As the most casual glance at a map will reveal, Austria is the crossroads of central Europe. A large proportion of the major routes linking France, Germany and Italy with the east (and in many cases with each other) go through the narrow clefts and high mountain passes of the eastern Alps and the Tyrol. In particular, the A12, which carries an endless stream of international commerce through the once peaceful valley of the River Inn, has strained local tolerance almost to breaking point.
Running from Kufstein, on the German frontier, to the majestic Brenner crossing into Italy, the A12 was once seen, when it first opened in 1970, as an economic lifeline and a bringer of touristic abundance. But now the dirt, pollution and incessant noise from the 40-tonne trucks that thunder along it at the rate of 4,000 a day are cancelling out, some say, most of the benefits. The trees that provide the picture postcard setting are progressively dying. A thousand doctors, worn out with treating their patients' complaints of migraine, insomnia, bronchitis and sinus trouble, have joined the area's many anti-traffic protest committees. Lead levels in the milk of breast-feeding mothers are now said to be five times as high as those which have been recorded in the poorest parts of New York. And for the first time since the restoration of democracy after the defeat of Hitler and the withdrawal of the Red Army, the conservative People's Party has lost what was almost a rock-solid Tyrolean majority.
That setback prompted a swift, not to say panicky, response. There was an almost complete ban on night driving for truckers, and a sharp cut in border-crossing permits during the day. But that quickly boomeranged, with the Italians closing their frontier completely to Austrian lorries and threats to bar them from other important EC markets. The newly imposed rules had to be drastically relaxed; the Tyrol reverted to frustrated fury; and the EC transport council was desperately trying before Christmas to find an acceptable compromise. Unless it succeeds, the issue could easily cost the Austrian Government the support which it needs to underpin its membership application - and leave one of the crucial links in the European transport network in a limbo of sullen non-cooperation.
That is an extreme example, but similar problems are surfacing all over. There is no doubt that people want the benefits of unfettered transportation, in so far as it widens leisure horizons and cuts the costs of maintaining a chosen lifestyle; but increasingly they resist the inescapable side effects, especially when they take the form of congestion, pollution and uglification. One of the most effective ways to take the pressure off the Tyrol, for instance, would be to drive a rail tunnel north to link Innsbruck and Munich. But Bavarian opposition to such a scheme is already on a scale comparable with the welcome extended by Kentish villages and south London suburbs to the rather similar proposals for a high-speed Channel tunnel rail link. Realists reckon that it is unlikely that anything will happen until well into the next century - if at all.
The gloomy truth, behind all the visionary talk about "trains de grande vitesse" and the triumphs of civil engineering, is that Europe as a whole (and not only, for once, just stick-in-the-mud old Britain) is spending less on its infrastructure today than it was in the 1960s, and shows no real sign of reversing the trend. So the prognosis is ever more wheels pounding ever more protesting and overcrowded roads. And the lover of rural serenity had better invest in an ample stock of ear plugs, nose pegs and anti-smog masks.
(Peter Wilsher is assistant editor of the Sunday Express.)