Dec 212010
 

Snow and ice have descended on Britain for the second time this (2010/11) winter, and the entire transport network has again ground to a halt, except for the railway.

Anyone who has ever read the wonderful Thomas the Tank Engine stories, of the Rev. A. W. Audrey, will know that snow is no obstacle to a train.  Thomas himself only ever became stuck when he refused to wear his snowplough.  There is even less excuse for any modern train to fail in the face of foul weather, of any kind.  Points can be de-iced by electric heaters, and signals can operate by radio.  The only reason why the railway sometimes fails us these days is that drivers will often depend upon the road to get to their depot, because the railway itself now reaches only around half the country, after closure of around a third of the network and the rise of sprawl.

And yet the media, seeking sensation, give equal measure to the 10% failure of rail services as they do to the 90% failure of road transport.  As much time yesterday was devoted to the 20% reduction in international rail services (due to speed reductions) as to the 70% reduction in aviation.

Rail remains the mode of transport by far the most secure against foul weather.  Furthermore, rail is the only mode capable of mass evacuation in an emergency.  If New Orleans had seen the same investment in rail as it had in roads, far fewer people would have suffered and died.  The same high integrity and high capacity that makes this possible also allows movement of the very high numbers attending major cultural events.  The London 2012 Olympics can be served only by major rail investment, which thankfully is going ahead, despite the fact that Britain has been all but bankrupted by its banking industry.

I’m looking out at a road still only safely passable in a four-wheel-drive vehicle four days after a blizzard which deposited ten inches of snow over eight hours, and reduced visibility to a few metres.  All roads here became impassable with an hour, and yet every train ran through our village that day, and within minutes of schedule.

How can we have allowed our entire economy and lifestyle to become almost wholly dependent upon a mode of transport which becomes useless for a full week after a single storm and a temperature just two degrees below zero?

Nov 202010
 

In order to serve their commercial interests the nuclear industry has achieved not one but two triumphs in “public relations” — in other words, lying.  (We should never forget that precisely the same methods were used to get Hitler elected.)

First, it has convinced politicians — and even some fools in the green movement — that nuclear power is essential if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emission, bring global warming under control, and limit climate change.  This is untrue.  Nuclear power is not sustainable since it depends upon a limited natural resource.  Just like oil, nuclear fuel is also widely scattered beneath foreign soil.  The construction of nuclear power stations, and nuclear waste repositories (should anyone ever get around to building them) give rise to immense carbon emission.  Nuclear power also enhances potential terrorism by providing high-value vulnerable targets, and by increasing the risk of the use of nuclear material.  The need to safely store and guard lethal waste for hundreds of thousands of years ought, alone, to rule out any significant exploitation.

Second, it has convinced politicians, and, sadly, the public at large, that nuclear power is safe, and that the Chernobyl disaster was just a one-off accident that really was “no big deal”.  The World Health Organisation believes at least 9,000 died as a direct result.  Greenpeace believes the true figure could eventually reach a quarter of a million.  The fact is, like smoking, it is not possible to attribute any individual cancer to radiation exposure, never mind the source of that radiation.  Nearly 3,000 square kilometres of agricultural land in the vicinity has been lost, and the safe use of vastly more, as far away as Wales, has to be carefully monitored.

Chernobyl was and remains a “big deal”.  Nuclear power is no more safe than it is sustainable, or a solution to climate change.  There is a long history of nuclear accidents, dating back to Windscale in Cumbria in 1957.  The more nuclear power stations we build, the more certain we should be of another Chernobyl.

We can generate enough electricity for our domestic needs, and most of our industrial needs, sustainably. But not enough to power a billion electric cars, making more and longer journeys because our habitat consists almost entirely of car-predicated sprawl.

Nov 162010
 

A final (final) footnote to this story : speed cameras in Oxfordshire are to be turned back on, after it was found (to the surprise of no one with any sense) that drivers had returned to speeding on the roads monitored.

There will be those who claim the difference in speed is low, or that offenders are few, but the fact is that it takes just one car, just a few miles an hour more, to kill a child or main them for life.  It costs nothing to prevent, if fines are levelled accordingly.

For reason and sense to truly prevail, we need more and better automation so that the law can be enforced everywhere, and the assumed right to speed ended for good.

Sep 162010
 

The Cost of the Car was written with reference mainly to Britain, although almost all the arguments presented would apply equally to any part of the rich world.  While I would dearly like to compose a US edition, this is unlikely, given other commitments.  (If anyone out there is interested in doing so then please leave comment below, or get in touch with the publisher.)

I can, however, recommend a report published back in 1992 by the World Resources Institute, named The Going Rate: What it Really Costs to Drive, by James Mackenzie, Roger Dower, and Donald Chen.  If you want the kind of ammunition for the US that my book contains about the UK then it’s here, though now a little dated.

What I find most interesting is that you folk on the other side of the ‘pond’ suffer almost exactly the same blight, with the very same origin, but via a somewhat different route.  In the US, almost infinite space, and absurdly liberal property law, allows sprawl to… well, sprawl… over a vastly greater area.  The combination of distance and congestion results in an unreasonable amount of time spent behind the wheel (consuming energy, emitting carbon, denying more efficient and faster shared transport, etc.).  On this side, it’s just congestion, but to the same effect.

Some things are much worse over there, however.  You are around three times more likely to be killed in, or by, a car.  Granting a driving licence at age 16, rather than 17, together with far wider access to, and need for, a vehicle, comes at a considerable cost.  (Over 40% of teenagers have at least one serious accident.)  You drive approximately twice the mileage driven anywhere in Europe, and you do so in cars that are only half as efficient.  As a result, you are far more dependent upon foreign oil.

While there has recently been some improvement in fuel efficiency (due to a larger proportion of imported cars, and a belated response to increasing gasoline price), the trend in mileage is inexorably upwards (almost doubling every twenty years.)

Aside from chronic congestion, we share the myth that the car represents private transport.  The WRI report contains enough facts and figures to annihilate any such belief regarding the US.  The road network there, as here, has been paid for almost 100% by the State.  Since it’s almost always free at point of use, what can we expect but long queues?

But there is another example here of the same problem via a different route.  In the US, there is always space to build yet another “relief road”, to ease congestion.  If you tried that here, you’d bang right into the neighbouring town (or the sprawl around it).  As I make clear in my book, such roads are no solution.  By Downs’ Law, they will simply induce additional traffic and fill up.  Sadly, this leaves you somewhat deeper in the… mire… and with bloated taxes to boot.

One of the things that has always astonished me is the way so many people can be so two-faced about the market.  Here (and perhaps over there also) farmers would ceremonially hang their family rather than vote anything but Conservative — a party which exists to champion the (unregulated) free market.  And yet they would hang their local MP if he raised the slightest question over agricultural subsidy and bail-out.  Similarly, the road lobby is strongly identified with the same ideology, and yet threatens to shut down the economy almost at the mention of any direct charge for road use.  Yet, without market tolls, there will always be congestion.  It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

The WRI report includes useful (and frightening) figures for the cost of US congestion, which appear a bit lower than ours, but this may be due to the continuous addition of temporary relief.  If that is so, then it represents merely a transfer from the congestion bill to the tax one.

One red herring is the idea of a fuel tax.  We have that here and it makes not a halfpenny-worth of difference, though it does attribute taxation where it is due, to meet some of the costs of roads and road use.  Accounting for the fact that things are closer together here, we use cars every bit as much with a heavy fuel tax, as you do without one.

The ultimate answer to excessive car and road dependence is to offer people an alternative habitat where they can walk, cycle, or take a tram or train, to make their trips.  As I make clear in my book, this can be offered without denying any freedom to use the car.  It’s about adding liberty, not taking it away.  If there’s one thing we Euros admire about you lot, it’s your love of liberty.  We’re used to rather less of it, and seem to accept any abuse with a shrug.  It’s my hope you guys will show the way.

Of course, you have a problem.  If the road is sacred to the holy car here, it’s quadruply so over there.  (I’m surprised it hasn’t replace that eagle on the bank notes.)

I wish you luck.

 Posted by at 16:21  Tagged with:
Sep 092010
 

A final word concerning speeding, and why it requires control and policing :

The car lobby has campaigned against the very existence of speed limits from its inception (in the UK in 1895 as the Self-Propelled Traffic Association).  In 1930, they succeeded in gaining abolition of the universal 30mph limit.  The casualty rate rose by a quarter over the following two years.  Such a low limit might seem absurd to drivers now used to whipping through residential areas, like my home village, at 45 with almost complete impunity; but, if one truly understands the horror in the potential consequence, and is prepared to question such a constraint rationally, it would surely seem wholly reasonable.

A fool might point out that two thirds of road casualties fall victim within a 30mph limit, and contend that such a limit is therefore worthless.  In fact, such an observation is nothing less than a self-contained argument for a lower limit.

One must first understand that a reduction in speed will always render 1) an accident much less likely, and 2) its consequences much less severe, for three reasons.  First, more time is available to react; but this effect is only linear — the time available is inversely proportional to speed.  The kinetic energy of the vehicle varies non-linearly, as the square of speed — it will more than halve when speed is reduced from 30 to 20mph.  Braking time varies with vehicle kinetic energy, not speed directly; hence, it halves when speed is reduced from 30 to 20mph.

It is the energy imparted by the vehicle that will smash a child’s head.  (If you think this language emotive, you might want to visit any hospital for brain-damaged children.  You will find most have been put there by a car.)  When that little head meets the bonnet of a SUV (at head height), it must absorb all the energy imparted, directly.

After the mindless claim that speed has nothing to do with risk of collision, or its consequences, the second most common claim made by the road lobby is that statistics should demonstrate a clear correlation between speed limitation and casualty rate.  This too is utter nonsense, mainly for all the usual reasons why real scientists avoid reliance upon statistics as far as they possibly can.

First and foremost, they contain information only concerning the domain from which they are derived.  For example, speed cameras were applied to a very small proportion of Britain’s roadway.  Even so, the information gathered at those locations clearly indicated a fall in both accident and casualty rates once they were installed.  However, the claim that one should perceive a rise in those rates nationally, or even across the county, after their removal is nonsense.

Second, statistics are influenced by factors which remain unquantified or which remain entirely unknown; the wider the domain, the more factors there are, and the less specific any prior information concerning them.  One thing we most decidedly do not know, regarding speeding, is just how many people, especially children, are deterred from walking and cycling because of it.  Hence, the claim that we don’t need speed limits because both accident and casualty rate are falling ‘naturally’ is utterly without foundation.  It may simply be that we are removing the people from the risk, not the risk from the people.  There is plenty of evidence that people, especially children, are walking and cycling much less.

Then there is congestion, which is increasingly reducing speed on many routes, and doubtless as a result reducing the accident and casualty rates thereon.  But this doesn’t help stop the youngster being smashed off his bike, or run down while walking to school, by an adult in a car, in a hurry.

One last contention is that there is no evidence that speed limits save lives.  Again, this is utter nonsense.  One study, for the Australian Federal Office of Road Safety, concluded that the risk of becoming a casualty in a road accident doubles with every 5kph above a 60kph limit, where such a limit currently applies.

To avoid rational argument, and hold to a model that justifies personal advantage, while demonstrating intolerance of opposition, is a dictionary definition of bigotry, and is not an acceptable basis for policy in a civilized society.

Intolerance must meet greater intolerance.

Aug 182010
 

I was chatting with a senior medic on the train a while ago, when he surprised me by saying that he believed there is consensus in medical opinion that the underlying cause of obesity is not eating more, or even eating junk, but indolence.

After a little googling around, I came up with a BBC quote from the Director of the UK Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development to essentially the same effect.  Couple that with the fact that just one in twenty now walk or cycle to school, as opposed to four in five c. 1970), and it’s no surprise that one in seven British children are now obese.

Car culture seems to see people walking as a threat, and cycling as an even bigger one.  It is not unusual to hear abuse from ‘motorists’ or even have things thrown at you through their window as they pass.  I have suffered both, and have even experienced people deliberately driving at me.  Bus drivers in Oxford follow dangerously close as a matter of course.

This is very strange.  I invite explanation.

Of course, within sprawl, you have little or no choice but to drive on every occasion.  Far from the necessary 3,000 steps a day for basic exercise, you will struggle to manage 300.  It’s a curious irony that workaholicism, or simply long working hours imposed upon you, will combine with a car-predicated habitat to deny you the ability to dedicate additional time specifically to exercise.  After sitting in congestion two or more hours a day, and working ten or more, there isn’t any time left.

And so we continue to put on weight, cumulatively.  Until our cardiovascular system says stop.

An interesting footnote is a suggestion that fatter drivers use more gas.  While this is amusing (along with the obvious jocular aside), the effect is small when one accounts for the enormous mass ratio of the typical American car.  In moving from simply overweight into obesity, we increase our mass by about 50%.  But this still represents only around 10% of the total mass, since cars have also gained mass in around the same proportion.  Even if this were not so, the increased bill at the pump would be down in the ‘noise’ — the statistical variation associated with our mileage and vehicle efficiency.

More significant perhaps is the tendency to both use a larger vehicle and to walk less, the fatter we become.  And so, we drive more, and further deter others from walking.

Which, of course, closes the positive feedback loop.

Aug 182010
 

The UK Government has just banned wheel clamping of cars parked on private property, thus removing the right to respond when someone else parks on your land without permission.

As with the termination of speed cameras and speeding, no proposal has been made for any alternative, and no professional evidence or analysis has been offered in support.

If you return home one day to find someone else parked in your driveway, you already had a problem.  It can take days, even weeks, to force them off.  Imagine the problems encountered by those who own access to their business property.  They now have no way to deter abuse, and could be forced to close while waiting for a court order.

Look out of your window and you’ll see cars parking on every accessible area big enough, regardless of who owns it or whether it is public highway.  A grass verge, or village green (like the one outside my window), may turn into a muddy eyesore.

Perhaps it is time to go the other way, and call into question whether someone has the right to claim a chunk of the public highway as their own, on which to keep their car.  After all, this imposes a cost upon the rest of us.  It reduces lane width, slows traffic (promoting congestion), and can create a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists.  It also denies someone else the right to park there temporarily, while dropping off or visiting.

Termination of the right to clamp amounts to nothing less than conferring the right to park where the hell you like.  It grants a licence to antisocial behaviour.

As a result, it amounts to antisocial behaviour itself.

Aug 162010
 

After speed cameras were “turned off”, earlier this month, their operators left them recording speed limit violation for a 5-day test period.   The number of drivers breaking the law rose by 18% in that single week, demonstrating clearly that cameras were indeed an effective deterrent.  This is consistent with a Department for Transport 2005 report concluding that they brought about a 70% reduction in speeding nationally.

The same report, after monitoring events before and after camera installation over a significant period, concluded that fatal accidents reduced by 42% and serious injury by 22%.

The road lobby, now represented by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government and the (Conservative run) Oxford County Council, argue that they were just there to “tax motorists”.  In fact, speeding fines add up to £20m less than the government spends annually on road safety.  Even the AA membership disagrees with the accusation, it seems.  Its own survey concluded that 70% of its members accept that the cameras play an important part in improving road safety.

Speaking for the people who witness the aftermath of speeding, the Association of Chief Police Officers stated that “speed cameras are the cornerstone of reducing speeding and deaths on the road”.  The spokesperson went on to say that he had “no doubt’ that speed cameras had helped to reduce the number of deaths caused by road accidents.  He then expressed his concern that that number might now rise.

The fact is that speeding on the highway will from now on be policed very much less.  No replacement system has been proposed by either local or national authority.  The budget for “road safety”, already derisory, given the huge amounts spent on both cars and roads, is being cut by almost a third.

This cut is clearly ideological, since it liberates an utterly insignificant proportion of the savings the Treasury must make, and is unsupported by any credible evidence.  Moreover, it flies in the face of professional advice.  This is “saloon bar” politics, not responsible government.

One can only conclude that this new government, and its friends in local government, believe either that no law enforcement is necessary on the road, or that ‘motorists’ are above the law.

Aug 122010
 

Sprawl in the UK is not quite the same as sprawl in the US.

For one thing, America has plenty of space; they’ve used just 3% of it thus far.  This imparts an ability to survive not just the extra consumption of land, but the pollution and energy drain as well.  In Britain, on the other hand, we’re dependent upon importation of food, since we already have a population twice the size we can feed, and energy, since we have already exhausted our natural resources.  (The one exception is coal, but that would require carbon capture and secure storage — something as yet unproven, and likely to be expensive.)

But there’s another problem : villages and towns are tightly packed on our little island.  Sprawl tends to run roughshod over these, destroying all that was attractive in them.  I witnessed the overrun of my own home village, the arrival of crime and antisocial behaviour, and its complete loss of identity.  Schools, shops, and pubs, closed, while the price of a home rose beyond what I and my brothers could afford, giving the lie to the promise that more houses would mean cheaper houses.  People stopped caring about the place.

And now it’s happening again where I live now.

First, the nearby main road was converted to a four-lane highway, bringing noise and air pollution.  (Light pollution is soon to follow.)  Next, the lanes through the village become rat-runs, with constant traffic, much of it driven too fast and with little care.  Now, we are faced with large housing developments, both between us and the neighbouring town, and within the village itself.  None of it comes near the scale and luxury typical in American sprawl.

Pretty soon, we’ll have the same concrete soulless continuum that dissolved my former home.

Aug 042010
 

A common serious mistake is to associate the origin of suburbia with the private car.  The tram (streetcar) created suburbia.

By the outbreak of the First World War, electric power had replaced the horse for haulage, eliminating (local) pollution and increasing both speed and capacity.  One could live ten miles out of the big ugly city, yet keep your commute reliably under thirty minutes.

A second mistake is condemn suburbia out of hand.  Whether we like it or not, people value privacy, and there’s little of that within a densely populated town or city.

Another problem of urban life, which political correctness denies recognition of nowadays, is crime and antisocial behaviour.  The Victorians always feared the underclasses and counted them carefully.  They believed around 15% of the population were irrevocably irresponsible (e.g. regularly getting drunk), and about 5% were outright criminal.  Who can blame decent folk for choosing to live elsewhere?

Finally, there is access to open countryside, and perhaps a private garden – of particular value when raising children.

Suburbia does not equal sprawl.

Sprawl is characterized by 1) a continuum of housing, unpunctuated by any focus, and 2) access predicated on the private car, with the result that no shared amenity (of any significance) is viable, including high-capacity shared transport, and congestion is inevitable.

A light-rail (transit) station is a focus, and affords an opportunity to get to know your neighbours. Development is then limited by the need to walk (or cycle) there in reasonable time, retaining a boundary around each community.  Rail companies were known to invest in new build themselves, which required pleasant and effective transport to see a return.

The arrival of the car threatened the viability of rail transport (see my page “road versus rail”) but it required both conspiracy and incompetence to destroy it.  While we have plenty of both this side of the ‘pond’, US big business tends to put us in the shade for sheer audacity.

The Pacific Electric Company essentially built Los Angeles, before it was busted by General Motors, which in 1932 formed United Cities Mobile Transit to take over ‘streetcar’ lines and convert them to bus companies.  (It owned Atlantic Greyhound Lines, and made buses.)  In 1936, GM joined with Firestone Tire and Rubber and Standard Oil to form National City Lines, spinning off Pacific City Lines (1938) and American City Lines (1943) to buy up and dismantle electric streetcar systems in more than twenty cities, including Los Angeles.  By 1950, more than a hundred lines had been converted to bus.

As they well knew, buses are not popular – when a rail service closed in Britain in the 1960s, the replacement bus was used by only around one in five of those who formerly used the line.  (See my page on the bus for further comment.)  With the railway gone, all those who could find the money bought a car.

What has changed since then is primarily congestion, the price of fuel (see my earlier post), and both concern and regulation with regard to the environment, both local and global.

Electric propulsion is far more appealing when you can connect the vehicle to a stationary power supply than it is when you have to carry that supply with you (in a battery or fuel cell).  It’s much cheaper, and you can travel as far as you like (the full breadth of France, for example).

Britain and America are waking up to the fact that they are thirty years behind continental western Europe, not just with main line heavy rail, but with light rail too.  The French, who co-led the high-speed rail revolution with their Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), have shown us how to deliver power to a tram without an ugly overhead cable or a live exposed third rail.

We have come full circle.  The tram (streetcar) is on the way back.