Monday, 20 July 2015

If we want to protect the environment, we need to fall in love with the car again


New Start magazine is home to the most predictable and dated of approaches to regeneration. A bunch of folk wrapped in the New Economic Foundation, Green Party, Agenda 21 line of anti-development, anti-car, anti-freedom beliefs that simply don't reflect the reality of either regeneration or the thrust of transport technology. Here's a classic of the genre from the misnamed Campaign for Better Transport:

We know our reliance on cars is bad for us – bad for our health, bad for the environment and bad for the economy. Yet the way we plan and build continues as if it were still the 1950s and the car a watchword for freedom.

And so on in this vein. Each illustration of the car's evil is ticked - 'clone towns', 'subtopia', 'car-dependent ghettoes', 'foorball pitch sized car parks', 'retail parks'. And the glorious alternatives to economic growth are celebrated - 'improved public health', 'revitalised town centres' and 'tackling carbon emissions'. Plus of course the desire that planning rules should be changed "so economic growth is no longer allowed to trump essential considerations like environment and health". As if planning rules do anything at all but limit economic growth - it's what they're designed to do.

My problem with this - and all the stuff about "strong public transport links with discounted ticket prices, the establishment of cycling routes and initiatives such as free bike workshops all contributing" - is that it completely fails to recognise the direction of transport technology. All the most innovative and green developments in transport are about roads and transport on roads - from smart road surfaces and electric vehicles through to flexible urban pods and lorry peletons the future of transport lies with clean green vehicles using a new generation of roads not with 19th century technologies like trains, trams, bicycles and trolley buses.

Technology is making roads dramatically safer and allowing greater capacity while the development of hybrid engines and more efficient transmission systems is making vehicle significantly less polluting. New materials reduce the carbon emissions in manufacture and make recycling or waste reduction easier. In time vehicles become smaller as technology eliminates collisions allowing for more flexible parking systems.

The problem is that we have a planning system that sees roads as a problem and cars as a curse rather than seeing these systems as a more flexible, safer. reliable and sustainable solution that railway tracks or other systems dedicated to single uses. Most public transport solutions (with the honourable exception of electric buses) rely on this exclusivity - from bus lanes and tram lines to swathes of countryside ripped up to accommodate high speed rail. It really is time we set aside this obsession with old technology and began to support investment in the exciting technologies of tomorrow - technologies based on the shared space that is the highway.

If we want a sustainable transport future then the answer lies in working with technologies that make roads more flexible, safer and faster. We need to embrace the idea of increased road capacity and smoother traffic flow that smart road technologies will bring. Above all we need to remember that the car still is a watchword for freedom, is still the preferred means of transport for the majority, and that driverless technologies open up that freedom to people who right now can't access the car. We need to fall in love with the car again.


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