Our changing relationship with transport
By Tim Allen, Partner
The BBC website recently published two very interesting articles that seemed to be two sides of the same coin. The first considered the decline in car usage and that our post-war love affair could be over. The other dealt with the emergence of “Generation Sensible”, and the change in behaviour of many young people.
I can vouch for both findings based on personal experience. As my university student kids keep telling me, I am a dinosaur for owning a car and I should stop burning the candle at both ends!
However – it also struck me that this is an issue that we don’t seem to be embracing. Maybe it is because most people who are involved in planning, and deciding how we meet our housing needs and growth aspirations, are of the generation that grew up with the expectation of car ownership.
Maybe we have spent too long worrying about what might go wrong, rather than trying to deliver what is right. Perhaps we need to start to plan for what we want to happen, not what we fear may happen.
We already know that our ability to forecast what is going to happen is notoriously inaccurate and, intriguingly, usually pessimistic. The graph below (from our research with the ITC last year) tracks the various ‘official’ forecasts of UK traffic growth on the many coloured lines, while the thick black line plots what has actually happened.
And we’d be mistaken to think that this is a UK issue, and that if we learned lessons from elsewhere we would be able to forecast better. David Levinson, of the Transportist website, has done a great job of pulling together graphs like the one above from a whole raft of developed countries – and we’re all doing the same thing!
As a result, I don’t think we make the right plans for the circumstances. Instead, we tend towards the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ - where we mitigate with more highway capacity in case our other schemes don’t work. As a result, people end up driving because we have created a world where it’s the easiest thing to do, not necessarily the thing they would prefer or want to do.
Car ownership is an expensive liability and younger generations are beginning to recognise and realise this. Maybe the ‘freedom of the open road’ was a 20th century phenomenon and the car no longer represents the freedom it once did. The effects of congestion, concerns around air quality, and the sheer cost of car ownership and usage means that the 20th century relationship with the car as an ‘appliance’ is giving way to a different relationship with transport, movement and the car.
What will this new relationship look like?
The mobile phone / Netflix / Amazon Prime generation may well expect a more subscription based relationship. And not just with the car, it is more likely that users will adopt a subscription based relationship with the whole idea of travel.
If I am subscribing, I want travel that suits my ethical stance, my earnings, and my needs at that moment – which could be public transport, cycling, a hire car, taxi, or even just good quality walking directions. Our submission to the Wolfson Prize last year, ‘The Internet of Movement’ painted one picture of what that future might look like.
So maybe we must start by accepting that we need to be planning for what we WANT, not what we FEAR.
When we fear that the highway network won’t function, we must resist the temptation to add capacity in an attempt to accommodate that eventuality.
There may be an inevitable step that we must shift to plan for what we want to happen. Re-allocation of road space to walking, cycling and public transport, better cycle hubs, closely located daily amenities and facilities, fantastic, frequent, safe, legible public transport…the list goes on.
My kids might think I am a dinosaur but the evidence suggests that dinosaurs still roam the earth. The ones that survived were the agile birds who adapted quickest to what was going on around them. We need to provide viable and comprehensive alternatives for people to live their lives, and having provided those alternatives, if some folks chose to sit in queues of traffic in their shiny metal boxes, maybe, just maybe, we should leave them to it…