THE WOMAN WHO STOPS TRAFFIC
DID you see “The woman who stops traffic” last Tuesday evening? This was the first in a series of Channel Four TV programmes hosted by the charismatic Kris Murrin.
The location was Marlow, in Buckinghamshire, presented as the archetypical Middle England country town! Although I must say that Alex Allen of Sustrans almost stole the show, by getting almost an entire local workforce to cycle or walk into town for lunch instead of driving there.
Murrin aims to get people out of their cars and onto two legs, either cycling or walking for just one trip out of 10. That’s the magic and oft repeated mantra used to try and convince people that’s all it will take to improve traffic flow, reduce congestion and pollution, and improve the nation’s health.
But what a stubborn, reactionary, wed-to-their-4x4 gas-guzzlers lot she encountered in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, the first town featured in the series. You would have thought they were being asked to give up their cars for good, instead of choosing to travel by other means now and again.
There were two really low points in the programme. The first was when the chairman of the chamber of commerce convinced himself Murrin was anti-car and walked out of the meeting with the councillors.
The second was an email for Murrin telling her that the sender had no intention of giving up the car to cycle or walk. Instead they would upgrade to a Challenger tank type 4x4, which would enable them to take out, or they might have said kill, 10 cyclists in one go. What a nasty, cowardly thing to say.
Amazingly, and despite the initial hostility and suspicion of the town council to Murrin’s hectoring - which got up a few noses - the good citizens of Marlow held their car free day.
It was targeted at those who lived or worked with two miles of the town centre. And what a spectacular success it was. What did it take to convince the council?
The turning point came when they were shown computer-generated models showing traffic in Marlow. The first showed traffic as it was today, creeping along, often jammed up, with the school run responsible for most of it.
The second image showed Marlow in the future – gridlocked! Nothing moving. The third image showed Marlow with one in 10 cars withdrawn from the traffic on Car Free Day.
Mouths dropped open at the ease with which cars and cyclists moved. No jams, no hold ups. With the councillor more or less in the bag, Murrin needed to win over the parents on the school run. She lives in London and to prove she’s one of them, she said she too drives a car. But she said, she also cycles local trips and cycles to school with her children.
The 12 parents who turned up for at one school meeting to hear her out just couldn’t get that. They protested that there was just too much traffic for their children to cycle to school. Their faces were a picture when Murrin pointed out the obvious, that they were the traffic!
What about our children’s health? What about it? Murrin countered. One-in-four children in this school will die from obesity, she told them, unless they become more active. That was the wake up call for the parents.
Well not all of them. There was one particular memorable moment near one school with Murrin hectoring one driver in a huge tank-like silver grey people carrier, only to be cut off as the driver stabbed the window wind-up button. Their kids didn’t take nearly so much convincing. Most of them wanted to walk or cycle to school anyway.
Then there was the business park one mile out of town. The big-hearted employee had tried unsuccessfully to persuade some of his 150 employees to cycle, to little no avail. He’d even provided a bike shed.
Enter stage left Allen from Sustrans to hear the drivers say it only takes two minutes to drive into town for lunch. She grinned at them and got them to admit that actually, taking into account queues to get out of the company car park, into town, and into another car park, the two minutes was actually eight!
I can do it in four, she smiled without a trace of smugness. On a bike, including parking it at a cycle stand.
She proved her case in the commuter race which followed. Come the great “Car-Free” day, with the local cycle shop leading rides into town and hiring bikes, Marlow’s traffic all but disappeared.
There were lessons to be learned from this programme. For all the information that is available promoting cycling as part of sustainable transport, to reduce congestion and thereby pollution, a great many people still do not get it.
In Marlow they just couldn’t think outside the box created for them by the lifestyle-marketing gurus who have placed the car dead centre of family life to the extent that most people can’t imagine using any other means of transport, even to go one-mile!
But the good thing is that given the facts and guidance, they could change. And they did change. But will it stick, or will they drift back to the old ways? The next programme of The Woman Who Stops the Traffic is on Tuesday, March 4, Channel Four. Check the TV listings to make sure.