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Mark Whitby Reclaiming the streets


Walking the kids to school the other morning, I was confronted by a city slicker in an open- topped blue sports car who was blocking our progress over the zebra crossing outside the gates. Politely pointing out our rights, we were greeted by a two-fingered salute. While my instinct was to continue our journey across his bonnet, for the sake of setting a good example to the young, we and the other hordes of children wished him a good day and squeezed round the back. The traffic was jammed solid.

The following lunch time, I found myself in the City, caught up in a demonstration about reclaiming the streets that reminded me of a mardi gras. Liverpool Street station was closed, so I leapt into a taxi to make it back to the office. As we reached the Bank of England I was confronted by quite a different sight: a charge of mounted police, heading off a more hostile breakaway group. This reminded me of my experience of anti- Vietnam war demonstrations in Grosvenor Square.

It is a great shame that any demonstration should degenerate into violence and that the messages behind the protest should be lost. It was not long ago that similar reports appeared of protests by anti-road campaigners at Twyford Down.

But it is interesting how since Vietnam these would-be Swampies gained the support of middle England and were supplied with home-baked apple pie by many a sympathiser. Their point is now a part of the current political agenda and several Conservative cabinet ministers lost their seats through ignoring the underlying level of support. Chris Patten in Bath was a case in point.

One of the forces behind the demonstrations on 18 June was a group of activists which felt the need to take militant but peaceful action to bring home a message about our ability to live healthily and move freely and easily through our cities. Their activities to date have involved the co-ordinated obstruction of traffic by cyclists - much like the recent protests against fuel tax by lorry drivers.

There is no doubt that the Government has efficient, egalitarian transport high on its agenda and that this is not a passing political fashion. The underlying popular support for the protesters is even greater than that generated by the anti-road lobby. After all, we are all pedestrians at some point and most of us live in cities.

As engineers, we failed to prevent the desecration of Twyford Down and could be accused of being responsible for it. The modern profession should take note of new age protesters' demands. We need to show how we can deliver a solution to these problems, which is not just about typical engineering tools such as traffic calming and road pricing, but about engineers creating radical solutions and leading the campaign to win the hearts and minds of the average car-bound citizen.

Ultimately, I would like to get back to a city where it is possible for parents to let children walk to school on their own. We need to educate the man in his blue sports car. My conspiratorial mind also wonders who could have paid for the so-called rent-a-mob at the demonstration last week and who stood to gain most from discrediting an otherwise peaceful protest?

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