Ode to the orbital (June 2015)

Due to thunderstorms in the south of England there was forty-five minute delay in the departure of my flight from Geneva to Heathrow. The pilot was optimistic that we would make up for lost time en route, but he was wrong. As the airbus descended over south London it curved into a holding area, circling for thirty minutes in gentle sweeps across the densely settled suburbs with views of the Thames at Greenwich as we turned. The last stretch of the flight – when the signal to proceed was finally given – followed the river from the centre of the city with fine vistas of Westminster and Hyde Park. Finally over an hour delayed we touched down and taxied in the familiar surroundings of the giant airport. I was glad that I’d chosen a window seat.

Later I realised that it was ages since I’ve been to the heart of the city, on the surface at least. Several times in the past few years I’ve traveled from Heathrow to Kings Cross by underground and then taken the train to Cambridge. In particular I remember my weariness on the tube in March 2012, after traveling overnight from Sao Paulo to be with my family after my father died.

When Lene and I met 35 years ago I was more or less living in London. I had had a room in Brixton, but was planning to move in with some friends in Kilburn and we stayed in a space I occupied in my sister’s flat in Hornsey. In those days I attempted to get to know the city by cycling, but was often challenged by the long distances and the dangerous thunder of the traffic. Nonetheless, I remember the fun we had exploring Covent Garden and the famous museums and galleries during visits in the early 1980s. But London has never felt like home.

I felt even more estranged in June 2015 when I travelled around the metropolis by express bus from Heathrow to Stansted airport – where I met Lene en route for a weekend in Cambridge – and then back again. When I lived in London there was no outer ring; traffic was funneled along the north circular road which was always choking with trucks, dust and particles. But sometime in the 1990s the great orbital highway was completed, with eight lanes to tempt and lure drivers away from journeys through the city. Later the congestion change was introduced and appears to have successfully diverted at least some motorists away from the central zone, where buses now find free lanes.

Not so on the orbital. Although my outward journey to Stansted airport on a Friday afternoon was relatively smooth and on schedule, the return – leaving at 6 am on a Monday morning – was the stuff of nightmares. I do not really understand – and don’t really wish to understand – why there are so many cars with only one driver and no passengers, why there are no bus lanes, why there are so many trucks with so many goods (on the roads and not on the railways), etc., etc. An eight-lane traffic snarl up at 7 am is a vision of the world gone mad.

Our driver exhibited considerable skill and endless reserves of patience in seeking to manoeuvre the bus into the fastest lanes, but we slipped more and more behind schedule. I thought of carbon emissions, green taxes, wasted gross national product and air pollution. I wondered how often people jump screaming from their cars and run wailing into the fields alongside the road. I wondered if those who face the orbital every day perhaps wish that they were off into orbit in another time and another place.

I’m glad that we live far from these madding crowds of crazy commuters. Although there are traffic jams in Geneva and Roskilde, they are nothing to compare with the orbital. Vive le vélo!

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