Mass-transit musings

Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it: I believe in global warming and climate change, and I believe its cause to be rooted in human activity. It has come to my attention during my work at Futurismic (that gets read by a more diverse spread of opinions than VCTB) that not everyone believes that to be the case, so I thought I’d make it clear before I carried on with this post.

So, with that out of the way, let’s talk about ways to alleviate the problem. A whole lot of that atmospheric pollution comes from ‘personal transport solutions’ (you know, cars and stuff). And the vast majority of people (here in the UK, at least) will agree that it’s a major issue, and one that needs sorting out. However, when you suggest they forgo their car use, the excuses start to come out. The shopping, the school run, the daily commute, the business dependent on mobility.

As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, most of these excuses have a basis in fact. Thanks to the machinations of The Iron Lady, the UK has an economy and social structure that is almost as dependent on the car as facilitator and status symbol/totem as the US. Unless you are (like myself) a single childless person who lives fifteen minutes walk from his workplace, and within similar distances to all major amenities, it can be damn hard to get by without using a car.

(Of course, I know people who will drive less than half a mile to the local Kwik-E-Mart if they feel like it, and I do everything I can to convince them of the foolishness of it, but that’s a different kettle of fish.)

The excuse is always the same – there’s no other way to get there. What about cycling? Can’t carry the shopping on a bike. Let the kids walk to school? Dangerous traffic, and marauding perverts (one ironic excuse, one overstated fear). Get the train/bus to work?

Ah, there it is. There’s the killer: public transport. It sucks. It’s overpriced, inefficient, inconvenient…add your own excuse, I’m sure you’ve heard (and even used) them yourself. But if we want to squelch car use (which we must), public transport is the only way to do it.

At this point it’s worth mentioning the issue of privatisation, even though it’ll make me sound like a raving lefty. The UK had an incredible rail network, bolstered by buses in regions that it was impractical to lay track to. And it worked. If we’d not had it, the industrial revolution would have taken off much more slowly (if at all, arguably). Now it’s run for profit, and it’s dying on its arse. A return trip from Velcro City to London is almost £25 on the train – more at peak times, when the trains are even busier and you are less likely to get a seat. And the government are astonished that people still prefer to drive and pay the congestion charges.

If we want cars off the roads, public transport needs to become not just cheap and efficient, but popular. Practical. Well spoken-of. Lauded, even. It needs to be something to be proud of, something that you not only feel a bit righteous for using, but that also meets your needs more than adequately.

That means there will be a hell of a battle against prevailing opinion. So maybe a city like this (which, in addition to being the most compact city in the UK, if not Europe too, is also as flat as a pancake, due to its history as a tidal swamp that was drained to build a naval base many centuries ago) should take a leaf from the book of San Francisco, who have been experimenting with ‘free transit days’, to overwhelmingly successful responses. If mass transit options were free (or close enough), the use of them would explode. As much as people love their cars, they love their money more, and will move to save it if the option is there.

“But how are you going to fund that free/cheap transport, AA?” Well, diverting taxes from things like war chests and military R&D would be a good start, but there are standard arguments against those that can’t be won by rational discussion – if someone believes military might is necessary, some hippy saying the cash should go on trains is going to get short shrift indeed…I know from personal experience.

So, what we do is put not only road tax (at a much higher rate than present), but also third-party insurance fees on fuel for personal transport and vehicles that belong to people who make profit from the transport of materials. No, it won’t be popular. But if the money actually goes to subsidise vastly more efficient mass transit systems, there will be a way for people to carry on their current lifestyles, only minus the personal status-symbol that their car is. After a while, the car would acquire an inverted status – the customary English loathing for those better off than oneself would soon be directed against private car owners, and owning one would rapidly become a disparaged badge of the over-monied toff. Furthermore, each vehicle would be taxed to a level proportionate to the amount of use it gets, and there would be no more incidents of uninsured drivers maiming pedestrians who subsequently cannot get compensation.

“But what about our vital transit industries, AA? What about the truckers, the white van men?” Well, yes, it’s going to suck for them personally – while their current business vision remains the same, that is. Goods transport will gravitate to cheaper and more efficient methods, creating new jobs in the process (ones that don’t involve popping caffeine pills to stay awake for that crucial last four hours). Couriering will revert to thge truly urgent articles – if it costs a mint for overnight delivery, it won’t be so important all of a sudden. Business only ever responds to profit margins. Shave those away, and their attitudes change real fast. This isn’t malice, it’s necessity. I wish the whole world had a job doing something they enjoyed, but they don’t and they won’t. Reality bites.

So, am I an enemy of the working classes? I don’t believe I am, though I’m sure there are those who would disagree. Technology is set to eradicate a lot more jobs than this idea would. But a mass transit economy would create new jobs to replace the ones it removed. And it would ensure that the people who held those jobs would have a planet to live on that they’d be able to show their children with pride; to be able to say to them “I helped prevent this from dying.” And that’s the real issue. Not our short-term discomfort, but the future of the generations that will succeed us. If we carry on as is, there won’t be one. And that would be a terrible legacy to leave behind us.

This post could go on forever – there are so many issues to raise. But I only have so much time each night. I’m sure that regular readers wirth an opinion will feel free to let me know their thoughts in the comments section. And I hope they realise that I am the sort of person who will debate them honestly – I freely admit that I’m no economist, no politician and no scientist, and that I often miss vital arguments. But that is what discussion is for. This issue effects us all – so have your say. I’m listening.

One thought on “Mass-transit musings”

  1. It doesn’t help that the average driver is subsidized to the tune of 500 pounds a year. I think eventually that needs to be turned around.

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