is liberating and empowering. But you can have too much of a good thing. The
growth in the numbers of people exercising their freedom and power is fouling
the planet and jamming its arteries.
Prodigious technological efforts are being made to solve
the problems of congestion and pollution caused by increased motorised mobility.
Let us suppose for a moment that they succeed. Imagine that scientists invent
something close to a pollution-free perpetual motion engine. Imagine further,
that they succeed in developing the ultimate, intelligent transport system
- a computerised traffic control system which will hugely increase the capacity
of existing roads, rails and airports. Finally, imagine a world in which computers
are universally affordable and access to the internet is too cheap to meter;
pollution-free virtual mobility is vigorously promoted as an important part
of the solution to the problems caused by too much physical mobility.
At present, the lion's share of time, money and regulatory
energies applied to the pursuit of solutions to the problems caused by motorised
travel is being spent on such "technical fixes." If successful, there will
be further large increases in physical mobility. Cleaner and more efficient
engines will weaken existing constraints on the growth of travel - either
by making it cheaper, or by removing environmental reasons for restricting
it. Intelligent highway systems promise to reduce greatly the time cost of
travel by eliminating much of the time now lost to congestion. And virtual
mobility, while capable of substituting for many physical journeys, is more
likely to serve as a net stimulus to travel: by freeing tele-workers from
the daily commute, it liberates them to join the exodus to the suburbs, where
most journeys - to shop, to school, to doctor, to library, to post office
and to friends - are longer and, mostly, infeasible by public transport.
In 1950, the average Briton travelled about 5 miles a day.
Now it is about 28 miles a day, and forecast to double by 2025. Growth trends
for virtual mobility correlate strongly with the trends for physical mobility,
but their growth rates are much higher. Transport and communications provide
the means by which everyone connects with everyone else. But the transformation
in the speed and reach of these means is having profound social consequences.
a constraint on behaviour which technology
cannot remove is the number of hours in a day. As we spread ourselves ever
wider, we must spread ourselves thinner. If we spend more time interacting
with people at a distance, we must spend less time with those closer to home.
If we have contact with more people, we must devote less attention to each
one. In small-scale pedestrian societies - hypomobile societies - everyone
knows everyone. In hypermobile societies, old-fashioned geographical
communities are replaced by aspatial communities of interest - we spend more
time, physically, among strangers. The advantages of mobility are heavily
advertised; the disadvantages of hypermobility receive much less attention.
Many of the unwelcome characteristics of the hypermobile society can readily
be imagined by extrapolating existing trends.
Society will be more dispersed. The process of suburban
sprawl will accelerate. Societies whose members move at high speed over great
distances consume more space. It is the long-distance journeys, by road and
air, which are experiencing the fastest growth rates. Walking and cycling
- the local, democratic and environmentally benign modes of travel - are in
steep decline. Even with pollution-free perpetual-motion engines there will
be unwelcome environmental consequences. More of the country will need to
be paved to provide parking places; the extra roads required will scar cherished
landscapes and subdivide still further the habitats of endangered species;
room will have to be found for new and larger airports; those parts of the
world valued for their remote tranquillity will be further encroached on.
Society will be more polarised. The increase in
the mobility of the average Briton conceals a growing gap between the mobility-rich
and the mobility have-nots. All those too young, or too old, or otherwise
disqualified from driving will get left behind, along with those too poor
to afford cars and plane tickets. They will become second-class citizens dependent
for their mobility on the withered remains of public transport or the good
will of car owners. And as the world runs away from them to the suburbs, most
journeys will become too long to make by foot or cycle. Despite a ten-fold
increase in the world's car population since 1950 (to about 500m), the number
of people who do not own cars has more than doubled (to about 5.5 billion,
thanks to population growth). And despite the much more rapid increase in
air travel over this period, the number of people in the world who have never
flown has also increased.
The world will be more dangerous for those not in cars.
There will be more metal (or carbon fibre) in motion. The fact that there
are now about one third as many children killed every year in road accidents
as in 1922, when there was hardly any traffic and a 20mph speed limit, does
not mean that the roads are now three times safer for children to play in;
they have become so dangerous that children are not allowed out any more.
The retreat of pedestrians and cyclists will continue. As traffic increases,
fewer people try to cross the street - one of the reasons why fewer people
know their neighbours on the other side of the street.
Children's freedoms will be further curtailed by parental
fears, and the social catalyst of children playing in the street will disappear.
In Britain, as recently as 1971, 80 per cent of 7 and 8 year olds went to
school on their own, unaccompanied by an adult. Now almost none do so; the
government issues guidance to parents warning that it is irresponsible to
allow children under the age of 12 out of the house unaccompanied. Children
seldom experience mixing independently with their peers and learning to cope
without adult supervision - an experience essential to the process of socialisation.
People will become fatter and less fit. Children
with parental chauffeurs no longer acquire the habit of walking or cycling
to school, friends, or other activities. As functional walking and cycling
disappear, we will have less exercise built into daily routines - although
this is a trend which appears to be partially offset by the growing numbers
of people who drive to health clubs to run on treadmills.
The world will be less culturally varied. The McCulture
will be further advanced. Tom Wolfe captures the phenomenon in his novel,
A Man in Full: "The only way you could tell you were leaving one community
and entering another was when the franchises started repeating and you spotted
another 7-Eleven, another Wendy's, another Costco, another Home Depot." Tourism
is the world's fastest growing industry. Travel writers urge their readers
to rush to spoil the last unspoiled areas on earth - before others beat them
to it. The moving pavement which speeds tourists past the Crown Jewels in
the Tower of London is just one example of the triumph of Fordist efficiency
which characterises mass tourism.
The world will be more anonymous and less convivial.
Fewer people will know their neighbours. Gated communities and Neighbourhood
Watch - attempts to recreate what used to happen naturally - are symptomatic
of the new anomie. Even when they live in close physical proximity to each
other, the mobile wealthy and the immobile poor live in different worlds.
The poor, by their lack of mobility, are confined to prisons with invisible
walls. They are continually tempted and taunted - as prisoners confined to
cells with real walls are not - by the freedom and conspicuous consumption
of the affluent. The wealthy can be seen and heard flying overhead, driving
along motorways through the ghettos, appearing on television, enjoying privileges
which remain out of reach. To the wealthy, the poor are often invisible; the
wealthy tend to see the world at a lower resolution because of the height
and speed at which they travel.
will be more crime-ridden. The strained relations between
haves and have-nots will generate more fear of crime. As with danger on the
roads, this is not reliably captured by statistics. Homes become better defended
with stronger doors, locks and alarm systems. People, especially women, retreat
from the streets and no longer use public transport because they feel threatened;
growing numbers of motorists travel with their doors locked. Policing becomes
more intrusive, making greater use of CCTV surveillance and computer databases.
The old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat who knew his neighbourhood is being replaced
by clever cameras which can read number plates and recognise faces. High-tech
policing, feared by civil libertarians, is an inescapable cost of hypermobility.
The alternative is ineffectual policing. If criminals avail themselves of
modern means of mobility - physical and electronic - and the police do not
keep pace, the latter will become impotent.
illustration by Izhar Cohen
Society will be less democratic. Individuals will
have less influence over the decisions which govern their lives. As we spread
ourselves ever wider and thinner in our social and economic activities, the
geographical scope of political authority must expand in order to keep up
with the growing size of the problems which require governing. Political power
migrates up the hierarchy from local authorities to Whitehall and Westminster,
and increasingly to Brussels and unaccountable institutions such as the World
Bank and the World Trade Organisation. On neither side of the Seattle confrontations
between the WTO and disparate groups of protesters could be found institutions
which were democratically accountable - Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth
are not democracies. Trust in these unaccountable institutions diminishes
as their "facts" become increasingly difficult to distinguish from spin. (In
the sub-genre of science fiction devoted to futures in which distance has
been conquered, there is not a single example of a democracy.)
the trends creating the world described
above are meeting no effective resistance. On the contrary, they are being
encouraged by governments everywhere. In Britain airport planning continues
to be based on the predict-and-provide principle - and further huge growth
is predicted. Airport planners everywhere reassure each other of the growth
potential of their industry by noting that most people in the world have never
flown. The idea that this growth might be constrained by their failure to
provide sufficient airport capacity is - to them - unthinkable.
The government has abandoned its pretence that it wishes
to reduce the nation's dependence on the car. Gus Macdonald, the new transport
minister, is now openly in favour of increasing it: "If cars become more affordable
and more people want to own them, that is not a problem." He places himself
firmly in the technical-fix camp: "Cleaner engines are the way forward." John
Redwood, former transport spokesman for the Conservative party, not to be
outdone in the pursuit of the motorist's vote, urged the construction of more
roads to bypass "environmentally sensitive towns, villages or beauty spots."
He forgot the lesson painfully learned by his Tory predecessors: that there
is a severe shortage of insensitive areas through which to build them.
What would be the main feature of a policy which sought
to increase dependence on the car? It would encourage people to move
out of town and spread themselves about at densities too low to be serviced
by public transport. Under the previous government this policy met with impressive
success; a 1999 study by the Town and Country Planning Association reports
the loss of 500,000 urban jobs and an increase of 1.7m low-density jobs between
1981 and 1996.
A policy which sought to reduce dependence on the
car would seek to restrict traffic in the areas where its growth is fastest
- which means, not in congested urban areas, where it has already stopped,
but in the suburbs and beyond. Private sector consultants now offer advice
on relocation away from city centres. This free-enterprise equivalent to the
old Location of Offices Bureau is a proper market response to the additional
centrifugal incentives now being devised by the Labour government in the form
of urban road pricing and workplace parking charges.
John Prescott, Britain's deputy prime minister, insists
that he is not anti-car - and has two Jags to prove it. He, like his transport
minister, is happy for more people to own cars, but from time to time he does
express the wish that they would leave them in the garage more of the time.
He should perhaps replace his road-building programme with a garage-building
programme; new car sales in Britain in 1999 are estimated at 2.2m - parked
end to end, they would form a queue over 8,000 miles long.
When people acquire cars they look for somewhere to drive
them and park them - increasingly difficult in Britain's cities. If the nation's
car population continues to increase (government forecasters predict that
it will grow substantially), the urban exodus will continue and dependence
on the car will increase. Britain can afford alternatives to the car.
There is no shortage of money. The average new car costs £12,500, making
the total queue worth £27.5 billion. In the past five years more than
10m new cars have been sold. The political challenge is to divert the vast
streams of private money available for transport into more socially and environmentally
The final policy which exacerbates the problem is the government's
enthusiastic promotion of the internet. The idea that this will help to solve
the transport problem, by obviating the need for much physical travel, rests
on decoupling the trends of virtual and physical mobility for which there
is no precedent. Historically the growth trends of both kinds of mobility
have correlated strongly; the most physically mobile societies are the heaviest
users of all forms of telecommunications.
Advocates of telecommunications as part of the solution
to transport problems argue that telecommunications
will revive human-scale communities by permitting more people to work from
home, spend more time close to home, and get to know their neighbours better.
Perhaps. But this presumes that people will be content to lead a shrinking
part of their lives in the real world which they will experience directly
- and a growing part of their lives in virtual communities which they will
experience electronically. It presumes that people will not want to meet and
shake hands with the new friends they meet on the internet; that they will
not seek first-hand experience of the different cultures they experience vicariously
(electronically); and that they will not wish to have real coffee breaks with
their colleagues. It presumes much for which there is as yet little evidence.
Let me offer a piece of discouraging evidence, albeit anecdotal,
from an encounter at Vancouver airport while waiting for a flight. I got chatting
to the fellow next to me. He was waiting to fly to Toronto for a game of bridge
with someone from Toronto, someone from Scotland and someone from San Francisco.
They had met and played bridge on the internet; now they needed a real game.
In "who killed civic america?" Robert
Putnam (Prospect, March 1996) documents the decline of civic engagement
in American life and concludes, after considering various alternatives, that
the chief culprit is television. He observes that "the electronic revolution
in communications technology was the first big technological advance in centuries
which would have a profoundly decentralising and fragmenting effect on society
and culture." Curiously, his list of potential culprits does not include the
car and the airplane, and the decentralising and fragmenting influence for
which they have been responsible. A more convincing diagnosis would share
the blame more equitably between the revolutions in transport and communications.
Throughout history, most people in most places have led
pedestrian lives. Their settlement patterns and travel have therefore been
tightly constrained. Such vehicular transport as existed was powered by humans,
animals or the wind. The rich had more mobility than the poor, but no one
had very much. Stories of flying carpets, seven-league boots, winged chariots
and the like attested to a desire for more mobility, but in technologically
unimaginative ages people were resigned to such marvels remaining the prerogative
of the gods. Indeed, the legend of Icarus suggests that the idea of mere mortals
attaining such means of travel was an impious one.
At a time roughly coinciding with the beginning of the
industrial revolution in England, there began a period of remarkable reductions
in the cost of transport and even more remarkable increases in its speed and
comfort - and in the numbers of people who made use of it. The achievements
of the gods have been surpassed. Concorde can fly faster than Apollo's flaming
chariot, and advances in telecommunications have created a capacity for exchanging
information which far exceeds anything ever attributed to Mercury. The transport
and communications history of this period is almost invariably told as a story
of progress following in the train of technological advance. Any problems
associated with this progress have been seen as "side effects" to be remedied
by yet more technology. Hypomobility was bad. More mobility is good. Hypermobility?
Might it be possible to have too much of this good thing? This question has
not been seriously considered by historians of transport, nor by planners
and politicians concerned with its future. Simply by raising the question
you run the risk of being labelled an enemy of freedom and choice.
This risk can be reduced if you ask the question differently.
The "transport problem" can be usefully captured by conducting three opinion
polls, each asking a different question. The first question is frequently
asked. Would you like a car, unlimited air miles, and Bill Gates's level of
access to all the electronic modes of travel? With minor variations this simple
question is routinely asked by opinion pollsters. Worldwide, the answer is
overwhelmingly yes. This is the implicit opinion poll which sets the political
agenda for transport planning almost everywhere. In responding to it, people
imagine the world as it is now, but with themselves gaining access to the
greater range of opportunities that the wealthy enjoy. Most politicians believe
that it would be political suicide to resist such aspirations. It would be
manifestly unfair, politicians often add, for those who already enjoy a high
level of mobility to pull the ladder up behind them.
But there is a second question, which is never asked. Would
you like to live in the sort of world which would result if everyone's wish
were granted? Help with the answer might be given by rephrasing the question:
would you like to live in a dangerous, ugly, bleak, crime-ridden, alienated,
anonymous, undemocratic, socially polarised, fume-filled greenhouse? The "fume-filled
greenhouse" is optional; I strongly suspect that technological improvements
will not keep up with traffic growth, and that the physical environment will
deteriorate as mobility levels rise; but confining the question to the social
consequences of hypermobility should be sufficient to elicit the answer no.
This opinion poll asks, in effect: do you want the consequences of business
as usual? As these consequences become better and more widely understood,
increasing numbers of people are clear that they would not want them. But
the political response has been disappointing. The best that even progressive
Denmark or the Netherlands has achieved so far is a response which slows the
rate of growth in road traffic in urban areas, does little to slow the growth
of traffic in the suburbs and rural areas, and does almost nothing to stop
the rapid increase in air travel.
Britain's new transport minister describes the continued
growth of traffic as "inevitable" - cheerfully ignoring the fact that those
on the bottom rungs of this ladder are being pushed deeper into social exclusion.
The political difficulty seems to be that the problem, when posed in the form
of opinion poll two, implies the need for a grim, grey, virtuous self-denial
in order to save the planet. This is not a platform on which many politicians
want to campaign.
But there is a third, more cheerful, question - the inverse
of the second question. Would you like to live in a cleaner, safer, healthier,
friendlier, more beautiful, more democratic, sustainable world in which you
know your neighbours and it is safe for your children to play in the street?
If these rewards could be assembled in a convincing and affordable package,
most people could be expected to vote for them - especially if the consequences
spelled out in opinion poll two were seen as the alternative.
For most people, the possibility of realising the aspirations
encapsulated in the first opinion poll is vanishing. But so long as its pursuit
continues to be the principal objective of transport planners and policy makers,
the bleak scenario set out in the second question becomes more likely. However,
contrary to the assertion of Britain's transport minister, the rising tide
of traffic is not inevitable. The traffic tide is not an irresistible force
of nature like the oceanic tide. It is the consequence of myriads of human
decisions large and small - of decisions by governments, about taxes and subsidies,
about land use planning, about road and airport building, and of individual
responses to these decisions. It is driven by a deeply-rooted, reality-denying,
linear view of progress.
The first question is equivalent to asking a glutton if
he would like unlimited quantities of his favourite foods and drinks. The
answer is predictable. The second question confronts the glutton with the
consequences of unconstrained indulgence. There are expensive, high-tech solutions
to some of these consequences - liposuction, Olestra (the non-fat fat that
slips straight through) and bypass surgery. But eating less and walking or
cycling to work are likely to be more effective, save money, and produce a
greater sense of well-being and self-worth.
Achieving the society encapsulated in opinion poll three,
which appears impossible to most politicians, is in principle quite straightforward.
It requires a reordering of priorities. Instead of continuing to sacrifice
the physical and social environment for more mobility, it requires cherishing
the local and foregoing some of the benefits of mobility to protect and
enhance what we value in nature and our relations with friends and neighbours.
To question the benefits of hypermobility is not to deny freedom and choice.
It is to ask people what it is that they really, really want, and
to confront them with the fact that their choices have consequences beyond
the primary objects of their desires.
John Adams is professor of
geography at University College London.