Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Transports of delight?

On Monday, my day off, I spent part of the day helping to staff a stall for my local branch of the STOP HS2 campaign; and today The Guardian carries a special supplement on transport planning (it's a sponsored supplement so, unfortunately, the content isn't available freely online).

HS2 ('High Speed 2') is the proposed new rail service between London and Birmingham (initially) - so called following the name High Speed 1 for the Channel Tunnel rail link. The government's official 'roadshow' is visiting places along the proposed route and on Monday and Tuesday this week it was in the town where I live. It was a very big, slick, expensive PR exercise, so the anti campaign made sure we also had our stall there - albeit a much smaller and hand-to-mouth affair.

People who know my 'green' involvements are surprised that I'm strongly opposed to this rail development - don't we need more public transport, more trains? Indeed we do, but we don't need trains going at 250mph ploughing through towns, villages, farmland, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and much more. I won't bore you with all the arguments against - they're all set out well on the campaign website. More to the point, the Department for Transport itself produced an alternative plan to increase capacity on the congested west coast line - it's Called Rail Package 2, and interestingly, the original official report has disappeared from the web - all the links are broken, includng to the location where it's supposedly archived. At a time of swingeing spending cuts it seems to me to be obscene to be spending tens of billions of pounds on a major new infrastructure project (that won't even generate many permanent new jobs) when a practical medium-term alternative exists, at a tenth of the cost.

In the long term, there's a bigger question - will we either want, or be able, constantly to move large numbers of people around over long distances at high speeds? Will the pressure drastically to reduce carbon emissions lead to less travelling, substantially less fast travelling, and more use of electronic communications? Faster travel uses more energy per mile and the energy use climbs more steeply than the speed (so if you double the speed, you more than double the energy demand). In the rich world, we've got accustomed to getting what we want and getting it quickly. Whether it's instant food, a credit card that 'takes the waiting out of wanting', fast broadband speeds or fast travel . . . we want it all and we want it now.

But we can't carry on having everything fast-and-now. We don't have to stop travelling but we do have to stop assuming we can travel fast - it's much more carbon-expensive. Many people are starting to appreciate the benefits of 'slow' - from slow food, which is good food, to the wider slow movement. These movements link to issues and concerns around localism and community.

Developments such as HS2 move us a step towards more transport 'apartheid', where the rich can travel far and fast and the non-rich (not just the poor) can't. We already have some of this - buses are used mostly by poorer people, and it is poorer people, without access to alternatives, who are most affected when buses are withdrawn. HS2 would extend this - only wealthy people, or those on business trips, will be able to afford tickets; either that or every taxpayer in the country will be subsidising it for evermore.

The rationale for faster travel (by whatever means) is that it 'saves time', which is deemed to be good for the economy. In the HS2 proposals the government bases part of the business case on the 'fact' that time spent on the train is 'unproductive', and therefore a faster train brings automatic economic benefits . . . I sometimes think that the people who write this kind of thing have never sat on an inter-city train and counted the number of laptops and smartphones that come out as soon as the passengers are seated. The only people these days for whom a train journey is 'unproductive time' are those who choose it to be so.

And in fact, it has become clear that faster travel doesn't 'save time', we just 'consume more miles', by whatever mode of transport. This an example of Jevons' Paradox. Anyone who lives near a major bypass road will know that it doesn't help users of the previous route to complete their journeys faster . . . it attracts hordes of new users who previously would not have considered the journey; the same is true of  motorways. So not only do we use proportionately more energy, because we are travelling faster; we travel further as well.

It can't continue like this - the planet cannot afford it. Transportation is one of the top emitters, globally, of carbon dioxide.

The philosopher Pascal wrote that, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."  As Quakers, we might want to sit quietly in a room together, of course!
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