HOW MOBILE ARE WE AND HOW DID WE GET HERE? (2018 New Mobility Master Class: Draft for comment)

The mobility/growth paradigm (or the mobility complex)

– By John Whitelegg, extract from his book MOBILITY. A New Urban Design and Transport Planning Philosophy for a Sustainable Future, Chapters 2 and 3. For more on the New Mobility Master Class program click here –

Mobility is most commonly measured, if at all, as total distance travelled per annum per capita in kilometres and/or total distance travelled per day per capita. There are other important dimensions e.g. number of trips made per day or number of destinations that can be accessed by different modes of transport in a defined unit of time but these are not generally measured in a systematic way or included in data sets. Usually mobility is not defined. It has become a rather vague concept associated with quality of life or progress and it is invoked as a “good thing” and something that should be increased. This is very clear in most national transport policies and at the European level where major transport policies and funding mechanisms are increasingly framed.

A recent EU research and development document (European Commission 2013a) begins with the main heading “Mobility for growth.” It does not define mobility. The document is an undiluted manifesto accepting and promoting the growth of mobility and advocating the importance of this growth for the success of wider economic policy objectives, asserting the unquestioned importance of endless economic growth and ignoring the voluminous literature on the impossibility of endless economic growth and of ecological and resource limits to growth (Douthwaite, 1992, Schneidewind, 2014).

The European Commission document contains no recognition whatsoever of the well-developed sustainable transport discourse with its emphasis on traffic reduction, demand management, urban planning in favour of the “city of short distances” and modal shift from the car to walking, cycling and public transport or from the aircraft to electronic substitution e.g. videoconferencing. Similarly it airbrushes out of the picture the need to de-carbonise transport and link something called “mobility for growth” to the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector.

There is no suggestion that spatial planning has a role to play. We could, for example, plan for the tripling of rail capacity in the UK on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) or we could plan for a step change in the importance and functionality of Liverpool and Manchester so that we do not “need” to get on a train to London every time something important has to be discussed. In other words we can manage demand rather than feed a growth in demand through an increase in capacity and/or subsidy. The National Theatre and Royal Opera House could also be in one or more of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle and thereby be much more accessible to more people than those who live in London and those who can afford rail fares costing more than the entrance ticket to the performances hosted by these publicly funded national organisations.

Traffic reduction and demand management have a great deal to offer to the world of economic success, which is not the same as growth, but those who write key policy statements in Brussels and those in London who urge Brussels to set the tone of the growth paradigm, do not intend to stray very far from the world of “mobility for growth.” On aviation the document says that world air transport is growing by 4-5% pa and “we should therefore seize all opportunities associated with this growth.” The aviation discussion then proceeds to emphasise the importance of reducing travel time for flying and increasing air capacity, both of which will contribute to the growth in demand for air travel and together with huge subsidies for aviation will produce the self-fulfilling prophecy of growth in this dimension of mobility.

I return to the question of subsidy in Chapter 5 but it is pertinent at this point to draw attention to the huge subsidies that aviation receives and the role this has to play in generating higher levels of demand for flying. The annual subsidy to European aviation is 30 billion Euros (Cramer, 2014). On rail and road transport there is the same uncritical acceptance of growth in demand with a nod towards the need to make all modes of transport cleaner, greener and smarter and reduce noise and air pollution. Interestingly there is no discussion about the costs of all this growth in transport demand and who will fund the public expenditure share.

Current levels of subsidy to transport already exceed some estimates of Greek national debt at 270-290 billion Euros pa (European Environment Agency, 2007) and the message from Brussels is keep on spending because the growth in mobility is good. The document even manages a section on reducing congestion without mentioning the scope for reducing the number of cars and trucks on the roads. This is a remarkable achievement. It does, however, mention the importance of walking, cycling and public transport with the insertion of an important condition:

“Exploring how a favourable environment can be created for a significant growth in public transport at limited extra costs” (page 37). There is no use of the phrase “at limited extra costs” when the discussion deals with the billions of Euros needed to fund high speed rail estimated to be £50 billion on the Uk high speed rail project known as HS2 (House of Commons, 2015) or, indeed, additional airport capacity or new motorways. The total research allocation funding in this European Commission document for “smart, green and integrated transport” and its unbridled support for growth in mobility is 579 million Euros in 2014 and 287 million Euros in 2015. We are very clearly locked into a mobility growth paradigm with high level political and budgetary support and low level thinking about what it really means.

What will the world look like if we all (and this includes the populations of Africa, India, China and South America) travel very far, very fast and very often for as many destinations and trip purposes as possible? This is the logical end point of a policy called “mobility for growth” but those advocating higher levels of mobility are most reluctant to flesh out the details of the world that will have been created. Interestingly Schaefer (2005) has given us a clear picture of this end point. Schaefer makes a valuable contribution to the mobility debate by calculating the total per capita distance travelled at a future point in time based on a number of “givens.”

The starting point is the travel time constant for the amount of time human beings will travel each day (approx. 1.1 hours) discussed in detail by Zahavi (1979) and Marchetti (1994). This is then linked to a generalized estimate of increases in speed of travel over a long time period. Schaefer then calculates that the logical end point for every person on the planet is that he or she will be travelling 262,800 kilometres per year. This is based on the equation: 600kph x 1.2 hours per day x 365 days per annum= 262,800 kilometres. This calculation is shown graphically in Figure 1.1.

Schaefer’s calculation is logically watertight and is supported by the rhetoric in “Mobility for Growth.” Those that support higher levels of mobility have a responsibility to be very clear about how far this growth can or should continue and the extent to which it is fuelled by subsidy and sloppy spatial planning. They are silent on all these points.

How did we get here?

Transport history and economic history provides a detailed analysis of growth in transport demand in the last 300 years. Dyos and Aldcroft (1969) provide an excellent signposting service tracking this growth and its links with industrialisation, technological change and urbanisation. The journey from London to Edinburgh by passenger coach took 10 days in 1754 and two days by 1836. London and Manchester were 3 days apart in 1750 and 18 hours in 1836. York was 4 days out of London in the 1750s and in the 1830s could be done in 20 hours. Movement between the major towns was 4 or 5 times as fast around 1830 as it had been in 1750.

The period of passenger coach dominance, approximately 1750-1850 saw an increase in the numbers carried (Dyos and Aldcroft, 1969). This is a clear example of an increase in mobility linked to technological and organisational changes and dramatic improvements in road maintenance. This increase in mobility was closely associated with improvements in disposable income and economic growth that have cemented the whole mobility discourse into a solid “feel good” narrative. Mobility is a good thing and why would anyone want to suggest otherwise?

The passenger coach era came to an end with the growth of rail travel and once again mobility increased and came to be seen as a central part of human progress and political agendas.

The railway building era in Britain transformed the possibilities for travel and long distance movement and gradually replaced horse drawn coaches. The Liverpool and Manchester railway opened in 1834 connecting two of the largest cities in Britain and unlike previous railway schemes emphasised passenger traffic. It covered the 30 miles separating these two cities in 1.5 hours, halving the time taken by the coach and at a cost of five shillings a ticket.

Railway use in Britain grew rapidly in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Table 1.1). The growth in numbers was also accompanied by longer distance trips and by a social revolution so that travel over longer distances was no longer the preserve of the wealthy as was the case with horse drawn coaches.

In a very early example of what we would now call social engineering or reducing social exclusion, an Act of Parliament in 1844 made provision for one train daily along every new passenger line stopping at every station and carrying third class passengers at 1d (one old, pre-decimalisation, penny) per mile. The process of widening train travel to include “workmen” and other low income groups accelerated through the 19th century after third class ticket prices were reduced to 1d per mile in 1883 on most trains and the average fares declined even further to 0.5d (a halfpenny) by the early twentieth century.

Marchetti (1994), making extensive use of the findings of Zahavi (1979) has quantified the rate of growth of mobility over time from 1800-2000 in France and calculated that the average annual increase in distance travelled is 3%. In Figure 1.2 he tracks the development of each mode and transport technology over this long time period and concludes: “The share of the fastest mode of transport in the budget of the traveller keeps increasing, with the costs decreasing and his disposable income increasing.”

Figure 1.2 charts the distance travelled per day by vehicles and does not include walking and cycling. It provides us with a clear benchmark. Mobility has been increasing at 3% pa over the last 200 years and whilst this result is specific to France we can assume from what we know about railway, cars and aviation trends over time that the result will be similar in other western European countries. Ausubel and Marchetti (2001) produce comparable data for the USA (Figure 1.3).

The average annual increase in passenger distance in Figure 1.3 is 2.8% which is very similar to the French data referred to above.

The authors conclude:

“Let us review our picture of mobility. Speed matters. Humans search for speed because travel time being fixed, speed gives us territory, that is, access to resources…as a rule the choice is to consume both the travel time budget hour and the disposable money budget maximising the distance, that is, the speed.”

Interestingly Marchetti confirms that over this long period of time and across different regions and cultures we still have a stable propensity to spend one hour per day travelling. If we walk that means we cover a distance of 5km (2.5kms on both outward and return journeys) which Marchetti says is a radius of 2.5kms and therefore covers an area of 20 sq kms. If we go by car we cover a distance that is 6 or 7 times greater than the linear walk distance and if this linear distance is translated into an area we can cover an area by car that is 50 times greater than on foot (assuming an average speed of 35kph producing an area covered of 1000 sq kms). Marchetti’s (1994) view of this one hour “invariant” is very clear:

“It shows the quintessential unity of travelling instincts around the world above culture, race and religion, so to speak, which gives unity to the considerations relative to the history and future of travelling, and provides a robust basis for forecasts in time and geography.”

Ausubel, Marchetti and Meyer (2005) expand the discussion of invariants to include the finding that “on average people make 3-4 trips per day, rich or poor.”

They also expand on the USA case study showing an average annual growth in mobility of 2.7% and offer a rare view of where this will take us: “Staying within present laws, a 2.7% per year growth means a doubling of mobility in 25 years and a 16-fold increase in a century.”

It remains one of the most remarkable blind spots in transport policy and the totality of public policy and budgeting that this doubling or 16-folding remains on target and is not discussed.

The historical development of transport and mobility, as discussed above for passenger coach and rail travel in the 18th and 19th centuries, goes some way towards explaining the contemporary fascination with mobility as a policy driver, a readily available pre-packaged source of promises for politicians seeking votes and something that filters out any suggestion that lower levels of mobility might produce much better outcomes for everyone. In western Europe we have lived through 300 years of impressive continuous development of transport technology, time savings and the widening of opportunity fields, with no attempt to evaluate the costs and benefits of alternative scenarios compared to the “business as usual“ scenario, and this has hard-wired a mobility fetish into human development that is resistant to debate.

The growth of mobility itself is a powerful source of positive feedback. As average annual distances travelled increase and the media recycles exciting stories about exciting things that flow from travel so the idea that mobility is on an endless growth trajectory becomes more deeply embedded. If it goes up every year it must be good. The positive feedback in the case of mobility is multi-layered and synergistic. Every year spatial planning (or the lack of it) increases the distances between “things”, subsidies encourage the perception that car travel or aviation is cheaper than it really is and the constant flow of media stories around the growth of mobility supports and sustains more mobility. All of these factors then multiply the effects of the other factors and it becomes very difficult indeed to discuss the possibility that reductions in mobility might actually bring multiple benefits.

Mobility: The Faustian bargain

Marchetti in his many publications has made it very clear that mobility is a powerful human imperative linked to territory and resources. We have an absolute need to cover more ground so we can access more resources so anything that increases our range e.g. a higher speed is a “good thing.” His comparison of 20 sq. kms of territory based on walking and 1000 sq kms based on the car (a 50-fold increase in territory and resources) is a powerful image.

This powerful image and its attractive simplicity cannot be relied upon to explain current trends in mobility or signpost the future. In this important respect Marchetti is wrong. For most of the 20th century human beings have not needed to wander around and dominate a large territory in order to survive and prosper and the idea has no relevance to the 21st century.

It is accepted that the idea of territory and resources may still lie buried in the perceptions and motivations of those who take important decisions on transport infrastructure, spending and mobility and it is certainly the case that more mobility is attractive to politicians of all colours, except the European green parties who Marchetti (1993) criticises in his article “On Mobility.” If it does sit in those minds like some kind of aberrant virus intent on replicating itself in every cell so that all decision taking is pro mobility then we have an explanation for the scale of current problems. This must not, however, be conflated with some kind of predictive capability or justification for ill-judged decisions or smugness about our ability to predict the future.

It is also the case that we now know a great deal about mobility and accessibility and transport and quality of life in cities and how to produce very attractive urban lifestyles which by definition are low mobility lifestyles. This level of understanding has been advanced by, amongst others Jacobs (1961), Gehl (2010), ITDP (2012) and Holzapfel (2014). All of these authors and sources demonstrate that there are many benefits associated with compact cities, high density cities, high quality walking, cycling and public transport use, low levels of car use (which means lower levels of mobility) , a high concentration of destinations within easy reach of everyone without having to own a car, rich social interaction possibilities, low levels of noise, low level of pollution and an overall total environment that is welcoming, friendly and valuable for those groups normally ignored by pro-mobility advocates i.e. the old, children, and women with child care duties.

Kenworthy (2014) has shown that mobility levels in 41 world cities vary from a low of 5682 kms travelled per person in Brussels to a high of 24639 in Atlanta (USA) (Table 1.2).

The large range of annual kms travelled per person in Table 1.2 reveals a completely different dimension to the mobility debate to that described by Marchetti. Mobility varies enormously and it varies directly as a result of spatial form, urban density and the number of destinations available to residents within a given geographical area.

The latter component of mobility can more accurately be described as accessibility. Accessibility is essentially a performance measure of how an urban system or locality works. How many destinations e.g. shops, school, church, doctor, post office can a resident access on foot in (say) 30 minutes or by bike in (say) 15 minutes. The time threshold can be varied but it is the concept itself that is important. A city with a high accessibility score will facilitate a large number of potential origin-destination pairs within a small time budget and at a small (or zero) monetary budget. A low accessibility city, region or locality will require a car trip to support trips to destinations that few and far between.

To illustrate this point let’s look at Atlanta (24639 kms per person in 2005) and Brussels (5862 kms per person in 2005). First in Marchetti and anthropological terms it is clearly possible for Brussels residents to live a full life, access resources and support a reasonable quality of life at a much smaller expenditure of energy and cash than his or her Atlanta comparator. In human evolutionary terms the Brussels resident is very successful because the expenditure of cash and energy is smaller than Atlanta and this will leave more of both commodities for other things and these other things can enrich quality of life. For now we will note that there is no time benefit for the Brussels residents compared to the Atlanta resident. Both will still travel for about 1 hour each day.

We could possibly argue that the Atlanta resident is approximately 5 times better off or 5 times happier than the Brussels case but this would need some very robust evidence and would also fly in the face of a large literature on the miseries of a long distance commute and time stuck in traffic jams. T\

The logical conclusion is that the Brussels resident has got a really good deal in terms of everyday living, budgets and stress levels compared to the Atlanta case.

It is also the case that Atlanta has carried a significant amount of budgetary stress in building, repairing and expanding freeways and highways, bridges and tunnels. It is more expensive to support 24639 person kms pa than it is to support 5862 kms per person pa (Vivier, 2006).

The high mobility of the Atlanta resident simply means that he or she has to travel further at a bigger cost than a Brussels person and this is unequivocally a “bad deal” and a failure of public policy.

The failure of public policy is multiple.

The Atlanta system burdens city and regional administrations with unaffordable costs and a widening gap between revenue and expenditure. It also causes enormous problems for ordinary families. The impact on ordinary families of similar situations in Australian cities has been very well documented by Dodson and Sipe (2008). The consequences of misguided policies in Australian cities to encourage urban sprawl, longer distances for most journey purposes and high levels of dependency on private cars has been to give ordinary families huge problems of managing budgets, coping with rising petrol prices and in extremis being unable to get to work and joining the ranks of the urban poor. Urban poverty in this case is directly linked to all those policies that have combined to produce sprawl, car dependency, and lack of destinations that are easily accessible and grossly inadequate public transport. This is the case in Parramatta in the western suburbs of Sydney and there could not be a clearer demonstration of the failures, perversity and uselessness of a public policy based on mobility and policies that ignore high quality accessibility scenarios.

Two German families

In the Introduction I quote Holzapfel and his account of two German families, the Kebberich family in Tübingen and the Branger family in Kleinalmerode near Kassel.

It is a central argument of this book that the Kebberich family in Tübingen is better off than the Branger family. It should be the purpose of public policy and transport policy to make it possible for all those wishing to pursue a high accessibility, low cost, high quality of life style to do so. Current transport and public policy encourages mobility which is a very different objective and is high cost for individuals and city-regional governments and adds to the carbon burden generated by the transport sector to the detriment of climate change policy.

These questions accurately describe the full multi-dimensionality of the mobility and accessibility interplay and point to bigger societal questions around choice and resilience. If we have more mobility in total across society does this extinguish the options that have been selected by the Kebberich family? Is it the case that a lifestyle choice for more mobility for some actually takes away the option of a lower mobility life style for others?

Maybe mobility is a bit like passive smoking in that it (allegedly) gives a great deal of pleasure to the primary user but has many deleterious side effects for those who choose not to smoke. Passive smoking carries the potential to damage the health of those who have chosen not to smoke and those choosing high mobility lifestyles most certainly erode the quality of life of those pursuing low mobility options. The erosion mechanisms are well known. Higher level of traffic (high mobility) erodes the potential for walking and cycling as traffic danger increases. Low mobility becomes even more difficult as destinations disappear. Health care, education and shopping all show signs of a reduction in number, an increase in size and a lengthening of trips between origins and destinations. Trip lengthening rapidly exterminates walking and cycling choices.

This is the reality described eloquently by Illich (1974) when he concludes that no one can save time without forcing another to lose it (page 42) and “motorised vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few” (page 42).

Resilience can be defined as our ability to absorb and adapt to shocks in ways that are that are manageable because we have built into our planning and organisational systems a robustness and resilience that minimises the impact of those shocks and in advance. The National Health Service in the UK would be far more resilient if it maintained a network of hospitals closer to where staff and patients lived and if it embraced a logistics concept based on “near” rather than “far.” A system based on long distance travel by staff and long distance sourcing of drugs and surgical supplies is much more likely to break down, at a time when it is really needed, than a more localised system. It is not resilient. If we have more mobility are we more susceptible and vulnerable (less resilient) to the kind of stresses identified by Dodson and Sipe (2008) or the consequences of climate change or permanent gridlock interrupting the increasingly long supply lines now the norm in the National Health Service and food logistics?

A growth in mobility will always produce a decline in resilience.

In the next chapter I elaborate further some of the more serious consequences that flow from the mobility growth paradigm.

Chapter 2.                      CONSEQUENCES

High levels of mobility widen opportunities, increase the number of jobs available within acceptable travel times, allow car owners and those with access to cars to visit distant shopping centres, get to national parks and their walking, climbing and caving opportunities and visit friends and relatives in rural areas with no buses on a Sunday. All of these things are difficult without a car and it is not surprising that 92% of all trips to the English Lake District are by car.

Car based mobility allows those who benefit to range widely over a large area in search of work and promotion and increasingly is part of the consumerist approach to schools and hospitals. It is now routine in the UK to inspect schools and hospitals and produce rankings and performance measures with the result that we “shop” for a good school or a good hospital that may be further away than more local facilities. The idea that all schools and hospitals should be of high quality and serve a local area with no need for residents to travel beyond the nearest facility has not been recognized as something worthy of adoption.

Mobility is not just about physical access to a given destination. It can also have important social benefits and consequences. A visit to an elderly relative or friend who lives (say) 30kms away reduces social isolation and contributes to positive health outcomes for both parties. Such visits matter and if they are possible only by car then the car is the correct choice. What is not acceptable from a public policy perspective is the assumption that the car is the default option in all circumstances. It is perfectly possible to have a high quality public transport system, a high quality community transport system run by local volunteers and an accessible car-share club and with some intelligent joined up thinking all these options can be used interchangeably to facilitate social interaction.

The current situation in most parts of rural England falls far short of this joined-up thinking. If I want to visit a relative or friend on the main Shrewsbury-Ludlow corridor which is served by the 435 bus I can’t do this on a Sunday because the bus does not run on a Sunday (or on a bank holiday). The non-car owner is prevented from making a simple trip. Much of the UK bus network outside of large cities closes down on a Sunday or public holiday.

These benefits and consequences are real and they are important and it is not part of my plan to ignore them or downgrade their significance. The problem with mobility discussions in general is twofold. First there is no generally accepted policy imperative or will to re-engineer the land use planning, facility location and transport systems to make more of these trips currently possible only with a car, more easily accomplished without a car. There is no accessibility policy.

Secondly there is no attempt to learn from 5 decades of cost-benefit analysis in transport and employ rigour and data in an assessment of the costs and benefits of higher levels of mobility. Even if increases in mobility in the 1950s and 60s brought benefits that exceeded costs by a large margin there is no logical or theoretical basis for assuming that the curve or growth trajectory is a straight line (as mobility goes up so the benefits go up by the same percentage points). The curve may be asymptotic and have a clear discontinuity demonstrating that as mobility rises beyond a given number of kms per person per annum there are no detectable increases in benefits. There may even be an explosion in negative externalities and a decline in quality of life. The point is we do not know and we do not ask and we should ask.

This chapter is the start of a discussion that opens up the way to this rigorous assessment of costs and benefits but in a way that puts human beings and not monetary values at the centre. I will not attempt a full cost-benefit analysis (CBA) because I do not think that the conversion of important human, ethical, social justice and community issues into monetary values actually helps. How could we put a monetary value on the enormous grief, distress and pain that spreads across a whole network of friends, relatives and neighbours when a child is killed crossing a road and we know that we could have prevented this death. It is offensive to reduce human tragedy to monetary values.

In the late 18th and early 19th century there was a vigorous debate in England about slavery and the abolition of the slave trade (Hague, 2008). Powerful arguments were deployed on both sides of the debate and there was a strong case for slavery when looked at through the eyes of those involved in the slave trade and those worried about the economic fortunes of Bristol, Liverpool and Lancaster. William Wilberforce and others took the view that slavery was wrong and that it should be abolished. It would not be very convincing to equate mobility with slavery and that is not my intention but there is a shared dimension that is worth exploring.

Slavery was an accepted part of late 18th century national life. It was seen as “normal”, it was good for the economy and there was a strong element of logic in the proposition that if Britain did not “do it” then this would simply hand over the trade to the Dutch or French. They would “do it”, there would be no change to the lives of slaves and the British economy would be damaged. Very similar arguments are currently deployed in the world of climate change policy (the French and Dutch are replaced by the Chinese) but the relevance to mobility lies with the strength of economic arguments which “trump” all the other arguments. The slave trade was wrong and had to go and it took time for the ethical and other arguments around slavery to outperform the economic case for slavery.

Mobility is inextricably linked to economic growth and economic performance and any arguments that we would gain from having more accessibility and less mobility are very quickly trumped by the economic arguments. The language of economic growth, better connections, regeneration and assisting lagging regions delivers a rich diet of untested but powerful images around progress, jobs and growth being linked to transport infrastructure improvements and more mobility.

It is currently unthinkable that a policy of reduced mobility would be promoted by politicians seeking to be elected for another term of office. The economic has trumped all the other arguments around health, quality of life, climate change and local economic resilience and continues to do so just as the economic arguments trumped any arguments that were deployed to support the case for the abolition of the slave trade.

The abolition of the slave trade, it was claimed, would destroy our economy and damage Britain’s global ambitions militarily and economically. The abandonment of high mobility growth trajectories will be seen as damaging our economic performance in an increasingly competitive globalised economy and we would lose jobs. This is identical to the pro-slavery arguments deployed in Liverpool in the closing years of the 18th century. The correspondence is even more remarkable when looked at through the competitiveness lens.

It is now a routine part of political discourse to bemoan our poor quality infrastructure (not enough roads, motorways, airports or high speed rail lines) and argue for more of these things so that we can maintain international competitiveness and sustained economic growth. Economic considerations and international competitiveness were key planks in pro slavery arguments in late 18th century Britain and are still with us in the early 21st century discussion around transport infrastructure and mobility.

In this chapter I want to shift the centre of gravity in transport and mobility discussions away from the ideological dominance of economics and towards a wider concept of quality of life and local economic resilience. I want to assert the primacy of a strong, citizen-based, democratic imperative that recognizes the importance of exploring and defining a desirable future and then working out how to get there. This has nothing to do with the cost benefit analysis world based on negotiable methodologies about the value of time, the value of green belt land or the value of peace, quiet and tranquillity.

These attributes of the world we live in are shaped by mobility and by decisions about whether or not to build a new road, a new high speed rail line or a new runway and that is unacceptable. They should be and must be shaped by a clear sense of what we want in the desirable future and this cannot be left to the vagaries of arbitrary methodologies claiming a spurious scientific identity but serving to deny the importance of human scale thinking about the world around us.

Let me give an example of a situation where the language and ideology of mobility has created a serious road safety problem for children on the way to and from school and the way in which the discourse prioritises “traffic“ i.e. cars, and does not take into account the safety of children and the fears of parents. This debate is about a strongly expressed teacher, parent, school governor and local elected councillor worry about traffic danger and the refusal (so far) of the public body responsible for both schools and highways to provide a school crossing patrol person who would supervise children crossing this road. The road is Keswick Rd in Lancaster (UK) and the children are on the way to and from Ridge Community Primary School.

In response to a request for school crossing person the person responsible has said: “The national criterion for establishing a School Crossing Patrol Point is a PV2 of 4 million with 15 unaccompanied children. The PV2 is determined by counting the number of vehicles and unaccompanied children and multiplying them as ‘pedestrians x vehicles x vehicles’. In Lancashire the criterion has been reduced to a PV2 of 2 million with 10 unaccompanied children, which as you will see is rather more generous than the national one. I have attached a copy of the criteria used for your information. The crossing patrol point in question was used to cross children over Kentmere Road and Keswick Road, consequently this junction has been counted which showed that there were twelve children in the morning and ten in the afternoon, but when multiplied with the vehicles the PV2 amounted to 1.4 million in the morning and 0.77 million in the afternoon, and therefore does not meet the required criteria.”

  • Source: e-mail from Mr Ken Speak, Lancashire County Council School Patrol officer, 23rd October 2013.

This refusal to agree to a request that would reduce the probability of a child death or serious injury whilst crossing this road provides a clear insight into ideology of mobility. It rejects any consideration of the human elements e.g. the fears and concerns of parents, children and teachers. It promotes a totally arbitrary decision rule based on an arbitrary equation (P= number of pedestrians and V2 = number of vehicles squared) and an arbitrary threshold that must be crossed to justify the introduction of a road safety measure.

The rejection of the request has increased the probability of a child death as a result of being hit by a car in this location and has promoted the interests of car drivers (a reduction in the number of times a car would be stopped) above the interests of the child. The human element and the over-riding priority to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries on the roads (Whitelegg and Haq, 2014) has been air-brushed out of the picture.

The Lancashire school-crossing case study exposes the insidious nature of policies, programmes and decisions that are rooted in the prioritisation of mobility, especially car-based mobility, above every other consideration. Professionals and politicians work within this dominant mobility ideology and cannot see that they are working to reward the mobile car users regardless of the consequences for the vulnerable road user. Higher levels of mobility do confer benefits but it can never be acceptable to promote the interest of the mobile above all other interests regardless of the consequences.

A second case study illustrates the same point. Congestion in London is a major headache for businesses, motorists and the Mayor of London who quite understandably wants to be associated with alleviating such a serious problem. The London congestion charge has made a difference and reduced vehicle numbers and congestion but congestion is creeping up again and giving the Mayor severe reputational problems. His response has been to reduce crossing times for pedestrians at over 500 traffic light controlled pedestrian crossings:

“Green Man time has been reduced at 568 crossings across London since 2010. Reduced crossing times encourage pedestrians to take greater risks. For other groups, particularly older and disabled people, it can affect their confidence when crossing the road. The Committee is concerned to note that there has been little analysis of the effect of reducing Green Man time on crossing behaviour.” Source: London Assembly, 2014, page 24.

The mayor of London has taken a clear decision to prioritise motorists over pedestrians. This is the reality of a mobility ideology. The ideology operates to exclude any other considerations so decisions are made that increase risk of death and injury to pedestrians and discriminate against children, older people and those who cannot move very fast for a variety of health related reasons other than age.

The significance of the Lancashire and London case studies lies in the clarity that they reveal about priorities and the ease with which other considerations do not even register on the radar screen of decision takers. Those involved with promoting mobility and its flawed economic growth support system have successfully exterminated from consideration the system wide negative impacts of that mobility fetish.

There are at least 8 negative consequences that flow from higher levels of mobility. All these consequences cast a shadow over ordinary everyday life and present a series of problems for many of society’s vulnerable groups e.g. children and the elderly. They detract from quality of life and they soak up resources that are desperately needed in other areas of collective life. They are:

  1. Air pollution
  2. Death and injury on the roads
  3. Energy consumption
  4. Climate Change
  5. Obesity and related health impacts
  6. Community disruption
  7. Equality and social justice
  8. Fiscal burdens

Each of these will be dealt with in turn in the following chapters.

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About the authors

 Professor John Whitelegg   (Overview: )

John Whitelegg is an old-fashioned Geographer, which means he did a Geography degree john whiteleggat University College of Wales  in the period 1967-1970. Geography training at this time embraced social, economic, rural, urban and of course spatial issues in great detail, as well as “physical geography” which included soil science, biogeography, geomorphology, meteorology, coastal geomorphology, and rivers.  We would now call this “joined-up” or holistic learning,  but it was better than that.  It was normal.

This translates well into a 2018 understanding and discussion of transport. Transport is far more than the reductionist areas and specialities that now dominate discussion.  It is about integration, consequences, quality of life, social justice, climate change and local economic viability and a Geography background embeds all of these in the DNA of the researcher, policy adviser and activist.  The task now is to re-engage with the world of systems thinking, integration and holistic thinking so that we create a new way of understanding and delivering high quality transport outcomes across the whole spectrum of social, urban, rural, economic and environmental dimensions and create a mindshift (Goepel, M (2016) The Great Mindshift ) that accepts that all the above can be delivered in any geographical location at any time and without artificial trade-offs.

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About the editor: 

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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Related articles from World Streets (2008-2018):

  • New Mobility 2018 Master Classes:
  • On Safety:
  • On Speed:
  • On Behavior and Choice:
  • On Leadership:
  • On Governance:
  • On Safe Cities 2018:

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