The lure of the open road. The motorists dream and aspiration.
But what is it? Where has it gone? Why canít it be found?
Weíve all seen the scenes on films where the car flows along gently winding tarmac across open countryside. Weíve all heard of the freedom and escape that cars give. Very few people nowadays can actually experience it though. It is actually my opinion that the rise in availability and popularity of motoring has destroyed the original experience.
Shall we go back say 40 odd years, when motoring was really becoming popular? Independent travel was suddenly possible and becoming more common. I have a photo at home that in itself tells a whole story. To visit her Aunt in Somerset my mother went on a major expedition from her home in Essex; it was a full days drive, including picnic stops. Nowadays I repeat this journey as my commute a few times per month! It doesnít take me much more than 3 hours each way, although I have to use the motorbike to get through congestion.
Other than journey time, the big differences are the views and experience. Then, the scenery could be admired, each town and village examined and investigated, items on the horizon watched until they came into close proximity; then watched as they faded away again through the rear window. Today I donít have time to look at the blur going past, I have to watch the road with high concentration. Many modern roads donít even have the views, they bypass towns and villages and are sunk either into cuttings or have noise retaining hedges planted alongside.
Thanks to the modern availability of high speed travel parked on the driveway we think nothing of popping to a town 60 miles away; but in order to do so weíve needed the road network to grow at the same speed that motor travel has developed. The narrow winding lane with wonderful views and atmosphere is no longer suitable for our cars, instead we need straight and wide roads.
These roads, in turn, have been their own downfall. A moderately fast car on a decent road is so convenient that everybody is travelling. At peak times these fast roads are stationary purely due to the sheer volume of traffic clogging them up. Because these roads are designed for long distance travel they have few junctions, therefore one accident (common thanks to the volume and speed of traffic, coupled with lack of driver concentration) can completely block them, leaving the queue with nowhere to go.
The focus of our journeys has also changed with the rise of the motor car. The original motorists enjoyed exploring the countryside, even venturing from the UK far into foreign lands; a motoring journey through Europe became a common holiday that all people aspired to do at least once. The motorists enjoyed the quietness of the countryside that they could stop and picnic in, the solitude of being out and also the companionship that they got amongst fellow motorists when they met. The motoring equivalent of gentlemenís clubs sprang up, such as the AA and RAC. AA patrols saluted their members as the cars with shiny metal badges drove past.
Todayís motorists simply travel from A to B. When I drove to the south of France I did it in one hit, starting in the morning and arriving in the evening; all I saw of France though was a toll road and occasional service station. The AA and RAC still exist, but today they are nothing more than a fleet of vehicles that come to change a wheel when a motorist gets a puncture, or to tow the vehicle to the garage when it breaks down; the patrols would never think of saluting or acknowledging drivers in any way.
Yes the toll roads got me to the south of France, but Iíd have seen so much more had I halved my speed and taken the other roads. I could have had so much more of a pleasant time had I taken two or three days over the journey and stopped in several locations along the way. In fact, had I returned to enjoying the journey as the holiday (rather than the destination) then I could have cycled there and really seen the areas. When I cycled to Suffolk a few months ago I saw so much more of Essex and Suffolk than I was aware existed, despite having lived here for 30 years.
The common driver also became master mechanic. Any roadside failure would be repaired (or bodged) there and then with nothing more than the toolkit they carried. Yes the cars were basic machines, but they were built to last and by craftsmen. Yes they required frequent maintenance, but it was little more than stripping down and greasing.
Today, cars arenít built to last, they are disposable. It is impossible to repair a car anymore, you need a qualified mechanic to plug a diagnostic computer in, then replace the faulty components. I couldnít believe it the other day when the internal light blew in my wifeís new car, they couldnít change the bulb, they had to replace the entire light unit!
Todayís drivers have become so used to relying on garages and mechanics that they are incapable of even the simplest job. I have had two colleagues late for work this month, simply because they were waiting for the AA to come and change their wheel because they had a puncture (itís not that hard to change a wheel for the spare wheel you carry!) I spoke to another lady the other day who was moaning her windscreen was dirty and the washers werenít working. I asked if sheíd topped the water up as it sounded simply like sheíd run out. Her reply? ďOh I donít know where to look, they normally do that for me when itís serviced. Iíll mention it when itís serviced next monthĒ. In my opinion this situation is ludicrous!
Despite this lack of understanding how their machines work, despite the congestion, and despite the complete change in driving culture, most drivers still hanker after the early days of motoring. Some still think in that way and have not seen the changes, they think they can drive anywhere, in any way, and be the only person out there. They go out for Sunday afternoon or evening drives, just for the sake of it. These are the people who get frustrated sitting in queues, who get cross at traffic calming or closed off areas, who object to speed limits; but cannot see that they are the problem.
The car replaced the bicycle as the transport option available to all. As the number of cars has risen, the average mileage by bicycle has fallen dramatically. Mileages which were common place 60 or 70 years ago are now treated with astonishment, if not impossibility, by the general public. As then, I think nothing of cycling 35 miles to visit family (and then 35 back) but when I mention it at work they look at me as if Iíve just gone insane.
Now, as traffic calming fills our towns and cities, as congestion gridlocks our roads, as obesity and health problems over-run our society it is time for the bicycle to replace the car once again.
Do you want to once again enjoy the experience of the open road? Leave the car or motorbike on the drive, get your bike out, avoid the major roads and head off!
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