing – The “Get Carter car park”, now makes it difficult to find a car park. Then it’s a Tesco underground spaceship hangar where you select the apparently optional but actually compulsory registration and charging system, go up a tilted walkway and into a townscape that looks designed to subdue the human spirit. The architecture encourages head-down movement and no discourse; any joy in being a pedestrian is lost as you’re confronted with the high-profit/low quality chainstore and pawn shops and a piece of public art that looks like a restraining ring for the Imperial Deathstar except for a contemptuous top-decking shitehawk.
Unbelievably there’s an active lane of car traffic going right across a pedestrian walkway 20 yards away, aiming for a dodgy carpark. It’s dangerous as hell and this reflects the confusion inherent in the whole situation. Councils are resolved to reduce congestion, insisting that it’s a legal obligation, a powerful move to reduce environmental damage to save our people suffering asthma and other corrosive breathing issues and to make a better future. So they close half the roads and create utter congestion in those remaining open. No one actually enjoys the process of transport because it’s dangerous, arduous or expensive. But no one knows the answer except to await the great leap forward into fuel-cell powered intelligent self-navigating vehicles via safe, cheap efficient public transport. A pal of mine, a top international architect says studies they’ve commissioned say 80% of domestic purchasing decisions are made by females and 80% of them want to shop via a private car. “Active travel” a council euphemism for walking, cycling or public transport always come with illustrations of flat, litter-free, graffiti-less walkways or cycle paths. They never have a photo of a dark precinct full of places to hide behind street furniture, trees or overflowing bins with dodgy characters intent on predation. The latter danger inhibits any vulnerable person and deters everyone else. Car parks are crowded, confusing, and rare or stink of piss and predation. Make a jungle, add predators, await the prey?
That might sound over-dramatic but maybe because you haven’t seen the apex-predator of modern Tyneside streets that prosper in such conditions, the masked cyclists in pairs or packs. Around 3pm on a Sunday, (provided there’d no match on), our old town shows its tired face to what remains of the day. The stags, hens and weekend tourists have gone, the students are in supermarkets, sportsfields or sofas, most people are at home waiting for Antiques Roadshow and trying to ignore the approach of Monday morning. The remaining light of the day shows the dirt, graffiti and despair of our battered city, despoiled by an uncaring regime. The shops are starting to close and kids age 14-19 cruise the town on cycles wearing balaclavas looking for easy pickings. I watched such a pair doing threatening wheelies on the pavement on Hood Street and was warned by a friendly doorway beggar that “they have their eyes on your motorbike”. A fast trip to Eldon Garden Car Park to put the bike away safely was thwarted by a caged off area. Enquiries there said that the council had done that because thefts of bicycles and motorbikes had reached such epidemic proportions that they’d given up. That “maybe” they’d issue a code or a fob or something but it had been like that for two months and no one knew what was happening. The suggestion that maybe the place could be adequately staffed was received with smiling tolerance. Maybe we could employ the doorway beggars as street wardens?
We’ve lost the streets
It looks like we’ve lost the streets. Some are bollarded off, some are jammed up, some are strewn with end-of-financial year roadworks; all are too dangerous for pedestrians, the vulnerable after dark or even large motorcyclists on a Sunday afternoon. Selfishness overwhelms with scooters on pavements, cycles on pavements, and going the wrong way down a one-way street opposite the police station on Percy Street. Meanwhile pedestrians wear cans, look at phones and get dropped off in bus lanes. Cars with drivers tweeting culture wars whilst parked on pavements endanger your children. Ambulances and fire engines, rare enough these days, risk lives as congestion overwhelms.
All of this is changeable because it’s all due to human choices. The selfishness which saw Dominic Cummings drive to Barnard Castle and deny everything, as enquiries then may have detected the ongoing Downing Street parties. The self-justification which saw Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak accepting fines for failing Covid regulations validated and justified every single example of this kind of behaviour. The media knew because they were there and said nothing.
Meanwhile, the queen mourned alone, tens of thousands died alone, the aged relatives bore the days of fear and loneliness and the nurses and care workers, police, transport, retail and fire brigade went to work and coped. Most of them drove; some rode a cycle to hospital and got it nicked. Some died or got long-Covid.
It’ll take years to process the trauma of the last three years, but first we need to look at our neighbourhoods and habits. We could make a difference in this world of tribes and identities if we smiled a bit more and let people move without hatred but we’re all knackered. The pale male stale bloke in the Volvo is not driving for pleasure, but to deliver something to an ageing relative; he’s not destroying the planet, he’s maintaining his mam’s independence by helping her with the chores. The student riding on the pavement on Chilly Rd. is just too scared to ride on the road. The lady in the car at night is scared of predators so drives to out-of-town TK Maxx’s as our city centre dies. We all need to travel to work and home and see our families and friends but many cower at home. It’s about time we got some help with that. We need immediate police and council action. We need our streets back.