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James May

James May on: traffic jams

Published: 17 Mar 2014

The only solution to congestion in our big cities is to build more roads. I know this sounds knuckle-headed, and it’s terribly unfashionable, but 
it’s a sort of mathematical absolute.

Pending the invention of a fold-up cagoule car that slips into your back pocket when not required, cars will take up a certain amount of space. This is true whether they’re being used or not, and when they’re not in use they’re even more irksome than they are when you’re trying to drive them. Where congestion is bad – cities – few houses have driveways or garages, so cars sit at the side of the road wasting tarmac.

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How do we accommodate them in their increasing numbers? More roads. Simple. It will render quite a lot of you homeless, I admit, but that’s the price we’ll have to pay for getting UK plc back on the move.

The alternative, and the one embraced by supposedly progressive types, is to ration car use: road pricing, only being allowed to drive a blue car on a Tuesday, all that sort of thing. But this has never made much sense to me.

Reducing congestion is only appealing if you’re one of the people who is still driving. No one is going to sit at home doing nothing and think, “Well, at least the roads are reasonably clear.”

More roads, then. But this isn’t going to happen.

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I avoid using the car around town these days, because it’s Billy Boring. Where possible, I use a small motorcycle or even my bicycle, and save the car for longer and more adventurous journeys. But the bike is no good if you have to go to Jean Louis for a new television or a really big vase. Then you need the Fiat Panda.

Nippy? Wieldy? The ideal city car? Not really; it’s still just a car and gets stuck in traffic jams, the same as a Rolls-Royce Phantom does. Rage ensues, with all that means for ill health. It looks like we’re doomed.

I decided to take a positive approach to this. I’m going to be stuck in the car, often for hours, and barely moving. I could moan about it, or I could find some way to use that time profitably.

There’s the radio, obviously, and that’s great. At the other extreme, Renault once seriously proposed that you could learn to play the cello in the back of a small MPV, but I’m not so sure about that. It would become annoying having to climb back into the front every few minutes to move the car forward 20 feet, an action that would almost certainly see one’s foot plunge through the exquisite rosewood belly of the instrument.

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After a few minutes I settled on… pipe smoking. I’m 50, so I think I can get away with it. Pipe smoking is ritualistic and, as it turns out, very time-consuming, so before you know it, you’ll be there.

Pipes also require a lot of kit, and that’s always nice. First you need the pipe, and if your local purveyor of pipes is anything like mine, choosing one is a very instructive way to pass a whole morning. I went for a slightly curved and long one, for a cool shmoke.

Tobacco? Given that it’s just a simple weed, there is a surprising variety, flavoured with everything from roses to chocolate and the spices of India. These come in small ‘taster’ quantities, in little sachets filled from giant oily jars.

All this needs to be kept somewhere, which means a pouch, and you will also need a special penknife, some extra-long matches and some 
pipe cleaners to sweep tenacious dribble from out the dark interior of the thing. It’s a right laugh.

So, in the Panda, in traffic, I found I could happily perform the elaborate filling and tamping ceremony. This is an excellent ruse for buying 
time to compose a reply to your passenger’s last question, which in this case was: “What the bloody hell is that?”

Light the match, wait for the tip to burn away (spoils the flavour, you see) and apply it to the charge; sucking, pressing down with a blazing thumb, and interjecting with the odd “Well, the thing is...” in a way that really annoys people.

Soon, the whole world, with its dreary diurnal concerns – even the instrument panel – was obscured by an aromatic grey fug that rolled around the cabin like mist off a Scottish moor.

What, then, is care? Happiness is freedom from it, and freedom is found in the rich, dark secrets given up by the briar. A man tapped on the window, offering some fatuous observation about how far the traffic had moved on since I’d been sitting there. “Do you mind?” I said. “I’ve got a really good pipe going here.”

Marvellous. Until the airbag goes off.

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