Transport, environment and public policy in hard times (Archives 2011 perspectives)

– By Eric Britton, World Streets/New Mobility Agenda, February 2011
Scottish Transport Review, Issue 50. ISSN 1462-8708

A Mental Architecture problem

“When it is dark you can see the stars

Perhaps the main reason we are doing so poorly these days in transport is that we are making three fundamental errors in what we are looking at, the manner in which we are looking at it, and what we are doing with it:

Comment: Have we learned any of these lessons in the last eight years?  Or are we still turning over our motors in traffic? Your call!

  • “Too important to be left to the generals”

    Clemenceau’s classic comment on war finds its echo in transport. The process is more often than not dominated by competent technical experts doing their assigned specialized jobs, but not nearly enough common sense broad based questioning and thinking going on. We need to have excellent technical planning, engineering, operations and financial skills, but there is more to it than that. Transportation after all is not about concrete and steel; it is about people. If we don’t have anthropologists, community workers, police, doctors, sociologists, and behavioral psychologists on our team we are going to have a pretty mediocre project at best

  • End-state thinking

    The dominant mind set in the sector works something like this. We have a problem, which requires a solution so we will build or invest to achieve the solution. This approach is often called the Edifice Complex, i.e. wherever you spot a problem you build something. However, in a complex dynamic system like transport nothing stands still for long enough to solve it. You simply cannot solve an organic problem with a mechanical solution. We see this in spades when that a brand-new ring road fills up with traffic, causing us to scramble around to find more money to build yet another ring road. We need to see things less in terms of end-state solutions, than as ongoing ever-evolving processes to be understood, analyzed, foreseen, and laden with 21st century logistics and feedback mechanisms so that we can understand, modify and fine tune as we go along. This is of course a very complex and demanding task, but the hard news is that we have no choice.

  • Social and gender balance

    For our 21st century fundamental system change, it should be designed to accommodate specifically women, of all ages and conditions. Do that and we serve everybody far better, women and men, old and young, handicapped and unfettered, poor and less poor. And for that to happen we need to have a major leadership shift toward women.


    This is a profound moral issue. Rights come with obligations, but the bottom line is that no matter how a government is constrained, they still need to find a way to permit their citizens to get around and have a full and active life. This should not be interpreted that I have the right to take my car anywhere I want to in any place and at any time of day. But citizens should be able to get to school, to work, to the hospital, to buy food and basics, and access to a certain amount of safe social space.

    The other half of the “right to travel” conundrum is to know who has what rights. And this turns out to be a bit different form the traditional views of transport and its priorities. Many people are not proud owner/drivers of cars and have a range of complex travel needs. Policy makers and the general public often forget the rights of . . .

    1. Everyone who does not have a car.
    2. 100% of our children and an increasing proportion of our elderly parents.
    3. Everyone who does not have a license and cannot drive.
    4. Everyone who cannot afford to own and operate a car of their own (And remember that car ownership costs a major slice of after-tax income)
    5. Everyone who should not drive (for reasons of a variety of impairments such as limitations associated with age, psychological state,)
    6. Everyone who lives in a large city and for reasons of density, public health and quality of city life needs to have fair access to a non-car mobility system
    7. All those who would in fact prefer to get around by walking, cycling or some form of shared transport who cannot safely or readily do so, because all the money is being spent on the car-based system
    8. Everyone who suffers from some form of impairment that makes driving or even access to traditional public transit difficult or impossible.
    9. Everyone who cannot responsibly take the wheel at any given time (fatigue, distraction, texting, cigarettes, gadgets, nervousness, some form of intoxication. . . )
    10. All those who are today isolated and unable to participate in the life of our communities fully because they simply do not have a decent way to get around.

    Getting more for less

    If you are broke AND stupid you are really out of luck – Mark Twain

    No matter how we may feel about cutting back public spending, in terms of any projects or programs that may be dear to our hearts, most professionals realize that there are excellent reasons for taking on this challenge now.

    The call to “do more for less” is often linked with negative language such as: austerity, crisis, need sacrifices. However, the fine art of frugality is quite different: practicing economy; living without waste, thrifty, not costly; meagre. if ‘getting more for less’ means that we put waste behind us, we can all stand up and cheer.

    A frugal transport policy is probably the only way to really get more for less starting with putting the most important things first. This means understanding the full range of people and activities that transport needs to serve. From an international perspective, there are ten things to consider:

    • Climate Destabilization: The world is failing utterly in terms of combating climate destabilization. By all honest performance indicators (global emissions, fossil fuel consumption, etc.) we are going backward in almost all cases.
    • Locked in: What is worse is that the evidence shows clearly that we are locked into concepts and processes that most visibly do not, and will not ever, get the job done. While we sit around and talk, confer, argue, negotiate, or for various reasons wait/hope for solutions to appear on their things are degrading severely every single day.
    • Transport is roughly 20% of the problem: Enough for us to give it all our attention. Moreover, transport is of all the areas of human daily activity and choices, the easiest to get control of – despite what the transport ‘experts’ say.
    • Rationale: If the climate argument is not a viable lever for change then think of it not as the final destination but as a starting point. Whatever we do to cut back GHG emissions is going to serve as a proxy for everything else we should be trying to achieve in the transport sector Corresponding fossil fuel reductions, economic savings, local environmental improvements, thinning out traffic, safer streets, public health improvements, stronger communities, etc.
    • Sharing: The only way to get these GHG reductions without sacrificing the economy or quality of life, is to find ways to get more people and goods efficiently into fewer vehicles. (Let’s call it “sharing”, without for now getting into the important detail of the mechanisms needed to make this work. that being the next step in this series and process.)
    • A dynamic agenda: More and better sharing in transport opens up opportunities for more and better mobility services for all, new sources of energy and entrepreneurship in society, and requires the integration of a very wide range of planning, economic measures, on-road innovations, new service development, and state-of-the-art logistics and ICT technology capabilities to make it work.
    • Leadership: Those responsible for planning, developing, maintaining and financing the sector need clear guidelines as to where the priorities lie. This shifts emphasis from expensive transport infrastructure, to using the technological and other tools now available to us to manage all aspects of the sector far better.
    • New mobility priorities: Since everybody walks or otherwise uses those precious public spaces for their mobility needs, it makes sense to give priority to anything that makes walking safer and more agreeable for all. We are seeing a return to cycling, after a long fast period, public money can get terrific leverage if spent strategically to encourage and support safe cycling.

    Full cost pricing for cars both as they move and when parked will be a key component of this ‘hard times’ strategy.This is our new agenda, which will at first have few powerful and rich friends who are thoroughly vested in old mobility. But we can work with a strong consistent strategy, a deeply democratic platform, proven concepts to work with from the leading edge worldwide, and an understanding that the transportation starts and ends with people.


  • # # # 


  • Related from World Streets 2019:

    (1) Your invitation –
    (2) Introduction –
    (3) Global Climate context –
    (4) Climate Change programs underway
    (5) World Climate Change News & media-
    (6) International Advisory Panel –
    (7) Strategies –
    (8) Planners’ Bookshelf – (to follow)
    (9) The Third Force –
    (10) Visual evidence –
    (11) Twitter –
    (12) Full Gender Parity – # #

    About the author:

    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.)

    View complete profile


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