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Newsletter 24th August 2007

Transports of delight

Those readers old enough to remember Flanders and Swann will, we hope, forgive us for using the title of one of their best known songs for this week’s newsletter. The song waxed lyrical about the pleasures of using London buses, but here we take a rather more critical view of transport in modern societies. Personal transport – unless muscle-powered – is a particular bête noire of environmentalists at present, given its seemingly inexorable increase. In recent times flying – although by any rational definition a form of public transport – has come in for particular attack.

Motorised transport has an impact on the environment in many ways: visually, aurally and in terms of pollution, for example. But it also has great benefits and has transformed the lives of individuals and the very nature of societies. Two hundred years ago, there were no railways. Getting around meant going by foot or horse. Long journeys were by stagecoach and international travel – much of it one-way only – by ship. Leisure travel was unknown except for the rich and privileged. Commuting was an unknown concept: people worked in or near their homes and most travelled no further than a few miles from their homes during their (often rather short) lives.

The Stockton to Darlington railway, opened in September 1825, was the first passenger railway in the world, and ushered in an era of travel for all. Doubtless at the time trains were regarded by many as despoiling the countryside; now most environmentalists would encourage their use in preference to motoring or flying.

Fast forward to the early years of the twentieth century and the railways were in their heyday, electric trams were coming into service (together with the London Underground) but personal transport was still horse-drawn. Pollution concerns at this stage centred on the problem of removing horse manure from city streets.

But in 1908, the Model T Ford was first produced, and the era of mass car ownership was made possible, just thirty years after Karl Benz designed his now ubiquitous engine. The decline of the railway as the dominant form of travel can be dated from there. The problem of horse manure was overtaken by that of exhaust fumes (although the additional impact of these in cities where coal was the primary household fuel and air quality was appalling by modern standards was probably minimal).

And in the last half century, as car ownership has rocketed, air travel has also become mainstream, offering long-distance travel to all and killing off trans-Atlantic liners. But freedom to travel has drawbacks as well as benefits. The very affordability of private cars puts more on the road and causes congestion. Airports have to be built to accommodate the large increase in flying, and the quality of life in the vicinity inevitably suffers.

To come (at last) to the point of this potted history of transport: progress has not been on some smooth upward curve, but based on a series of discontinuities –  the building of the first railway, the invention of the internal combustion engine, the introduction of the production line etc. Someone from the late Victorian era, when railway building was at its peak, might have projected continued growth for decades to come, but the network of tracks peaked soon after in most industrialised countries. And anyone in the 1900s working on the logistics of removing ever increasing quantities of horse dung would soon have found the problem disappearing as new forms of transport took over.

In a similar way, an observer in the UK in the 1960s, when the railway network was being drastically cut back, might have foreseen the death of the train as a viable means of travel. Instead, rail travel has undergone something of a renaissance, and the train has been partially reinvented in the form of the TGV and its successors as a convenient, comfortable means of mid-distance travel.

So, when we hear so much current anguish expressed about road and air travel, we should remember one thing about predictions for their future growth: they will be wrong. Innovations, whether technical, social or both, will change the way things are done and how we travel. The trend towards working from home may accelerate: the constant improvements in the ICT area certainly make this possible, and virtual reality systems might be the catalyst which removes the need to travel to the office. Or GPS systems may be used to control road traffic: we would still be able to go where and when we wanted, but speed and distance from other vehicles could be optimised to maximise traffic flow.

But changes do not have to be this radical. Incremental improvements can also cumulatively make an enormous difference. 99 years ago, the Model T Ford had a 2.7 litre engine producing 15 kW of power, with a fuel consumption of less than 20 mpg. Modern cars typically have engines half this size, with five times the power and three times the fuel economy.

The point is that none of this can be planned. Innovation can be encouraged and will be accepted or not by the market. There will be benefits, but also some downsides; that is the nature of progress. All we can say with confidence is that transport systems will be vastly different by 2050 than they are today. Let’s accept this and try to make the most of what we have at present. While we are obsessed with the negative aspects of current transport, as-yet unknown developments in the wings will make these obsolete. One thing is certain: people will continue to travel by any means at their disposal if they are given the opportunity.