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The Right Side Of The Tracks: Transport In Scotland In The Time Of "Peak Oil" by Professor Christopher Harvie, Ph.D., Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen. Scottish Region meeting of 6 March 2007 held in the Royal Scot's Club, Edinburgh.

Professor Harvie began his presentation with a poem that illustrated the bygone days of rail travel, when the steam train was " symbol of connection, unity and content" and he posed the question "Can we say this of our transport, or of Britain, at the present day?" Looking at the present situation, Professor Harvie pointed out that we are moving around four times further by surface transport than in the 1950's and travelling unprecedented miles by air. Examples are stag parties held in the Baltic states instead of the "local" or of children who are chauffeured everywhere, who endlessly play video games and watch television and who risk becoming couch potatoes with the problems of obesity that goes with this lifestyle.

Professor Christopher Harvie, Ph.D., Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen.d

Professor Christopher Harvie, Ph.D., Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen.

© John G. Fender 2011

Instead of expanding freedom, Professor Harvie said that individual mobility had curtailed it and today our communal space is more limited than before. Traffic levels have gown and with them, the levels of emissions from the "avalanche of tin". Since the 1920's, when the level of car ownership in the US reached one car for four people, a level not attained in the UK until the 1960's, America has been the prototype for our planners. Urban sprawl was considered acceptable and public transport did not feature in the plans. The contrast is that in America, despite the urban sprawl and high car ownership levels, there has been significant investment in sophisticated public transport schemes.

Professor Harvie posed the question of what happens when the oil runs out. Presently, some 15% of the world's population owns 85% of the world's vehicles. He said that if this proportion increases markedly, "we are finished". He pointed out that if pollution does not get us, then scarcity will, for the simple reason that oil reserves will start to run out sooner or later. Even if there are 30 years reserves available, all of the OPEC countries are in some way threatened or threatening and Saudia Arabia, with most of the oil, is on the verge of collapse. A major consideration is the vastly increased and increasing demand from China for oil is estimated to potentially exceed the total demand for oil from the US and Europe by 2020.

Congestion is another aspect that must be considered and in the UK government policies have tended to be car friendly over the last 40 years in preference to other alternatives, resulting in today's congestion. The debate over road pricing is not new and has been going on since the 1960's. In those days there were three choices for planners, urban motorways; urban conservation, high density and public transport; and low density and dispersed flows. Glasgow, for example, chose the first option and still persists with it today, despite urban decline. Edinburgh, on the other hand, chose the second option, but still suffers from congestion problems.

Perhaps the most radical case of planning was Milton Keynes where journey patterns were deliberately dispersed to reduce congestion. This also had the effect of making decent public transport well nigh impossible. In the 1980's and 1990's, there was a trend towards the out of town retail park and this coincided with lower motoring costs which led to "motorisation of the electorate". There are also social problems that permeate today's society and future policy will have to address the issues of a decentralised non-urban population.

Professor Havie then looked at how to survive Peak Oil. One option is to sit on our own oil resources but this would mean reducing consumption and in turn means reducing dependence on private transport. He pointed out that this does not mean being anti-car, but "deconstructing the motorist". In other words, change our travel needs to reflect the new situation. This included greater use of public transport and more efficient use of road space. Another problem is that of the shopping mall. These are destructive of local trade and enterprise. How many High Streets have suffered from these out of town developments?

The car as the prime mover of to work journeys will not survive peak oil and we need to invest in alternatives such as carbon free personal transport and public transport. Large numbers of the population will have to switch to public transport and Professor Harvie cited the example of Tübingen where there are statutory rights to free or cheap tickets. However, there are social problems with loutish behaviour on public transport in the UK and Professor Harvie suggested that a better approach would be, instead of prison, the use of better training and more community service work.

Buses themselves tend to discourage people from using them, especially the "cheap and cheerful" variety. Even companies that buy new buses often only buy the most basic vehicle the can get and this is also a disincentive. Buses are limited in use and often unpredictable and this also contributes to peoples desire not to travel on them. In comparison rail is more attractive as are trams as these are reliable and capable of moving large numbers of people quickly. Trams also have a longer lifespan than the average bus, making them more cost effective. Trams need to be properly integrated with existing public transport.

Professor Harvie concluded his presentation by stating that a European solution is vital at the strategic level and suggested that perhaps taking the Department for Transport out of Whitehall hands might be a start. He also stated that environmentalism needs to be entrenched within law in order to ensure improvements and suggested that the cost of emissions should be passed on to businesses that caused them to occur, an example being the levying of a charge on the supermarket to reflect the pollution created by it's delivery vehicles.

Report by John Fender.


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