If you’ve had anything to do with renewable energy, attempted to read up on it or had to make a presentation about it, chances are you’ve come across David McKay’s book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. It’s one of the go-to texts on the subject, a clear-headed appraisal of various technologies and approaches and a highly useful reference guide – made all the more useful by being available free of charge on the internet.
This has now become a series, with a second on drugs and now a third – Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, by Steve Melia. (No balloon transport then, alas.) A quarter of Britain’s carbon emissions are from transport, making it a priority for any sustainability action plan. We also know that our car dependency is unhealthy for social reasons. “Studies have shown how traffic severs communities, restricts the independence of children, contributes to obesity, and even affects the number of friends people have on the street where they live.”
Dealing with car culture is at the heart of sustainable urban transport, but it’s something we’ve been avoiding. The tabloid bug-bear ‘the war on motorists’ is a myth, Melia points out. There were three brief years, between 1997 and 2000, when reducing car use was a national government policy. Then Labour lost their nerve in the face of fuel tax protests. John Prescott’s enlightened but unpopular ideas were buried, and the government begrudgingly adopted a policy of ‘mode neutrality’. In other words, drive your bloody car if it makes you happy. Still, plenty of people since have played up the myth for political gain.
The war on motorists is one of a whole series of myths addressed in the first half of the book, including arguments that airport capacity and road-building boosts economic growth. Others are less obvious. Melia shows, for instance, that just providing better public transport is not enough to move people out of their cars. To get a shift towards more sustainable alternatives, we have to actively dissuade car travel too, through measures such as reduced parking spaces or tolls.
Congestion is another key issue, and one that is much misunderstood. People “imagine the jams would disappear if only the council would do things like removing bus lanes and making it easier to park” says Melia, echoing a thousand letters to the local paper every week. “In reality, more parking, if it is used, generates more traffic.”
Whatever the data shows, these sorts of questions are politically difficult, and that problem goes back further than the Labour party. Melia quotes a 1960 paper on traffic in towns which warned that in the face of a “rising tide of cars”, politicians would be “anxious to please the motorist and frightened of annoying him.”
In the meantime, all the ideas we need for sustainable transport continue to lie around unused, probably destined to be ignored until the next oil price spike focuses our attention.
Those solutions form the second half of the book, explored through discussions of what various cities have done, particularly Freiburg, Groningen and Lyon, and also three of Britain’s most successful cities – London, Brighton and Cambridge. Key themes emerge: pedestrianisation to encourage walking, development around public transport stops, investment in well-designed cycling infrastructure, integrated rather than competing buses and trams, limited and paid parking. Car-free developments are another important measure, with new urban developments designed from the start to make car use unnecessary.
As Melia says, none of these solutions are particularly hard to grasp. Overcoming the bias towards cars seems to be the main problem. That, and time. It’s worth noting that the cities that are considered leaders in sustainable transport started in the 60s or 70s, which is a depressing prospect for my current home town of Luton. A green political presence is also a recurring theme in the European cities, and indeed in Brighton in the UK. Others have managed without it, but it certainly seems to help.
Like John Reed’s book Smart Growth, the book explores historical discussions about town planning along the way. This sheds a little light on certain urban landscapes I’m familiar with. Should roads be buried, for example, leaving the surface for pedestrians? Or should the surface be used for traffic, and pedestrians channelled over bridges or underpasses? Different cities and town centres around the UK took different ideas on board, with a variety of results. We’ve been feeling our way towards reconciling cars and cities for a long time, sometimes favouring increased car use, other times trying to make cities more liveable and attractive. Sustainability is now changing our priorities again.
Urban Transport Without the Hot Air takes the same questioning attitude that its energy counterpart did, and it’s full of observations or easily overlooked problems that need further thinking. It gives short shrift to complacency and ignorance, and resists easy answers. Transport ministers ought to be given a test on its contents before they make any public pronouncements or suggest any policies.
It is, however, completely lacking the technology by technology breakdown that made its energy counterpart so useful. This is, perhaps, because this is volume one, and maybe that will feature in volume two.