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February 01, 2005

A Grim Fairy Tale

Posted by Elaine Sternberg

Once upon a time, there was a major metropolitan borough that was not only rotten, but positively putrid. In the People's Republic of X (as it was unpopularly called), democracy had no place. The incumbents had been incumbent for so many years, that they were recumbent. Those who opposed them had long since given up voting, because they knew that their votes could have no effect. The voters were far from apathetic, but their democratic powers had long since atrophied.

The ideology of the incumbents had been formed sometime before the 1939-45 war. In those dark days, when Fascists were gaining power, Communism had held some appeal, especially since its own darker side had yet to become obvious to anyone who cared to investigate or even think. But the lazy incumbents of the PRX (or the PRXI as we shall call them) paid no mind. They retained their collectivist ideology, because it justified their own belief that government should have unlimited power... for them to exercise.

As other movements gained popularity, the PRXI embraced them, supplementing their original excuses for taking power with successive new ones. Health and safety obviously fed their cause. And anti-discrimination movements were eagerly endorsed: what better rationalisation for accreting power to government than the need to police every thought as well as deed? Women, people of different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds, the physically and mentally 'challenged', all added fuel to the fire. And then came the environmental movement: bonanza!

At the end of the 20th century, the PRXI decided that the favoured form of transport in and through the Borough should be the pedal cycle. 'Get on your bike' was once the motto of the enterprising and independent; in PRX, it was the slogan of crusading Luddites. To embody their preference, the PRXI decreed that the Borough should have dedicated cycle paths. It did not matter that there were hardly any cyclists in PRX: their numbers were simply a matter of empirical fact, which could not compete with the PRXI's deeply held anti-motorcar ideology. The PRXI hired a cyclist advocacy group to stage a psuedo consultation. And then, the better to favour cyclists and handicap motorists, they decreed that X High Street (not its real name) was to be made virtually inaccessible to motorised vehicles.

Gradually, what was once a multi-lane, major thoroughfare was turned into a single-lane, one-way street. With great difficulty, the PRXI were restrained from reversing the direction of vehicular traffic on X High Street at every other corner, so that no more than a few hundred yards could be traversed in any direction. Access to it was, however, blocked by 'No Entry' signs at the main cross streets, and at both of its ends. Concrete road blocks were erected to produce 'traffic calming' (aka motorist maddening) obstacles, and to ensure that the PRX cycle paths became a permanent feature of PRX geography. And the traffic lights were rephased to create long 'safety periods', during which the lights were red in all directions, discouraging movement by both vehicles and pedestrians.

The chief PRXI apparatchik responsible for such matters was the PRXI road controller; let us call him 'Mr PRXIcon'. One fine day, perhaps as a result of the extremely rich lunch he had just consumed at the taxpayers' expense, Mr PRXIcon clutched his chest, fell to the floor, and lay there, gasping. Suspecting a heart attack, his secretary immediately dialled 999, and hoped for the best (though what that meant to her, history does not recount).

But time passed, and no ambulance arrived, even though a major teaching hospital and an ambulance base were located close to the Town Hall, just off X High Street. The emergency services could ignore the signs directing 'No Entry' to the one-way system now surrounding it. And by causing and sustaining damage, some of their vehicles could surmount the concrete barriers that created the dedicated cycle paths, and restricted vehicular traffic to a single lane. Or they could have, had that single lane not been completely blocked with idling cars. Before the changes introduced by Mr PRXIcon, there was seldom any congestion on X High Street. Since his changes were implemented, however, traffic is normally bumper-to-bumper, 20 hours each day, seven days a week. With access to the pavements barred by concrete bollards, there was no way the backed-up cars could make way for the emergency ambulance.

And so, instead of receiving life-saving care, Mr PRXIcon died in pain, hoist in his own petard.

Unfortunately, it's only in fairy tales that people so neatly suffer the consequences of their own actions. What is far more likely is the following.

One day little Susie, a resident of X High Street, was sent next door to an neighbour's house to play. She went there, because thanks to the borough's one-way system, cycle paths, and traffic light rephasing, it typically took 20 minutes for cars or buses to negotiate the 100 yards around Susie's front door. As a result, her mum seldom had the time to take Susie to visit her more distant chums. And few of their parents had the patience to bring their children to visit her. So Susie was often sent next door to the neighbour's house instead.

One day, Susie decided to cook dinner to help her hospitable neighbour: she was a considerate child. All went well, until the pot boiled over. In the stress of the moment, the end of the kitchen towel that Susie grabbed to mop up the mess caught fire. And ignited the curtains. And Susie's flimsy cotton dress. Susie knew what to do: she shouted for her hostess to ring 999 and summon the fire brigade.

Fortunately, there were no other fires in the borough at just that time, and so the fire engines set out for X High Street straight away. But they did not get very far: as usual, X High Street and the surrounding roads were solidly jammed with traffic. As a result, what should have been only a nuisance swiftly turned to tragedy: Susie, her hostess, and her hostess's three children died in the fire, martyrs to the PRXI's ideology.

Hearing the news next day, Mr PRXIcon shrugged. 'These things happen,' he said, echoing many a miscreant before him. It never crossed his mind that his scheme might have contributed to the deaths of five innocent people, and the ill-health and inconvenience of countless others. And had it done so, he would not have cared. Nor would he have minded if his changes caused assorted businesses to fail, or to leave the borough. After all, if the disappearance of private enterprises caused difficulties for his constituents, that would merely reinforce allegiance to PRX's outdated ideology. It might even increase the numbers of voters in the borough who would always vote for his party, as a matter of distorted principle.

Sadly, it's only in fairy tales that virtue triumphs at the wave of a magic wand. How many lives will be ruined before rationality prevails in real life?
Elaine Sternberg 2005

Dr Elaine Sternberg is a philosopher and the author of Just Business: Business Ethics in Action, Oxford University Press, 2000.

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I presume this is about London.

Is it?

Posted by: James McQueen at February 6, 2005 05:31 PM

I presume the People's Republic of X must be the so-called "People's Republic of Camden", Camden Borough Council in London. The road discussed - with the new "traffic control" measures - is, I assume, the Tottenham Court Road on which many such measures have recently been introduced.

Posted by: Jane at February 6, 2005 07:24 PM

Jane was right, wasn't she? nice fairy tale, you should have it published... this is a great way to reach people's minds!

Posted by: Ambulance Patient at July 7, 2005 12:21 PM
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