"Professor of Public Policy & Governance, University of Glasgow Adam Smith Business School addressing the meeting.
© John G. Fender 2011
Not a lot has changed in transport policy terms since the Conservative manifesto of 1987: we're still investing in trunk infrastructure and still privatising and marketising in a long wave of political ideology that has not yet fully run its course. It was Alistair Darling who told us that fuel taxation was not aimed at putting people off the roads, rather at enabling us to get the best out of the network, and Tom Harris declared his modal agnosticism.
Transport is everywhere devolved in the UK, and Scottish devolution has brought forth a new age of optimism where big projects are expected to deliver economic growth, environmental benefits and social inclusion. Road traffic growth slowed in the 1990s to peak in many developed countries by 2008 (though it had declined rather earlier into major towns and cities), but commuting still dominates as it is optional journeys that have gone down. Rail has continued to grow, but its promotion of long-distance commuting has put people into communities where driving may be the only way of getting around for other purposes.
Young men are giving up on driving or not driving so far, maybe due to th cost of insurance or reliance on social media rather than meeting. The active travel agenda hasn't worked, it was integration and choice that gave way to Harris's agnosticism, and sustainability has disappeared since the onset of recession in 2008, with any interest in converging land use and transport policies replaced by a belief that any development must be good. We are obsessed with projects, but they take so long to build that they end up addressing the problems of twenty years ago.
Instead we must ask ourselves what is transport for since such investment does not automatically grow the economy any more than new roads inevitably damage the environment. Critical uncertainties include whether the electric car will take off, the demographics of people outliving their fitness to drive yet continuing to expect high mobility, changing social norms of young people not so likely to drive, lack of money - but Scotland spends three times as much as the English regions, Wales or Northern Ireland on transport though only half as much as London.
There is now intense competition for development, and personal contact in this electronic age has become more not less important. Some places are doing better than others, and cities are becoming more important - which favours Scotland since we have a dynamic urban structure which retains people and promotes a higher level of civic engagement than in provincial England. So either it's business as usual or else we try something genuinely different in which we travel less.
At the global level there is no doubt that direct flights are the key to connectivity, in the University sector and elsewhere. More locally, thinking in transport terms generates projects, but it is transport which creates the utilities of place so what kind of places do we want? To Buchanan in 1963 there could be no going back from the motor vehicle, but Schaeffer believed that all of our urban crises were produced by the automobile and Jane Jacobs said that cities were enjoyed by everybody only when they had been created by everybody.
By its promotion of longer-distance commuting from otherwise car-dependent communities, public transport hasn't done much in recent times to improve cities, but we used to do things better as when the form of Edinburgh's urban development was fixed by its old tram networks or Glasgow created and then pedestrianised Buchanan Street. However the new Edinburgh Trams arose out of a conference organised a decade ago when it was architects and designers who were the first to understand their wider purpose, which then got lost as - despite trams' very limited success elsewhere in reducing congestion and getting people out of cars - it turned into a transport project, not one about improving the city centre.
The greatest contrast is with cities of similar size in France, where in Nantes every tram journey generates a journey on foot because commuters having left their car at home enjoy a lunchtime stroll, the urban environments of Montpelier and Bordeaux have been transformed and the calming event on Nice has completely changed public opinion while despite being an automobile city Le Mans too has taken to its trams. 2200 km of light rail networks have been laid in France over the last 30 years while the Labour Government's ambition in this country came to nothing.
Public transport here has been used to support the car, not to replace it, with commuting encouraged over greater distances and a loss of any awareness that we should be improving places. Instead it needs to be about supporting productive places, so should be for offering local, slower journeys that support people, not vehicles. Hopes for the future include the feminisation of the professions and the breaking down of disciplinary silos, but by comparison with many other countries the UK lacks an active citizenry, while Scotland has neither the Irish commitment to global airline connectivity nor the recent determination of London to rebuild its image. Maybe have too many politicians and they are paid too little to be able to raise the level of debate in order that we can decide what kind of country we want and therefore what kind of public transport.
The Scottish Region thanks Glasgow City Council for hosting the event.
Report by John Yellowlees. Photograph by John Fender.
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