The Ideological Nature of Transportation

The British Public were so excited about the motorways in the 1960s that they printed postcards of service stations. The railways had a hard time competing in this modernist cultural environment.

Here’s an interesting  fact to mention next time you hear somebody railing against railway subsidies: During its entire history of operation since it was created in 1970, Amtrak, the American public passenger rail network, has received less in subsidies than the American highway network receives in a single year. Amtrak’s total subsidies since 1972 are estimated by the Cato institute (which has every reason to overestimate them) at around $13 billion, while the American Road and Transport Builders’ Association cites federal highway investment at around $40 billion per  year for at least the last few years.

This shouldn’t really be seen as paritcularly damning either of Amtrak or the highways, because it’s a pretty well-recognized fact that good transportation networks need subsidies. I have yet to encounter a single form of mass transportation that can be profitable on its own. Cars, trucks and buses need roads, and the various fuel taxes and fees paid for by drivers generally don’t cover the costs of building, maintaining and policing them. Trains are virtually always subsidized. Aviation is massively subsidized, with airlines receiving government bailouts fairly frequently. With the possible exception of active transportation such as walking and cycling (and even cyclists need roads), there are probably very few modern transportation networks don’t receive some money from the taxpayer.

One obvious implication of this is that we shouldn’t be pointing to subsidies to argue against the usefulness of particular modes of transport-something that critics of rail are particularly guilty of. But this has another important implication, namely that transportation infrastructures are inherently politicized. Regardless of your political position, you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the government, in its benevolence, wisely considers the methods of transportation available to it and supports the most promising one. Subsidies are doled out at least partly due to political and ideological commitments. And this means that transportation networks are an inherently political and ideological entity.

To take one example from my own research, consider the competition between road and rail transportation in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. After the Second World War, the British government undertook several projects to repair and update its transport system. On the railways, this took the form of the modernisation plan, which was launched in 1955. The plan was intended to introduce improved signalling systems, electric traction, station refurbishments, and a whole host of other improvements to prepare the newly nationalised British Rail for the demands of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport was also beginning to build the country’s first motorways. Starting with the Preston Bypass and the M1, which ran from London to Birmingham, the country’s modern road network gradually began to take shape. This all happened in the cultural and ideological context of modernism. This was a period of high modernism, when visions of a Jetsons-like future of a rational, efficient, high-tech and technocratic society were extremely popular. This modernism, I believe, played a very important role in shaping the transportation system as it exists today in the United Kingdom.

If  you read discussions about these two programs in both parliament and the press, however, you realize that the public perception of a modernised railway system was not the same as it was for a modernised road system. On the one hand, newspaper columnists tended to aggressively support motorway construction. This support was often based on the idea that the promotion of cars, buses and trucks was an essential part of being a progressive nation in the later part of the Twentieth Century. The Daily Mail put it in 1953, “like it or not, we are in the motor age, and we must make the best use of it” [1]. When the motorway program suffered setbacks, the government weathered a storm of criticism in the press. The Daily Express’s motoring correspondent, apparently not one for subtlety, penned one article about the motorways whose headline was “DREADFUL, DREADFUL, DREADFUL” [2]. Nobody questioned the costs of the project, and almost everybody with a platform seems to have been pressuring the government to make it happen as quickly as possible. The motorways were seen as modern marvels inherently deserving of support and investment

The railway modernisation plan had a very different hearing. While it did get some tentative support in the press, there wasn’t anything near the same pressure to see it through to the end. There were, indeed, many questions as to whether it was worthwhile in the first place. The editor of The Guardian speculated that it would be “…an unfortunate economic waste if, for example, the modern diesel trains now coming into service should fail to pay by 1970 because people had taken to their cars” [3]. One phrase that comes up again and again in the discussions of railway modernisation is the phrase “nineteenth century”. Increasingly, the railways were seen as an obsolete nineteenth century transport system when measured against the motorways and the cars that drove on them. The result was that when the financial situation got a little bit tighter, the modernisation program was curtailed and eventually gave way to the Beeching cuts, which eliminated more than half of Britain’s railway network in an attempt to make it profitable. The cuts got more support in the press than the modernisation, and that the phrase “nineteenth century” continued to be repeated by journalists supporting Beeching’s plans. The Daily Mirror, for example, proclaimed that “The plan for making Britain’s 19th century railway system fit snugly into the second half of the 20th century will impress the travelling public by its inescapable logic—and shock them with its ruthlessness” [4]. Many people saw the railways as an old-fashioned system, a relic of the previous century. And this meant that it was only logical to dramatically scale it back while motorways were being built.

To put it more simply: The railways were an easy target, and the suffered financial cuts as a result. The public and the press insisted on having motorways, while they were much less enthusiastic about the supposedly old-fashioned railway network. The ideology of modernism played a big role in this. Whether they drive on the motorways or travel on the scaled back railways, Britons today are living out the legacy of 1950s and 1960s technological ideology.

What this says for the present day is that we need to be very explicitly conscious of the role of ideology in the present transportation system. Cars are seen as the embodiment of freedom, individuality, and masculinity, and that supports continued public investment in roads. But cars are also increasingly seen as dangerous, antisocial, polluting machines. The clash between these two understandings of today’s transportation system will have important implications not only for tomorrow’s transportation system, but also for the global environment.

Primary Sources

[1] The Daily Mail., 1953. “Money for the Jam.” The Daily Mail. 24 July 1953. P. 1.

[2] Cardew, Basil., 1956. “Look, Mr. Watkinson! Look at this!”. The Daily Express. 24 February, 1956. p. 4.

[3] Savage, C.I., 1958. “What future for the railways? Next Few Years Decisive.”. 29 April, 1958. P. 11

[4] Beechcroft, J., and Morton-Smith, 1963. “The Railway Revolution”. The Daily Mirror .28 March, 1963. p. 15