This question – do roads have politics – from Langdon Winner in 1980 has been beguiling me for a (long) time. Winner asked it while describing 1920s ‘parkway’ access routes from New York City to the beaches of Long Island. The routes provided one of the few means for New Yorkers to leave the crowded city and to experience leisure in the great outdoors. Intriguingly (so the story goes) the bridges over the parkways were low enough to stop buses (mainly used by poorer African-Americans), but suitable for rich car owners to pass under. By stopping the buses the bridges were acting out their politics of race, and privileging some (car owners) over other (bus users). Almost one hundred years on the original politics which guided the New York parkway bridges are now largely forgotten, argued Winner, and yet in some way these bridges remain silently controlling.
In a similar vein Ralf Brand has written about the rumours that footpaths in Belfast were constructed to full vehicle-weight specification, to allow armoured vehicles to travel on them. Having worked in Belfast, I saw at first hand how street design and Northern Irish politics were linked. Discussions around whether to install a roundabout/circle or a set of signals/robots at a new junction in Belfast in 1991 centred more on whether hit-and-run gunmen would be able to escape, than on the ability of the intersection to cope with peak hour traffic.
More recently and closer to home, Don Pinnock has written about the clustered, inward looking apartheid-era housing developments which included compulsory ‘buffer strips’ adjoining the roads between townships. These strips, 200-300 yards wide, provided sufficient space for tanks to turn in and were “known in planning circles as ‘machine gun belts’” (Pinnock, 2008). The tanks have long gone but the strips remain in our city – brutally separating the communities still living alongside them.
So – do roads have politics? And if so what are they? Perhaps the politics at play on most streets are more subtle and more complex than the examples described by Winner, Brand and Pinnock but – I suggest – they are still immensely powerful.