A long time ago, in an article I can no longer find, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole developed the idea of “cargo cults” as the objects of politics. Heathrow and its expansion has long been such a cargo cult in British politics. To save non-anthropologist readers among you from having to google it, a cargo cult refers originally to the belief among Melanesian islanders that material wealth can be achieved through the ritual worship of an object. Pleasingly, some of the Melanesian cargo cults involved building models of runways and planes. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Britain’s high speed train project, HS2, is something of an enigma wrapped in a mystery. The projected costs are spiralling, currently at £50bln and counting; the line antagonises voters in every constituency it is planned to run through, and could cost the government seats in the next election; and pretty much every credible transport expert says that if you’re going to spend that much money on rail infrastructure you’re better linking regions together rather than creating a faster funnel into London. And yet the project stays afloat, buoyed up, it seems, by the claims of its supporters. (more…)
It’s the New Year in Britain, and as is now traditional, it has started with news stories about rail commuters complaining about increases in the price of travel. The news coverage has ranged from the simple to the simplistic.
It’s worth unravelling some of this. In terms of the rail sector, the clearest summary is from Christian Wolmar.
Finding the right target for passenger anger is made difficult by the fact that transparency is not a feature of the rail industry and railway economics remains a dark art. … The railways may have been privatised in the mid-Nineties, but in reality they are a mix of private and state interests, with most of the purse – and other – strings still being pulled by the Government. Forget the notion of a raw capitalistic enterprise with energetic entrepreneurs seeking innovative ways to fleece the public: the train operating companies are pretend capitalists who have very little room for manoeuvre and invest very little.
Politicians are reluctant to confront the economic and environmental costs of transport. The task: to reduce the demand for mobility.
I probably don’t write about transport as much as I ought to, and that was brought home to me at an event on The Future of Transport in Leuven in Belgium, at which I was also a speaker. There’s a case for regarding transport as a climate emergency, given that it accounts for about a quarter of Europe’s carbon emissions, and that in the last decade (unlike pretty much every other sector) emissions from transport have continued to grow sharply. And before I continue, even if you’re a climate sceptic, this represents a significant policy issue: the transport sector (at least, the non-human powered transport sector) is 97% dependent on fossil fuels. As these become scarcer, more expensive, and more prone to interruption, we will have an incipient social and economic problem which is serious enough to prod policy makers.
By slowing business down, just for a moment, the volcano has allowed us to imagine how we might live differently
As the ashcloud settles, at least for the moment, it’s worth reflecting quickly on some of the things we’ve learnt in the last ten days. There’s huge amounts of commentary all over the internet, so I’ll pick up three points which seem less well covered:
- The aviation industry is all but doomed – it’s only a matter of time
- Moments of disruption allow us to imagine change
- And if it’s nature against humankind, nature will win. (more…)
The news that the Paris city bike scheme Velib is having problems with theft, even if over-stated, marks a throwback to the first “free bicycle” scheme, introduced in the 1960s by the Amsterdam Provos (nothing to do with the Irish Republicans of the same name) who donated 50 bikes to the city to start the scheme off. Their scheme caught the public imagination – even prompting a cult single – only for the bikes to be confiscated by the police because they constituted an invitation to theft. Embedded in their story is a story about the role of failure in social innovation – and another one, about a politics of consumption.
Two manufacturers have caught the eye at the current round of car shows – and they’re not from Europe or the United States. At the Delhi Auto Expo, Tata has been been breaking visitor records with its Nano car – at 100,000 rupees (less than £1,500) a time. In Detroit, meanwhile, Toyota is talking the sort of language which is more familiar to transport campaigners.