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Transport and the lock-in problem

Politicians are reluctant to confront the economic and environmental costs of transport. The task: to reduce the demand for mobility.

I probably don’t write about transport as much as I ought to, and that was brought home to me at an event on The Future of Transport in Leuven in Belgium, at which I was also a speaker. There’s a case for regarding transport as a climate emergency, given that it accounts for about a quarter of Europe’s carbon emissions, and that in the last decade (unlike pretty much every other sector) emissions from transport have continued to grow sharply. And before I continue, even if you’re a climate sceptic, this represents a significant policy issue: the transport sector (at least, the non-human powered transport sector) is 97% dependent on fossil fuels. As these become scarcer, more expensice, and more prone to interruption, we will have an incipient social and economic problem which is serious enough to prod policy makers.

So why, so far, has transport proved all but impervious to the policy and economic signals which have influenced change in other sectors? The reasons can be portrayed as complex, but they come down to a few systemic factors:

  • Transport is too cheap. At the Leuven event, Matthew Ledbury of CER presented data which suggested that if car users paid their full external costs, the price of car travel would go up by 50%.
  • Too much of car pricing is as a fixed cost, both at purchase and in the shape of tax and insurance payments which are unrelated to the extent of use. As one speaker put it, owning a car is like going into a supermarket and “discovering that everything is always on special offer”.
  • We are locked into a set of legacy infrastructures that have taken a century to build up; changing it is slow and expensive.
  • There are some significant organisations, such as the car companies, which are effective in delaying change. The influence of motorists, and organisations which speak for them, are also disproportionately influential with politicians.

The transport lock-in problem

All of this, of course, is a recipe for lock-in. Politicians fiddle with change, but are reluctant to increase either the absolute costs of car travel, or the relative costs of car travel against other transport modes, despite the strong evidence on external costs, for fear of antagonising a significant share of the electorate (though not a majority in much of Europe). This is amplified by the dependence of newspapers on auto industry – not that advertising would ever influence editorial in such a crude manner. And there’s also a problem with disconnected behaviour from governments; the British government is currently cutting public transport subsidies while leaving fuel tax unchanged, thereby decreasing the relative cost of car travel.

The economic signals which might lead to change don’t, therefore, materialise. The conventional wisdom that driver behaviour doesn’t respond to price signals is wrong, as we saw during the oil price spike, but they don’t respond to the wrong sort of price signals (or signals which have been muffled by the high fixed costs of ownership).

Breaking the ‘culture of contentment’

In general, we have the problem of the ‘culture of contentment‘ identified by JK Galbraith almost 20 years ago; a noisy and affluent plurality will block changes which affect their immediate lifestyle and convenience when when the changes will improve outcomes for everyone, the affluent included. (California has been running a large scale experiment to find out how this works out in practice. The answer is: not well). And if there is a secret to breaking out of this destructive cycle, this seems to be the clue. Progressive politicians need to find leverage points which reframe the perspectives of the ‘contented’. In London Ken Livingstone did this by positioning a city cebtre car tax as a ‘congestion charge’, getting businesses onside, and also immediately – and visibly – improving bus services. Belgium may pip the Netherlands to become the first European country to introduce large scale road pricing because it is currently used as a large European freeway but sees little fuel duty in return (this is cunningly captured by Luxembourg, where fuel is cheaper).

Given the scale of the problem, the objective ought to be to reduce the overall amount of transport. But this tends to get derailed by claims about choice (which are broadly illiterate in terms of the political science and philosophy they draw on) or of economics, where it is claimed that transport is a cause of competitiveness (the growth in transport correlates with the overall growth in economic output, but the causal relationship is not demonstrated, certainly at current levels of output and affluence.) The negative impact of transport on individual and social well-being tends to be under-recorded.

Technologists, meanwhile, continue to argue that improved efficiencies will take care of the problem (which frames the issue as one of performance standard setting and emissions regulation), disregarding the repeated finding that Jevons’ Paradox holds good 150 years after it was invented. Improvements in efficiencies lead to greater consumption; if it costs half as much to travel, we’re likely to travel twice as far.

Reducing the need for mobility

The only certain way to reduce transport demand is to reduce the need for mobility. Most transport is actually about access, and a combination of virtual connectivity, and changes in urban land use and land take are moving the balance away from the car, if slowly. The increasing energy costs we’re all but certain to see over the next decade and beyond will help.

But none of this is fast enough, given the climate emergency and the role of transport emissions in exacerbating it. In the shorter-run, and certainly in the next decade, limits will need to be put on personal mobility, to break the overall trend of increasing demand and increasing transport consumption. This could be done by rationing or by pricing. [Or - update - by improving the options around mobility to disconnect it from car use.]

There will be political push-back, of course, but road pricing is a progressive measure (car use, like air travel is strongly correlated with income), and there are broad social benefits to reducing car use, such as improved individual and public health and greater social cohesion. There are signs that this is increasingly understood. Congestion charging is spreading, and I had an email recently which reported that a Vancouver city planner get a standing ovation last month from a crowd of 2500 with one bald statement: “Quality of life is inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend in your car.”

The long run alternative – the deep social and economic disruptions caused by un-managed energy shock and climate change – is orders of magnitude worse. No-one’s going to be arguing about freedom of choice if we end up in that world.

The presentation I gave in Leuven was based on a transport scenarios project I directed [opens pdf] for UK Foresight in 2005. It can be found on Slideshare. The picture at the top was taken by me and is available to use on a Creative Commons licence.

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