Watch the Churn
by Simon Baddeley
...The issue is how to get from 'here' to 'there' without raising up a huge army of aggrieved car users in your path.
Of course there's a problem when pondering long term change of getting from 'here' to 'there'. Bear with me for a longer set of reflections.
Many, even if they accept
the need for change, will argue that people will not alter their transport habits
in under a generation, or that our economy is so bound to cars that lessening
their use will blight whole cities; see letters and editorials in the press
saying motorists and businesses will desert in droves if urban congestion charging
is introduced without alternative methods of getting around. I accept that settlement
patterns for residence and work have permanence and in many cases change very
gradually -- with the exception of the way global corporations can chase the
cheapest labour and respond to government incentives to establish often highly
temporary businesses when tempted by local economic regeneration subsidies.
I am impressed, nonetheless, with observations made by Prof Phil Goodwin in his 1997 lecture on Transport ['Solving Congestion', Inaugural Lecture for the Professorship of Transport Policy, University College London, October 1997] about the "apparent stability" of populations. He said that this "is composed, we now know, of volatile, unstable, changing undercurrents, what the pollsters call 'churn'. Every year anything up to a third of people change their jobs, up to one in seven move house. At each of these life events there may be a reason to reconsider travel patterns and choices... As a result, broadly speaking, a process of adaptation to a new policy starts on day one, takes between five and ten years before it is near enough to completion to get lost in other and longer term processes."
Goodwin reminded his audience how adaptable most people are. They change jobs. They move house. They get married, divorced, have children who change schools, move to be with relatives and so on. They cope with a lot of change. The "1 in 7" statistic reflects the enormous number of choices being made by thousands and thousands of people every 12 months.
Imagining such a statistic extended over 5 to 10 years and you can see how between say 2005 and 2010 there is a real prospect that robust policies to improve the present situation have a real prospect of making an impact. Of course there must be political will in Whitehall and through local government but this will be helped by the myriad individual choices of "churn".
People will see for themselves a variety of residential and employment options closing down and others opening up, as they always have. They can then be encouraged by government in the practical choices they make about where to live, which would place them, their children's schools, older relatives, shops and work places closer to transit nodes and increasingly compact groupings of shops, entertainment and work. To make this work much has to be done from many different angles to make towns and cities into attractive places to live and work.
I recognise that the down-side of this is who will get left behind through inability or refusal to foresee the trends. I can see governments having to develop policies which address a syndrome of outer-city problems as the difficulties of suburban residents unable to join an emerging elite of city transit users merge with those of an increasingly isolated rural minority. The new focus of anti-poverty strategies may be upon citizens trapped by auto-dependency amid the growing dereliction of 20th century sprawl. The problems associated with the phrase 'inner-city' may come to characterise life in the so-called 'country'. For hundreds of years the city has been associated with education, choice and a richer life (streets paved with gold; the Dick Whittington syndrome, etc.) and rural areas with poverty, disease and ignorance. Our earlier Industrial revolution reversed this in Britain. The post-industrial age will redress this imbalance of perceptions and realities.
As one who has always lived and worked inside cities (with plenty of time also spent outside it), I believe too many professionals have an exaggerated fear of urban crime, and I have invented the concept of the 'burb coward' to describe those who flee the city in vain search of the rural idyll. They end up destroying any hope of finding it by contributing to demands to cover the land with motorways and runways in further attempts to get somewhere that is only the crossing point for more roads, while all the time providing a market for TV shows and films that celebrate a distorted version of rural England in the 1930s.
The phenomenon of the last 50 years in Britain has been the erosion of place and the use of the same methods to recover it that has caused the original blight. I am not taking a moral high ground here. The point first occurred to me consciously when in Copenhagen I pondered a choice of gifts for my young son and realised there was nothing in the shops I couldn't buy him in England. I eventually bought a small toy police car with Danish markings that was made in Taiwan. I can get baguettes in Birmingham as good as those in France, where local village bakeries are closing in dozens as the residents flock to supermarkets. I am not being nostalgic here. I am troubled, though. 30 years ago I visited north Brittany and ate local "fruits de mer" sold on the quayside. Now when we visit this area the local fishing is non-existent replaced by leisure boating. The sea food is mainly global via long supply chains, while every town and hamlet has a glossy leaflet celebrating its heritage value to the tourist. I am not saying I don't still enjoy being with my family abroad, just that every French town I visit looks rather too similar to all the others and increasingly like lots of other towns everywhere has been turned into a self-conscious spectacle to which we are guided from the motorways by the local equivalent of brown heritage signs. Nowhere seems strange and new on a tourist route, and every square and back street is packed and often blocked with slow moving and parked cars, except where a walking space has been set aside for people to stroll between shops before returning to the car park.
The secret of recovering a sense of place at the level of the individual is to take to sitting, standing, walking and cycling so that that you achieve the intimacy of contact with the ground that you miss with a car. Try arriving at a lone rail station in town or country (among the few that remain) and sample the sudden silence as the train departs, leaving you on the platform. Compare that experience of place to dropping off at a motorway service station, junction or car park where the smell and constant searing noise of motorised traffic blights the landscape.
On a pilgrimage, how you travel adds to the value of where you arrive. I wonder how long before enough people catch onto the way our lust for the journey can lower the quality of our destination. Watch the churn.
© Simon Baddeley
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