Archive | July, 2013

Challenging the status quo

25 Jul

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Our current society revolves around the motor car, as both a status symbol and main form of transportation. This has placed the car at the centre of all transport policy; our roads, streets, towns and cities have all been designed to cope with increasing numbers of cars. For many the car has become a central point of their lives; a necessity.

The alternatives to driving are unsurprisingly not very attractive to the average person: Public transport is often inconvenient, uncomfortable and expensive (still less than running a car, but as it is often a pay per trip system it encourages you to think about the amount of money involved in a journey).Walking is is viable for short distances, but requires a significant time investment for longer trips. And cycling of course (thanks to the media) is perceived to be ‘too dangerous’; a hobby for middle aged men in Lycra that enjoy dicing with death and flouting the rules of the road.

This image of cyclists, is the result of a road system that favours motor cars and sidelines those few cyclists brave or fit enough to venture out on it.
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However this approach is ultimately unsustainable, there are a number of issues already making themselves apparent:

Congestion.-Traffic has often been likened to a gas, it expands to fill the space available. No matter how much extra space you create for cars, the demand will generally exceed supply. The only way to reduce congestion is to reduce the number of cars on the road, which can only be achieved through providing viable alternatives. While it is not possible to eliminate congestion entirely, bicycles are a much more efficient use of limited space and fewer cars on the roads also improves conditions for those who do then drive.

Peak oil -Cars run on fossil fuels which are non-renewable resources, meaning supplies of these fuels will eventually be exhausted (maybe sooner than we think) And while some hold high hopes for electric cars, the majority of the electricity used to run them comes from non-renewable sources. Our continued reliance on oil also puts us at the mercy of the countries that control the majority of the worlds oil.

Pollution– Many parts of the UK have already exceeded the legal limits for air pollution, as laid out by the EU, and this is estimated to cause the premature deaths of 29,000 people each year (source). The harmful substances that cars emit include: Carbon Dioxide- a leading contributor to global warming; Nitrogen Oxides- cause lung irritation and reduce immunity to several diseases; and Carbon Monoxide- which reduces your blood’s ability to transport oxygen. None of which can be considered conducive to good health, which is why the UK is now under significant pressure to rectify this. Which is where the bicycle comes in, as the original zero emission vehicle (beyond the emissions released in the manufacturing process of course).

Road traffic casualties– While overall fatalities on Britain’s roads are decreasing, this masks an increase in cyclist and pedestrian casualties. Cyclist fatalities have increased by 10% which far outstrips the overall increase in cycling and serious pedestrian have injuries increased by 2%. However, it could be argued that the 1,754 fatalities and 23,039 serious injuries last year, are a couple thousand too many (source). An increase in vulnerable road users casualties, on the other hand, indicates a failure to provide dedicated safe and high quality infrastructure for these user groups: A clear symptom of a car-centric culture which is willing to prioritise the use of one mode of transport over the lives of another.

Subsidies– The cost of all of the above issues and more far outweigh the money generated from areas such as car tax (Vehicle Excise Duty), insurance and VAT on fuel, meaning that car travel is heavily subsidised despite its negative impacts. An insightful video by Downfader sums it all up:

Even allowing for some statistical variation £140 billion in costs (over that raised in taxes) is a staggering figure and indicates just how heavily subisidised driving a car is.

Community– A less quantifiable impact is the impact that motorists have had on the social side of society; for the best of part of the previous century. The list includes the breakdown of social interactions (community), decline of small local businesses and the lack of freedom of the younger generations, however that would be a topic for another post.

Many other countries have already taken note of the of the many negative impacts of driving and have taken steps to reverse the status quo. The obvious solution in most of these cases has been sustained investment in alternative modes of transport, particularly cycling. This is most apparent in countries such as Denmark; The Netherlands (see previous post) and more recently, America.

So why is our government so bent on subsidising a method of transport that clearly has so many negative impacts on the economy and health of the country?

In a recent spending review in June the government announced a significant amount of spending on Britain’s road and highway system, none of which was aimed at anyone other than motorists. As well as this, the creation of the Office for Active Travel, which was meant to promote cycling and walking and have an initial budget of £1 billion, was shelved indefinitely. On top of this the Local Sustainable transport fund (the pot of money that councils can draw on to promote sustainable transport) is to be converted to the Local Growth Fund; removing any obligation for councils to spend the money on supporting sustainable transport. This just highlights that the government still refuses to take cycling seriously; as a sustainable and ethical mode of transport on which we can entrust the future of this country.