Unfair, unsafe and unwise – a major crisis abuilding for sustainable transport in Britain

Dear British Friends and Colleagues,

Forgive me if I am being naïve, but based on what I am reading and hearing it strikes me that there is a major crisis abuilding for sustainable transport in Britain in the months immediately ahead — as a result of the coalition government withdrawing funding from a lot of mainly small and local (since they really have to be small and usually local and focused if they are to succeed) sustainable transport initiatives This strikes me as a caring if distant observer as unfair, unsafe and unwise.

Yes, these are hard times for Britain and yes, the available public moneys need to be spent wisely and well. But in this context I am at a loss to understand why great gobs of hard earned taxpayer earnings are being set aside for massive investments in motorways and high speed rail projects, none of which pass even the most elementary performance test of these hard times.  While at the same time threatening the existence of a large number of infinitely smaller projects and less costly programs which are in place and already doing their part.

It needs to be understood that the social and environmental cost of abandoning a program that is in place, working pretty well and making an important contribution, such as is the case with literally hundreds of these for the most part quite modest high impact programs that are now being directly threatened, is very high.  Sustainable transport and sustainable cities are not the results of pouring more concrete, welding more steel or using taxpayer’s hard-earned money to fund a handful of new mega projects that may not pass either the environment, or the equity, or even the most basic economic tests.

Sustainable development is a massive political and management challenge that few have mastered. The key to sustainability is the ability to coordinate and synergize a very large numbers of most often very small initiatives.  Citizens and actions, many in number, personally engaged,  and always close to people.  All but invisible to anyone looking in from outside.  In a world in a hurry, this complex management task makes for a lot more complication and skill to manage and execute than deciding to do one or a couple of big projects (with big bucks and big interests all too often right behind them).  But the art of governance is precisely to be able to deal with these complex challenges at many levels and of many parts.

And then there is the matter of continuity, the essential bedrock of sustainability. Sure, you can if the whim takes you shut down any operation in a single day, send the people who are its soul home to try to figure out what they can do next with all their preciously won experience, and the nation is a loser. After decades of observation and work experience at the leading edge in this sector, I and my colleagues have learned at least one thing – and that is that consistency and continuity are vital for sustainable transport and sustainable cities, and sustainable lives.

So I ask you this: what if anything can I, or better yet World Streets and our network of international collaborators, do to gently bring these choices before the widest possible public in Britain and abroad, so that your government can be brought to reason on this before it is too late? My hope is that as an independent international collaborative of high repute and with literally thousands of professional contacts working in the field in countries all over the world, some attention may be paid to our views on this important topic. (You can see just below the map showing the origins of World Streets last eighty readers just below. To which I might add that a steady 20% of our readers are British.)

When my forbears sailed with empty pockets from England and Scotland in the early 18th century to make their life in America, they would I am sure have not approved of their distant grandson just sitting on his hands when he could at least try to be of help at a hard time for what is after all our historic native land. In France we even have a law which decrees that “non-assistance à personne en danger” — the failure to come to the help of a person in danger — is a crime punishable by the law. And so it should be.

So please, if you do have an idea contact me and let me know how I or World Streets or some combination of us might be able to help in getting greater attention in the media and the public before it is too late.

Kind regards,

Eric Britton

3 thoughts on “Unfair, unsafe and unwise – a major crisis abuilding for sustainable transport in Britain

  1. “‘the greenest government ever’ promising to create a low carbon economy ”

    On Behalf Of Dirk van Dijl

    Eric. I got this email a few minutes before getting yours. I looked at it and thought largely along the lines of your email and in fact binned this one. However, in light of your email I thought this might entertain you.

    Keep well and Happy New Year.


    Dirk van Dijl
    The Coachhouse, 60a All Saints Street
    Hastings, East Sussex TN34 3BN
    T: 0207 1006 399
    M: 07860 859 749
    E: dirk@vandijl.com
    Skype: WDvandijl

    ———- Forwarded message ———-
    Sustainable Transport Systems Conference 2011
    ‘Influencing travel behaviour’
    The Barbican, London – 14th April 2011


    Dear Colleague,

    The Coalition has marketed itself as being ‘the greenest government ever’ promising to create a low carbon economy and has committed itself to developing strategies to promote greener travel by supporting zero carbon options such as cycling and walking, and to persuade commuters to use sustainable methods of public transport.

    The Sustainable Transport Systems Conference 2011 will discuss the leading policies and approaches to ensure the UK can progress both environmentally and economically though investing in sustainable transport systems.

    Read More

    Speakers Include:

    Philip Hammond (invited) – Secretary of State for Transport
    Kulveer Ranger (invited) – Mayor of London’s Transport Director
    Keith McCabe (invited) – Chairman of the Carbon Working Group, ITS UK
    Austin Smyth (invited) – Head of Department of Transport Studies, University of Westminster
    Councillor Jane Urquhart (proposed) – Nottingham City Council
    Greg Marsden Kulveer Ranger – Senior Lecturer in Transport Policy and Strategy, Institute for Transport Studies
    Erel Avineri – Reader in Travel Behaviour, Centre for Transport & Society, University of the West of England

    Further details of the Programme can be found Here.


    If you are unable to attend, please feel free to forward details of the event to a colleague. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any queries malmond@specialistdelegate.co.uk or telephone +44 (0)161 832 7387.

    If the links in this email are inactive, all information can be viewed by pasting the URL below into your web browser:


    Best regards,

    Mark Almond
    Marketing Executive

  2. From: Simon Norton
    Date: Thu Jan 6, 2011 5:29 am
    Subject: sustainable transport in Britain simonphillip…
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    I agree with Eric and would go further in highlighting aspects of the crisis
    which I regard as even more depressing.

    Chief among these is the Government’s war on bus users. This is taking 3 forms:

    1. The previous government introduced free bus travel in England for the over
    60s, and the present government has (so far) succumbed to pressure to maintain
    this facility (though with a progressive increase in the qualifying age
    introduced by the previous government). However it is cutting back in what it
    gives to local government which is charged with the responsibility of
    administering the scheme. This could have one of several consequences:

    (a) The amount local authorities can reimburse (private) bus operators for
    carrying senior citizens will be reduced. This will make some marginal services
    unprofitable and increase the deficit on services that are already being
    supported by local government.

    (b) Alternatively, local authorities can reduce the number of bus journeys made
    by senior citizens by the simple expedient of cutting services.

    (c) Or local authorities can find the funds to make up the deficit. This is
    unlikely — see below.

    2. As part of its programme of privatising the whole economy the government is
    cutting its overall support for local authorities. As local authorities have
    very little in the way of independent fundraising powers this means that they
    have no choice but to cut the services they provide — and bus services are
    likely to be first in line as they have no statutory duty to provide any
    particular level of service at all.

    It is worth noting that since the 2009 local elections almost all local
    transport authorities have been under the control of the same party that is the
    senior party in the government coalition and will need little in the way of
    excuse to leave off from supporting buses — they have only been doing so
    hitherto because of pressure from the previous government. The political
    situation is very similar to that that prevailed in 1980: to use a metaphor, we
    had 2 fingers removed from one of our hands in the early 1980s, and we now face
    losing another 2 fingers.

    Incidentally the government has referred to a policy of devolving decisions to
    local areas. However there is absolutely no intent to devolve the fundamental
    decision of how much money to spend on local services, or to make it easier for
    them to raise money for this purpose. At present the only mechanism for local
    government to raise money is through a highly regressive tax on property that
    was introduced by the Thatcher government as a fallback when its poll tax proved
    politically untenable.

    3. And then there is the intention to double fuel tax for buses (with no
    comparable cnange for other vehicles). Historically buses have been exempted
    from a significant proportion of fuel tax. The previous government replaced this
    by something called Bus Service Operator Grant, set at about 80% of fuel tax
    rates. The present government has announced that from 2012 this will be reduced
    to 60%.

    As to what people from outside the UK can do about it, I suspect that the answer
    is “not much”. The UK’s tradition of insularity was by no means halted when we
    joined what was then the European Economic Community (now the EU) or when the
    Channel Tunnel opened. Perhaps one thing that could be done is to get the local
    travel agencies to threaten to cease to promote the UK as a tourist destination
    on the grounds that when tourists reach the UK they will find it far harder to
    get around locally if bus services are decimated.

    Alternatively — and this could be done within the UK as well — those local
    authorities that give priority to maintaining their bus services could be
    selectively promoted as tourist destinations.

    In my role as tourist I am fed up with seeing advertisements that either omit
    reference to public transport altogether (as almost all advertisement for
    specific attractions in rural areas do) or just refer to it as a way of reaching
    the area (i.e. the main centres within it) and not of getting around the area
    when one’s there.

  3. Pingback: I tagli ai trasporti: iniqui, miopi e pericolosi. | Nuova Mobilità

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