Pile up;The Big Picture

12th March 1999 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Is this where it ends, the romance of the open road? "Toot, toot, parp, parp," as Mr Toad proclaimed, before smashing up yet another car. There are a lot of cars out there.

According to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, in 1997 38.8 million were produced; as well as 12.9 million vans, 2.3 million trucks and 160,000 buses and coaches: in all, 54 million sets of wheels - up 5.5 per cent over the previous year. Exports grew even faster than production, with 22.1 million vehicles exported globally.

Where do all those cars go? Most are in the developed world, where ownership averages 500 per 1,000 residents. Yet in the developing world, demand for cars is booming. In Bangkok, for example, despite notoriously high levels of air pollution, every day 300 to 400 cars are added to the congestion on the streets, to spend an estimated equivalent of 44 days per year stuck in traffic. Later, they will end on the scrapheap.

This scene, in Kuwait, could be matched in any city in the world. For the car and the city have grown together, mobility along with pollution and traffic jams. Yet if the experience of motoring is frustrating gridlock, the dream remains otherwise.

In 1903, enthusiast Otto Julius Bierbaum rhapsodised that "The meaning of the automobile is freedom, self-possession, self-discipline and ease." Hitler, shortly after taking up his spade to break the ground for the world's first motorway in 1933, eulogised the automobile, "a source of unknown, joyous happiness" for the working man.

And has there ever been a happier hymn to driving than Chuck Berry singing:

"Riding along in my automobile, My baby beside me at the wheel, Cruising and playing the radio, With no particular place to go."

Kuwait, 1990s, no particular place to go.

Victoria Neumark


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