Those of you in the know will perhaps shudder at the amount of time I spend hurtling up and down various stretches of England’s motorway network (all within the speed limit of course and always keeping left unless overtaking). The banality of the endless asphalt whizzing by with only 5live to keep me company (any other station requires constant retuning) can, at times, be infuriating when all you see is a line of sleek black snaking into the horizon punctured by red brake lights; but also simultaneously some of the most explicitly urban encounters one can ever achieve.
In reading this wonderful post on a tour of the M25 (a link shared by @ballardian on twitter) this morning, it reminded me of the monumental efforts by governments, companies, workers and drivers that have gone into constructing, widening, developing and maintaining one of the world’s most impressive transportation networks. Controversy about widening policies, congestion, environmental damage, sprawl (and the rest) aside, I for one, find motorways to be some of most fascinatingly urban experiences. Take for example the Spaghetti Junction (or to give it it’s technical name, the Gravelly Hill Interchange) in the Midlands (pictured above). Not only does it rise up from underneath the M6 like a concrete behemoth with it’s grainy concrete surfaces snarling at you, inviting you into it’s labyrinthian heart; but it’s a superb example of the transporational palimpsests which litter the urban fringes of the UK’s cities. At ground level is the Tame Valley Canal, with numerous footbridges and paths criss-crossing it at irregular intervals. Atop the canal are the beginnings of the A1257, then the A38 and finally the M6 smeared across the top like a shiny red ribbon adorning a badly-wrapped christmas present. Each transportation route layered on top of the other.
Another fine example is the Meadowhall Interchange near junction 34 of the M1. The River Don runs alongside a Sheffield Supertram line, with the M1 junction 34 enmeshed above it. Clearly in both cases, the lack of space which straight-jackets all transportation planning procedures in the country forces planners to intertwine these snaking tram or train lines through, under and around existing networks to maximize efficiency, proximity and to weave together the myriad of transportation methods this country has to offer. Aside from these cataclysmic zones of transportational Badiouian evental sites, the motorway network haunts it’s drivers with ghosts of 70s urban planning. Concrete, brutalist and unforgiving, even the brand new motorways (the M6 toll) are reminiscent of a transport policy which sought to link Britain’s mushrooming urban conurbations with asphalt corridors that ripped through England’s green and pleasant land. They were celebrated as marvels of transportation technology, and they were symbols of modernity. I even distinctly remember playing the motorway board game with immense alacrity in my youth.
The harsh reality of driving on a motorway is testament to the Lefebvrian account of urbanisation as a state of becoming, rather than being. The tour of the M25 that the article above recounts talks of the “seduction of banality” which echoes Lefebvre’s work on the rhythmicality of urban spaces, the everyday monotony which entices, seduces, like sirens upon the shore. The rhythmanalysis can be quite literal in some cases with some bumpy stretches of motorway (notably the horrific parts of the M42 near the M40 junction) testing your cars suspension to the limit, but creating a hypnotic jolting motion that could easily be mistaken for the introduction to a progressive rock track.
Motorways then are perfect representations of the process of urbanity in the modern age. As many cities of the UK are beginning to question their brutalist and modernist heritage (typified by the ongoing debate about Preston’s Bus station) the motorway network seems to carry on this tradition ad infinitum in and endless lucid display of how the process of urbanisation is inextricable from our everyday lives.