Depending on who you listen to, Glasgow is either uniquely well suited to play host to COP26, or outrageously ill-prepared.

Amid growing political rancour ahead of next year’s local elections, it’s hard to agree on any fixed reality about the city’s true state. Have the libraries actually closed, or have they just not reopened? Are the streets actually overrun with vermin, or do they just need ‘spruced up?’

But, despite so many competing issues, few facts of Glaswegian life are more polarising than the six lanes of motorway that bisect the city centre. Those who doubt this should look at the response to ‘radical new Glasgow Twitter account’ @replacetheM8 this week.  

When the world’s leaders gather for COP26 such divisions may come home to roost. Glaswegians will experience weeks of disruption alongside the occasional taste of what a post-carbon city could actually be like.

These include hitherto impossible to deliver measures specifically for attendees – like a multi-modal public transport pass (offered by Transport of London for decades), free electric busses, and the closure of a large section of the Clydeside Expressway. Business as usual can be suspended, at least when you have the excuse of making room for presidential motorcades.

A different, more egalitarian city might have taken the latter measure anyway – for no reason other than the fact that this urban motorway connects to the M8 next to a primary and nursery school. Following a landmark ruling last year attributing the death of a nine-year-old school girl to air pollution caused by London’s South Circular motorway – such concerns are no longer mere abstractions.

Instead, Police Scotland have already warned off protestors from seeking to close the M8 because doing so could ‘effectively bring the whole of the Scottish road network to a standstill.’

If Scotland’s transport system can be crippled by closing down a section of motorway in one of the nation’s most densely populated locales, we need a new transport network.

Good COP Bad COP

This is why the disruption of COP26 should be used to lever the radical steps that Glasgow, and so many other crumbling car-centric cities, need to take.

The M8 is a great open wound in the heart of a city that has made an art out of mourning its lost potential. Replacing, rather than spending millions on repairing this great absurdity is a necessary condition for any meaningful transformation to a low carbon city.

This deadly piece of infrastructure both embodies and enacts the awful realities of Scottish inequality – how many who commute to the city centre would happily send their child to be educated by the roadside?  

This conflict between the right to car ownership and the right to the city is likely to become ever more bitter. Such division stems from the way our politics was fundamentally reshaped by the great shift to road travel a generation ago.

Writing in the 1960s, Raymond Williams observed that road traffic was the perfect metaphor for social relations in capitalist societies:

“…looked at from right outside, the traffic flows and their regulation are clearly a social order of a determined kind, yet what is experienced inside them – in the conditioned atmosphere and internal music of this windowed shell – is movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes.”

Put another way, our politics remains the politics of traffic – the ‘private’ act of driving has long been central to public policy – but on a deeper level too, the mentality of being sealed off from society has profound consequences.

“All the other shells are moving,” notes Williams, “in comparable ways and for their own different ends. They are not so much other people, in any full sense, but other units which signal and are signaled to …”

Perhaps it is inevitable that political discourse today is beset by a kind of mass road rage – by the colossal lack of self-awareness demonstrated by people who complain about being ‘stuck in traffic’ at precisely the moment that they constitute it.  

Because driving extends the private realm out into the public spaces of society it erodes the need to share and negotiate public space: and with it basis for democratic participation.

As the climate crisis heats up the debate about the place of cars in society; the car industry, like all others embedded in pumping out carbon, promotes a double bluff. There is a deliberate attempt to confuse the social and cultural consequences of car culture and the wider utility of efficient transport infrastructure.  

The car has indeed brought greater mobility, flexibility, variety and choice to millions. It has broadened out the horizons of where we choose to live, what we consume and where our day-to-day lives begin and end. It sometimes provides these social goods to those who need these things most, such as the elderly.

But the crucial distinction that gets lost is that these public goods are not premised on individual private ownership of cars – let alone the current regime which equates car ownership and driving as something close to a fundamental democratic right.

The notional autonomy of each driver is promoted in countless baroque advertising campaigns as so much virtuous self-determination. But the allure of the open road is a fiction, particular to a certain set of cultural ideas and values. It is also politically sacred – which is why even the most dangerous and anti-social crimes of the driver seldom result in a lifetime ban.

Like many forms of moveable wealth, the car must be updated and elaborated for purely symbolic reasons. Just as the mastery of horses was once associated with nobility, cars offer an outward display of status and differentiation from the trudging masses.

This perfected consumer industry – that brought us novel forms of mass death through lead poisoning and the epic disaster of planned obsolescence – is only incidentally defined by utility. Though many commuters genuinely do require a complex and dangerous machine to make their lives bearable; none of them require a machine capable of traveling at 200mph.

Creating a ‘great car economy’ was the lesser known but equally disastrous twin project in the creation of a ‘property owning democracy.’ Such social engineering on a revolutionary scale leaves us with a seemingly incurable ideological hangover: a ‘common sense’ mantra that  casts any moderate re-balancing of transport policy as a ‘war on drivers’.

A transport network built around cars is fundamentally undemocratic. No one believes that car ownership can be universal. Drivers want fewer cars on the road, not more: the privilege is not to be extended to poor communities at home, let alone the millions of newly affluent citizens of India and China.

Restorative Justice

Glasgow’s politics is a bit like the city’s incoherent layout itself: you step out in one direction only to find a flyover blocking your path, you retrace your steps and find yourself back at the spiral footbridge where you started.

The council wants to reduce car use through creating ‘twenty minute neighbourhoods,’ while mothballing local venues. They build a drive-thru Burger King and a Starbucks, and call it a ‘Global Green City.’

But COP26 represents an opportunity to decisively reverse car-centric policy in order to escape the dead-end politics of traffic. Instead, we need to promote genuinely public transport to undercut car journeys and invest in the enormous benefits that are accrued when we define mobility as an asset that is held in common. The ability to live connected lives between different places is indeed an enormous privilege – but it does not belong in private hands.

Demolishing the section of the M8 that ploughed under historic communities would be an act of restorative justice that would make Glasgow healthier in both mind and body. More significantly – acting to take such ‘radical’ measures would show the world that carbon intensive transport systems are no more permanent and immutable than any other man made network.

In response to the limited, curtailed and private autonomy of the car – we must assert that the freedom to walk and reacquaint ourselves with our cities, and each other, is a far greater prize.