So what’s gone wrong?

2nd July 20200 comments

In the first blog, I referenced James Gleave’s blog that “Transport has not had a good crisis”. What makes me say that?

Writing in late June, my fears that traffic levels would increase appear all too plausible, with more people now expecting to drive more, not less, due to fears of using public transport.  All those new or resurrected bikes will go into the shed, or only be used off-road.

I would argue that, when Covid-19 enforced a near-complete lockdown in Spring, built environment professionals were not ready to offer a pragmatic and realisable vision of what could be, with descriptions of the regulatory and other changes to support this, in order to ‘seize the moment’. Governments, faced with a collapsing economy, with large sectors dependent directly or indirectly on continuing high levels of mobility – and who vocally made their interests known, did not really listen to the mumbling, at times contradictory, professional voices from those wanting to retain the peace and quiet of our streets.

Transport planners could not offer a compelling vision, backed by a fully costed and detailed rationale, to justify why, post-lockdown, quality of life, health and carbon emissions should be prioritised over more narrowly-focused financial criteria for rebooting the economy.

Nor was the transport sector ready to convince those people desperate to get to the countryside or seaside when lockdown first eased (spending hours in traffic jams, then being unable to park – in a heatwave), that ways were possible to make such journeys less keenly needed. Even though only 6% of the population want to return to the pre-Covid economy, we cannot expect the public as a whole to plan a route forward to achieve that: transport and other professionals are needed to help them chart that route.

I would argue that, as long as the streets outside our homes remain wide strips of tarmac filled with parked cars, on which the few moving vehicles are prioritised over pedestrians, no alternative vision could survive against the interests of such economically-important sectors as vehicle manufacturers.

It’s been said that naturalists compare changes in species numbers from 40 years previously, that being the span of their professional career: they cannot readily envisage the much greater changes that have occurred over, say, 300 years. 

Likewise, few practising Built Environment professionals started their careers before the late 1970s, so cannot properly envisage urban or rural environments without motor vehicles dictating how we travel – and live.

Unlike our predecessors two generations ago, we no longer believe traffic growth is inevitable. But traffic and car ownership levels are now each so high we cannot imagine that streets are anything other than corridors for movement, not the community spaces they once were. Our focus is on making these movements more efficient, now often involving technological advancements, not (generally) on making journeys fewer or shorter.

We’ve been given a very short, but compelling flashback (to 1963?) – a time before most of us have known, yet where life still functioned without today’s hyper-mobility. Let’s use this flashback well, not just remember it as a dream, even with the horrors many have endured. Future blogs set the framework for a vision of what could be, then expand this out.

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Photo (Cycling in Amsterdam) © Alfredo Borba (Licenced under CC BY-SA/4.0)

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