Tuesday 1 August 2017 16.48 BST
We tell ourselves that we cherish efficiency. Yet we have created a transport system whose design principle is profligacy. Metal carriages (that increase in size every year), each carrying one or two people, travel in parallel to the same places. Lorries shifting identical goods in opposite directions pass each other on 2,000-mile journeys. Competing parcel companies ply the same routes, in largely empty vans. We could, perhaps, reduce our current vehicle movements by 90% with no loss of utility, and a major gain in our quality of life.
But to contest this peculiar form of insanity is, as I know to my cost, to be widely declared insane. Look at how advertising is dominated by car companies, and you begin to understand the drive to ensure that this counter-ergonomic system persists. Look at the lobbying power of the motor industry and its support in the media, and you see why successive plans to address pollution seemed designed to fail.
Suggest a neater system, and you will be shouted down by people insisting that they don’t want to live in a planned economy. But in this respect (and others) we do live in a planned economy. These days transport planners make a few concessions to cyclists, pedestrians and buses, but their overriding aim is still to maximise the flow of private vehicles. Rather than encouraging the more efficient use of existing infrastructure, they keep increasing the space into which inefficiency can expand.
The government’s new pollution plan notes that its actions will be limited, as “we must maintain discipline on public spending”. Yet it sustains what the Department for Transport boasts is the “biggest upgrade to roads in a generation”. Launched in 2014, at the height of David Cameron’s austerity programme, this plan promised to “triple levels of spending by the end of the decade”, with £15bn for 100 new road schemes.
New roads do not solve traffic congestion. They exacerbate it. By increasing flow in some parts of the network, they generate bottlenecks in others. Governments then seek to bypass the bottleneck, creating a worse one further along the system. It doesn’t matter how often and how powerfully the induction of traffic by roads is demonstrated (the first findings were published in 1937); the programme persists.
No holistic solution to the multiple problems caused by this planned chaos can be contemplated, as efficiency would be injurious to special interests. Success is measured by miles travelled, rather than needs met. It’s like measuring the health of the population by the weight of medicines it consumes.