The future of mobility

Three debates organised by the Transport Research Group at the Bloomberg Auditorium, London

Reviewed by Dave Clements | June 2003

In this series of three debates we were asked to consider – are more cars a problem, do we need more infrastructure, and does mobility matter anyway? As Austin Williams, director of the Transport Research Group, noted in his address, transport policy has become a popular concern, and lost its former ‘anorak’ association. A variety of speakers were involved over the three debates, and the introduction of congestion charging as the first event kicked off ensured a lively discussion.

Jonathan Meades, writer and broadcaster, applauded what he called ‘the five quid revolution’. He was scathing of the ‘tailback people …[who were] due a traffic laxative’ for assuming an ‘inalienable right to roam in metal boxes’. Christian Wolmar, journalist and author of Down the Tubes and Broken Rails, thought congestion charging ‘the most exciting moment in transport policy in the last 20 years’. (Although, I’d add that restricting the mobility of pigeons in Trafalgar Square must come a close second.) According to Francis Terry of the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College, Ken Livingstone ‘has more guts than the entire cabinet put together’ in introducing the charge in London.

Apparently we had it coming and the Mayor of London has done us a favour by introducing a tax on mobility. I have reservations about the ‘revolutionary’ character of the charge, but Terry was right to note the loss of nerve in government. Thankfully, others were less willing to go along with Ken’s plans for them. A contributor from the floor was outraged that the Mayor of London should ‘tax someone’s audacity to want to get from A to B in the way they so choose’.

Tony Gilland, Science and Society Director at the Institute of Ideas, echoed this sentiment. He asked, ‘What is city life about anyway?’ Surely a thriving city implies a degree of congestion. Gilland felt we were being distracted by ‘a rather moralistic trick’, taking the blame, when the problem is an absence of political vision. He argued that the discussion about congestion revealed a new moral orthodoxy in keeping with a diminished view of the city.

The ‘congestion question’ brought out speakers’ desire to engineer people’s lives rather than the transport infrastructure. Meades referred to the foot-and-mouth debacle almost approvingly as evidence that it’s possible to engineer immobility. A contributor from the floor noted how people were being presented as obstacles to, rather than the beneficiaries of, a better transport system. If only it were true, as Wolmar worried, that politicians are ‘obsessed with the big big infrastructure projects’. Post-Millennium Dome, it is as if ministers have felt exposed by their evident lack of vision. They are more likely to run from such projects, or get bogged down in risk assessments, for fear of the consequences.

James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, seemed a lone voice in favour of thinking big. He argued for a ‘resolute defence of forecasting, technology push and infrastructure development’. Woudhuysen was dismissive of the vogue for ‘serving the user’ especially when opposed to the now much derided model of ‘predict and provide’.

Dr Rana Roy, Consulting Economist to the European Conference of Ministers of Transport, wanted ‘more, better, bigger, faster infrastructure’. However, Woudhuysen warned that talk of infrastructure in the current climate could be misleading. In IT, for example, ‘grid computing’ (that is, connecting computers to maximise processing power) was about ‘making old things work a bit better’. The analogy with London Underground, the world’s oldest tube, was irresistible.

He needn’t have worried. Speakers such as Professor John Adams, author of OECD report The Social Implications of Hypermobility, were against the idea of better mobility anyway. Adams presented us with a dystopian parody of our fearful age – populated by fattening, stranger-averse kids cocooned from the ever present ‘metal in motion’. He urged us to ‘cherish the local’ and invited us to worry about the ‘positively frightening’ numbers of people moving around, and our inability to accommodate them. Malthus lives on, it seems.

Terence Bendixson, President of Living Streets/Pedestrians’ Association, gave a rather romantic account of the ‘older modes’ of mobility. He insisted that walking and cycling aren’t incompatible with travelling long distances – they just take longer! He also revealed that the invention of the bicycle in the 19th century helped reduce in-breeding. Fascinating, but the contemporary relevance escaped me. Bendixson went on to argue against ‘power and acceleration’, expressed a preference for the ‘boxy’ over the streamlined car, and called for the abolition of bull-bars! His was a case against the masculine in favour of the feminine, for a car that works ‘with’ rather than ‘against’ the city.

What one contributor from the floor described as the ‘dominant social pessimism’ seemed to infect much of the discussion. If these debates are anything to go by the future for mobility is indeed gloomy. Peter Smith, Customer Relations Manager at STA Travel, asked why we are seeking to contain people’s aspirations when ‘we’re only scratching the surface’.

Perhaps more worrying is the future of freedom. Many speakers made clear their hostility to the individual and his or her right to enjoy the benefits of a modern society. The anti-car sentiment is little more than an expression of this. The potential for greater mobility, and the political ambition to build the necessary infrastructure, require a truly ‘revolutionary’ shift in outlook. And I don’t mean more congestion charging!


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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