Part I: Getting it wrong from the start.
One of the great, long-proven truths of policy and practice in the transport field is the we all to often start out by jumping right into the middle of the problem set – instead of taking the time to sit back and figure out what really is going on. This genuinely disturbing tendency to premature postulation more often than not leads us to weak answers to important problems. Worse yet, this brain-light process all too often brings us to do just about the opposite of what the full problem set actually calls for.
This is what we see when we take the time to assess the impact of past polices in our sector (itself an all too rare event) and are obliged to conclude that, as is said, “the greater part of the problems that threaten our sector today are in fact the result of someone’s old solutions”. Oops. And if we do not learn that lesson, we are, for sure, going to run that cycle one more irresponsible time and with totally anticipatable results.
So with this fundamental reminder in view, what then are the most important issues and targets that we need to have at the top of the list when we come to talk about, as we put it here, Transport Mobility and/or Access”? Let’s start by asking the following basic question.
What exactly is it that we should be trying to target, achieve and improve on? It’s not all that complicated. Let’s have a look.
We desperately (the word is not too strong) need to learn to make wise and informed decisions which will lead policy and practice in ways which help us to move ahead in the following key socio-economic vectors. We want and need a transport system that fundamentally works, that provides fair and affordable access for all (and above all for women), that is easy on the environment, friendly to our sweltering planet, supports strong and livable communities, provides good jobs for citizens, espouses entrepreneurship and public interest groups, is transparent from start to finish, and that will help us to get out from under the Sword of Damocles of when it comes to our continuing, hugely excessive, and planet- threatening fossil fuel dependency.
So against this background let me now take a few minutes to share some thoughts with you concerning one very popular and often discussed starting place, target or, worse yet, proposed “solution” to many of the problems facing our sector, i.e., energy technology. And if my thoughts on this may be a bit discordant with received views here, well of that I am happy. This is a far better place to vent our opposing views and work out a more informed stance for good governance than after the billions of hard-earned taxpayer earning have been squandered in the next ballyhooed technology boondoggle .
Part II. Betting on Energy Technology is NOT the right place to start
Whoa! There is a great deal of enthusiasm manifested in many quarters with the idea of taking the energy vector as the priority point of departure for informing and transforming public policy in the transport sector in the context of the world climate challenge. This is one more example of what you get when you try to solve a problem by starting in from the middle.
This is turning out to be a major strategic error, for if we scan the field for the main trends and accomplishments over the last decade, we will see that this approach almost always brings those behind it sooner or later to fixate on the potential for “saving the planet” though new energy-related technologies. Chief among these we are seeing programs vigorously pushing for large public investments to fund R&D in support of new power sources for vehicles (EVs, hybrids, etc.), new fuels (biofuels et al) and/or new transportation technologies (including such demonstrably wacky ideas as PRT, monorails and what have you).
There are at least two things badly wrong with this approach. First, it pushes the actual impact horizon decades out into the future, during which interim these uncertain promises offer little or no relief to a planet which is under severe attack today.
Second, because the interests behind them are well-funded and very skilled at shaping the public debate, they distract and in the process displace attention and action on the one, the only approach which can make big and rapid inroads on the basic problem – which in a single phrase is (a) major (b)near term carbon reductions.
Part III: Why an aggressive near-term low-carbon strategy offers a good starting point
If significant fossil fuel reductions climate protection is our goal, then near-term carbon reduction has to be our base strategy. We must go straight to the heart of the beast. And the only way to achieve this is through a program of significant scaled reductions of motorized vehicular movements.
Now here is our technology clue for the future.
We know very well that the only way to cut back traffic is to shift over to a more efficient transportation system, one that makes much better use of the mobility assets that are out there and moving about in our cities and rural areas. However we do not only want cut back on traffic mindlessly, at the same time we also need to make significant qualitative improvements in overall system efficiency from both a user and public investment perspective. Without these underlying and significant system improvement we cannot hope to sell our carbon-reduction program.
And how exactly do we make better use of these transportation assets? Through ICT improvements. These can be brought on line quickly, and indeed when it comes to the transport sector are the most important area of technology development that we have at our disposal. Near term ICT improvements in the transport sector.
To be continued.
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Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is MD of EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government, business and civil society on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. His forthcoming book, “Toward a General Theory of Transport in Cities”, is being presented, discussed and critiqued in a series of international conferences, master classes, workshops and media events over 2014. (More at http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7)