(original edit of article for Taxi magazine)
Why do we keep hearing about certain roads being used as a “rat run”? It sounds horrible doesn’t it? We read it in the paper, or hear it on local radio; and duly recoil at the image of dirty rodents running through slimy sewers and up greasy drainpipes. The media have done their job: they have made a traffic cut-through seem dirty and wrong. Those who dare to think their way around alternative streets in order to avoid congestion are likened to rats, and are seen as negative and anti-social.
Some London councils are clearly anti-car – they probably all are. The four wheels bad, two wheels good mantra continues to be fed to us, and we’re made to feel guilty for merely existing. Noise, pollution, being beastly to cyclists, spoiling people’s shopping sessions in Regent Street: it’s all down to us selfish motorists.
It’s not enough that main London thoroughfares close for months, then re-open as tourist walkways with concrete strips down the middle. Sometimes the streets close for years only to re-emerge with roundabouts that don’t look like roundabouts, no lane markings that cause people to drive on the wrong side of the road, and with no yellow lines that trick you into thinking there are no parking restrictions until you are photographed and charged £130 for the privilege.
Essential turns that we’ve used for decades are being outlawed; with so much concrete, paving, and street furniture put at the junctions to suggest these roads will never re-open. What’s the thinking behind the banned turn from New Bridge Street into Queen Victoria Street? Our progress is increasingly hampered by traffic calming measures that slow vehicles down to the days of the horse and cart, but the traffic remains anything but calm. They tell you we’re driving too much and we produce too much pollution, but their remedy is to make us drive even further around residential streets in order to get to St Pancras from Bloomsbury.
Even bridges have become rat runs. You fight so hard to get onto Southwark Bridge that you feel you must have done something socially unacceptable to get that far. When I started out in this game you could get all the way through from Gresham Street: King Street, Queen Street, Queen Street Place, and onto the bridge. I think they only keep Southwark Bridge open so they can use it as a diversion when they shut Upper Thames Street for the mayor’s exciting programme of traffic-disrupting “fun” events.
Blackfriars Bridge isn’t always an easy one to get on to either. Stonecutter Street had a trial closure which meant diverted traffic was queuing behind buses in Charterhouse Street to get onto Farringdon Street – and going north-east to go south. I stuck to rat-running through the Tudor Street area until Stonecutter Street re-opened. I don’t think many people realise that the St Andrew’s Street, Shoe Lane and Stonecutter Street route is accessible again, and remains the best way onto Blackfriars Bridge from Holborn Circus. It’s not signposted because it’s a rat run. The whole area has been one big mess of road works for several months. Even roads that aren’t closed are meant to look like they are.
As the major routes become more congested we naturally think of alternatives. Cleveland Street used to be a nice road to use from Mayfair to Euston when Goodge Street was rammed. Turn down it now and your route is invariably impeded by blokes in orange vests threatening you with a lollipop. What’s that all about – When did builders start to control the roads?
The Knowledge taught us to take the shortest route on any journey, and out in the cab we are hired to get to a destination as quickly as possible. This often requires us to employ the short cuts that we have spent years learning. The essence of what we do is based on the analysis of the best route available for the conditions at that time. I don’t like negotiating around narrow streets but it’s sometimes necessary. Besides there’s often a bus coming the other way: four wheels bad unless it’s a bus.
Hearing our cut-throughs described as rat runs brings the inner Millwall supporter out of us and makes us even more determined to outwit those who make our lives so difficult with their crazy town planning. I’m afraid that the more difficult things become, the more I shall continue to squeak around London’s drainpipes like a rat. No-one likes us, I don’t care. Rats are much maligned, but they always survive. When I get my punter to his destination quickly and safely I know I have done a god job.
No rats have been harmed in the writing of this article.