The time has now arrived for some serious plain talking and no holds-barred reflection on our societal obsession with speed, distance, mobility and all its negative and perverse consequences for quality of life, social justice, fiscal prudence and the environment. The “perfect storm” coincidence of a massive fiscal crisis, failure to produce carbon reductions large enough to deal with climate change, 3000 dead citizens each day as a result of contact with vehicles and a dawning of realisation that public health absolutely depends on sorting out transport all point in one direction. The direction is clear and the pointing has been clear in almost every one of the 300 articles published so far in this journal.
What is not clear is the choice that must now be made between two alternative futures. There are, of course, many alternative futures but for simplicity we can chart two very different worlds and start asking which one we prefer.
The future can be summed up as a move from “few” to “many”
Historically we have demonstrated that after a period of hesitation and doubt we can make very clear choices on very big issues. Interestingly when we have made the choice we realise that in retrospect it wasn’t difficult and it was glaringly obvious which way we should go. We do not really understand why we put up with status quo which was so bad for so long before waking up to that reality and showing a burst of intelligence and humanity. We chose to abolish slavery in the late 18th and early 19th century and have forgotten how strong and persuasive was the argument against abolition. We chose to provide all the residents of all our fast growing 19th century industrial cities (e.g. Liverpool and Manchester) with clean, safe drinking water and pipes to take away sewage.
We have now forgotten that the argument was not straightforward and the cost of carrying out such a major restructuring of urban life was staggeringly high and was opposed but we did it. We stopped sending small children down coal mines and into textile factories knowing that this would damage economic growth and national prosperity but we did it.
Now we have to rediscover this ability to think, reflect, decide and act and we need a similar approach to mobility. First some background
What is mobility?
We live in a highly mobile world. The planet has shrunk as the speed of physical travel and electronic communication has increased dramatically in the past 2-3 decades. Mobility has a large number of positive connotations. It triggers images of endless opportunities, freedom, rich experiences, shopping in New York, holidaying in the Seychelles, commuting to work in northern Europe from an idyllic country residence in Mediterranean France, Spain or Italy. To the geographer this means that traditional constraints associated with space and time are a thing of the past. To the politician this means that large amounts of public spending on high speed rail, high speed roads and new airports guarantee political success, association with modernity economic growth and progress.
Our high speed, high mobility society is assumed by most to be a really good thing and any debate about going slower, being less mobile or spending more time in one place is seen as very odd indeed and better avoided. One can lose friends and be disinvited from prestigious international transport conferences or government commissions for expressing such views. Questions around the possibility that spending more time in one place to soak up history, culture, food, language and landscape are rarely asked and if asked are rapidly dismissed. We have become accustomed to reducing travel time, spending less time in one place and maximising the number of places we can experience in any unit of time. We have all co-operated in an elaborate time–space restructuring that has the effect of maximising the number of places we visit, minimising the time it takes to get from one place to another, ignoring the joys that go with a deep understanding of place and landscape, ignoring the experiences to be had on journeys that take time and celebrating our successes as a very modern species able to boast about all the places we have visited.
Our highly mobile world has been purchased at a very high cost. The destruction of place, landscape and nature by high speed transport infrastructure is a common experience whether this is an airport expansion trashing a forest (Frankfurt) or a new motorway going through valuable, undisturbed landscape in Poland or high speed rail in Britain destroying miles of beautiful countryside and woodland. These costs are simply airbrushed out of the picture rather like a discredited Soviet politburo member on a 1950s photograph. We do not talk about these things in polite society. Mobility is very expensive in terms of materials, energy use and space but all these things are regarded as items of everyday consumption with little thought for limits or “one planet” thinking.
The planet reached its 1 billion car total in 2010 and is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050. Daniel Sperling (UC Davis, Institute of Transportation, California) estimates that a vehicle population of 2 billion would require the world to produce at least 120 million barrels of oil per day, up from about 87 million today.
Given that cars are regarded as so liberating and essential for a happy life it is reasonable to assume that national and international policies promoting economic growth, modernization, and the elimination of poverty will also produce a population of 6 billion cars for 6 billion people. If this is not the case then the newly appointed world controller has to tell us all who can have a car and who cannot have a car. If these 6 billion cars drive around at the same annual total of kms as US drivers or UK drivers or Swedes we will certainly need several thousand kilometres of new roads that will have to be 12-20 lanes wide on major global corridors e.g. Beijing-Shanghai and Delhi-Mumbai.
Given our well established fetish for high speed experiences and our dismissal of landscape and nature in building infrastructure to support this brave new world we will also need many more square kms of land for new roads, high speed rail and new airports. This in turn will require much increased supplies of energy, more air and noise pollution and enough extra CO2 to destroy any chance of meeting climate change reduction targets.
The land take for new high speed infrastructure also means much less land for growing food which might produce another interesting problem as the planet’s high speed, highly mobile population find it difficult to find enough to eat.
None of this debate has made even a slight dent on high speed, highly mobile fetishism. We are in love with mobility and that is enough to drive the system forward to the point where it collapses.
What would a different world look like? What could we expect from reduced mobility?
We can start with Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the main city in West Bengal in India. Kolkata has a population of 15 million, a wide range of transportation vehicles that include ferries on the River Ganges, a dense railway network, a tram and underground system, cycle rickshaws, hand-pulled rickshaws and large amounts of walking. The city is being torn apart by road building especially flyovers to serve the needs of the new Indian middle classes and politicians seeking to serve that constituency. The volume of traffic makes walking and cycling difficult and for many impossible and crossing a road is a very risky undertaking. Kolkata is an amazingly beautiful, vibrant city that is slowly dying because of traffic and the impact of traffic on ordinary everyday life on millions of residents.
A reduction in mobility which means a reduction in car based trips will bring the city to life. Air pollution, currently at serious health damaging levels, will be eliminated. Noise pollution will be eliminated. Road space can be reallocated to child friendly and older person friendly uses. Traffic choked streets can be replaced by tree-lined, shady boulevards with fully segregated and 100% safe walking and cycling. Quality of life, currently at a very low level, would be improved dramatically for the 90%of the population that are low income, walk and cycle and live in densely populated urban communities within a few hundred metres of everything they need (schools, shops, doctors, work places).
Mobility has nothing to offer to these people except death, risk, danger and grime.
Let us be even clearer about the details of a reduction in mobility in Kolkata. It means an end to road building, it means the designation of significant residential areas and streets as car-free, it means the construction of world best walking and cycling facilities, it means the promotion of cycle rickshaws with attention to the health of rickshaw drivers. It means a complete make-over/new investment in the 19th century tram system, it means a massive tree planting project (one per resident would be a good start) and it means the end of death and injury on an industrial scale currently caused by vehicles and deaths and hospitalization from air pollution on an even larger scale.
Turning to Europe what would a reduced mobility world look like? It would be a place where children could once again be free range rather than battery reared. In my childhood in the 1950s there were very few cars and we roamed for miles around an industrial city in the north of England (Oldham). We were independent, adventurous, full of enthusiasm and energy and happy. Childhood obesity was rare. We would head off to the slopes of the Pennines, visit river valleys, spend a whole day in the park, play in abandoned derelict buildings, trespass on industrial property and build rafts to “sail” on the mill lodge (a small lake next to a cotton mill and primarily for fire fighting purposes). We would build carts with recycled pram wheels and use them in our car-free streets.
This is not a rose tinted, nostalgic look back. It is a vision of a world where children can play safely, form solid friendships, negotiate and achieve consensus, solve problems and manage their own space-time routine and grow in confidence to deal with whatever difficulties life might bring. This is not possible in 2013. Parents worry about road traffic danger and also worry about “stranger-danger” (will my child be murdered, raped, kidnapped or mugged?). We can eliminate the former but not the latter but stranger danger recedes if communities are more active, streets are populated by people rather than cars, parks and small urban spaces are well used by all age groups and the number of people of all ages and both genders provides reassurance and herd protection.
A reduced mobility world would benefit older people. The street that used to be full of badly behaved traffic is now relatively traffic free, it is easy to cross roads and this improved environmental quality encourages sociability, conversation and walking trips to local facilities. This helps older people to be physically active for longer and avoid the health problems associated with social isolation and sitting alone in a living room with a television for company.
There are wider social and economic benefits associated with reduced mobility. If we can bring about a 50% reduction in the numbers of cars and a 75% reduction in the kilometres that the remaining 50% are driven, our cities will take on a different shape. The evolutionary trend of the last 50 years towards reduction in the number of schools, shops, workplaces etc and their concentration at fewer locations that trigger longer distance journeys will be thrown into reverse. Like Kolkata we can expect richly textured neighbourhoods to come into existence with new arrangements of health care, education and shopping facilities all closer to where we live and all creating a much more exciting space and vibrant community than is currently the case.
The age of the out of town shopping centre and the very large hospital with thousands of car parking spaces will be over and we will rediscover the joys of local facilities supporting local neighbourhoods where most of the moving around is walk, cycle and public transport based. New technology also has a role to play. In Britain we closed hundreds of hospitals in the late 20th century on the logic that we need to centralize and specialize to give better care. The advent of very sophisticated ICT systems including video linkage can now support health care at many locations rather than few.
The future can be summed up as a move from “few” to “many” (hospitals, schools etc), a reduction in distances travelled and a switch from high energy/high carbon modes transport to low or zero carbon alternatives. Importantly and contrary to the assumptions of those who promote mobility, citizens living in this altered world will have many more opportunities to do things, meet people and be active and at a lower cost than the current system allows. Also the high cost to the public purse of supporting mobility, currently a 240 billion Euro subsidy from public funds every year in the EU, will be substantially reduced and will ease the fiscal difficulties of all EU member states
There is a parallel logic with high speed rail and aviation. Do we really need to rush around our national territories by these very expensive, high speed means of transport? If we pulled back what would the world look like? If we travel less to Berlin, London and Paris then we can expect to see more activity in regional cities. The degree of capital city economic, cultural and administrative concentration in London and Paris brings a high cost in terms of housing, travel bills, congestion, air pollution and infrastructure. There are very sound fiscal reasons and financial savings for having a much reduced level of concentration in London and having more activities (offices, government departments, theaters, opera, research establishments etc) in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Glasgow.
It is also possible to harness ICT systems. Many of our physical trips can be substituted for by video-conferencing and other e-mobile solutions which reduce the need for expensive upgrades in high speed rail or new airport expansion and at the same time gives us more time with friends and family and more time in our communities to build community cohesion.
We now have a choice to make between two very different worlds.
World 1 is characterised by less mobility but with many more things within reach within a given time window. It is cheaper, more gregarious, healthier, more convivial, kinder to children and older people, cleaner safer and deepens links with neighbours, nature and landscape. It supports local economies and retains far more of the benefits of financial transactions in the local economy than the current system is capable of.
World 2 is characterised by the current fetish around high speed transport, new infrastructure, noise, air pollution, fear of traffic, tens of thousands of deaths and serious injuries on our roads every year, obesity, respiratory disease, children not allowed to grow in independence and confidence (battery reared), expensive, unaffordable and unfair.
Which shall we choose? Please let us know.
In this issue of WTPP we continue the signposting, the clarification of direction and celebrate the wealth of good ideas all routinely ignored by those we trust with governance and decision taking.
Alan James very neatly sums up the wild inconsistencies between the rhetoric and reality of austerity /fiscal restraint and what actually happens in transport spending. Transport spending is based on thoughtless and reckless principles and decision-taking and pursued at the same time as we are lectured about the need to “tighten our belts” and reduce spending on care for the elderly, public transport and public realm.
The book review by Dave Horton returns us to one of our main themes which is the contrast between the vital over-riding importance of cycling and the inability of decision takers to take this on board with wide and deep structural change to promote cycling.
The Whitelegg review of the writings of Lucius Burckhardt picks up on wider failures in planning and decision making and the damage done by large scale motorisation. Burckhardt’s description of the problems around cycling…”but cyclists are dirt as far as traffic engineers are concerned” has far reaching significance in understanding the scale of the task that has to be carried out to move towards World 1.
The article by Cortney Mild and Marc Schlossberg describes a very important practical issue around social and cultural change. How do we motivate and inform cycling professionals in the USA to upgrade to cycling standards in best practice European cities? This is part of a bigger question around the dissemination of innovation and we will return to this in future issues
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Abstracts and Keywords
More Roads, Less Tax: UK transport policy in a debt crisis – Alan James
Taking US transportation professionals to European cycling cities: does it matter? – Cortney Mild, Marc Schlossberg
City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler
Reviewed by Dave Horton
Lucius Burckhardt Writings. Re-thinking man-made environments. Politics, Landscape and Design, – edited by Jesko Fezer and Martin Schmitz
Reviewed by John Whitelegg
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Abstracts AND Keywords
More Roads, Less Tax: UK transport policy in a debt crisis – Alan James
Abstract: The UK government has an overarching priority to reduce the government deficit, but has failed to do so for the past two years and the deficit is forecast to flatline for the coming years. The government has shied away from tax rises but slashed revenue spending, at considerable hardship to many people: but instead of using the savings to reduce the deficit they are being diverted into other areas of expenditure, in particular infrastructure because this is supposedly better for economic growth. In transport, the government has since December 2102 scrapped two planned rises in fuel duty and announced several major road building projects or programmes. This paper examines the logic of these actions, both as transport policy per se and in relation to the ostensibly primary objective of deficit reduction. It concludes that investment in pointless but expensive new roads, such as the recently approved Heysham-M6 Link, and measures to make motoring cheaper, are contrary to the purported thrust of UK transport and climate change policy, and make even less sense in the context of deficit reduction.
Keywords: transport spending, infra – structure, fiscal restraint, deficit reduction, austerity, fuel duty, road building
Taking US transportation professionals to European cycling cities: does it matter? – Cortney Mild, Marc Schlossberg
Abstract: The Bikes Belong Foundation and the Federal Highway Administration have sponsored a series of study tours for U.S. transportation professionals to European cities with more robust infrastructure and higher modal splits for cycling. Via this hands-on approach, professionals experience how bicycle transportation functions within integrated, multi-modal, balanced transportation systems. The ultimate goal of these programs is to give policymakers and transportation professionals opportunities to learn lessons they can apply in the US to encourage greater use of the bicycle for transportation. This research assesses the impact of those study tours as well as providing recommendations for future study tours.
Keywords: bicycle transportation, United States, Europe, study tour, bicycle policy
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World Transport Policy & Practice
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Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton