This week has been a bit of a reminder of the fragility of our lifestyles here in the UK. After the heaviest snowfall in 18 years last Monday, schools closed, public transport stopped, and millions of people struggled to get to work. The economy lost £1.2 billion as a result.
It snowed again on Wednesday, and in Luton at least, it caused even greater chaos. The roads weren’t gritted in Hertfordshire, so there were blocked roads all over the county. Cars couldn’t make it up Luton’s steep icy hills. In many places drivers had no choice but abandon their cars and walk home.
While this has been something of an adventure, especially if you’re a child, it does bring home the fact that no matter how advanced our civilization, nature is still capable of throwing a spanner in the works. Six inches of snow, and suddenly nothing works any more. The schools shut down, rubbish lies uncollected in the streets, we can’t get to work or to the shops. The reality of our dependence on cars is suddenly rather stark. We’re far more vulnerable than we generally like to admit.
In 1950, the average UK citizen travelled just five miles in the course of a normal day, according to Professor John Adams of UCL. Today we travel 30 miles. Work, school, the supermarket, the gym, are all likely to be in different places and require a car journey. We are, to use Adam’s phrase, a hypermobile society, and while this has brought us all kinds of benefits and freedoms, it all exposes us to new levels of risk.
If we didn’t have to travel such distances every day, the snow would be no challenge. Those who walk to school or to work, who shop locally, will have coped much better.
So while the storms batter us for a second week, perhaps we should stop and think a little about how robust our communities are. How well prepared are we for the future? How can we re-localize our lifestyles, and reduce our dependency on travel?
Both peak oil and climate change require us to re-think our transport habits. Let’s take the opportunity of the snow to consider understand them better.