I have a recurring nightmare – that one day someone will invent a solution to global warming, one that involves either extracting excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or persuading the majority of people to drive electric cars which can be charged from solar power.
“Why is that a nightmare?” I hear you ask. Surely it’s what everyone is desperately hoping and praying for? Well, yes, of course it will save us and the planet from overheating and flooding etc, so of course it would be welcome – but it would then immerse us in another, rather different problem, in that the growth of the car would continue unchecked, and in fact probably accelerate.
Cars are big and dangerous, they hurt and kill people, and they require special environments to be created for them, such as motorways and car parks – places where pedestrians are either prohibited, or at least well-advised to stay away from. And they also affect the personalities of the people who drive them. Motorists, feeling safe and secure in their metal boxes, become far more aggressive and selfish than they would otherwise be.
The other day I had the misfortune to have to go to one of those hells-on-earth, a place entirely constructed for the motor car. Busy dual carriageway, cars whizzing past every few seconds. Large monolithic aircraft-hangar buildings which have replaced the things we used to call “shops”. Most of the cars occupied by only one person, thus the amount of space occupied by a person increases by a factor of 10, or perhaps 20. One bus could have replaced 60 cars! I had to trudge a mile along this road from the station to get to my aircraft hangar of choice, where I was headed to buy a tin of paint – then traipse another mile back carrying the damn thing. I felt like the last pedestrian on the planet!
In the 1990s I attended a fascinating summer school organised by my union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA). The participants were drawn from all parts of the public transport sector, and we spent quite a lot of time sitting around a table, brainstorming about how to get more people out of cars and onto public transport. One idea I came up with was special buses which could accommodate supermarket trolleys. The idea was that you went to the supermarket, filled your trolley and paid for the stuff, then got on the bus with your trolley safely stowed, got off the bus with your trolley and wheeled it home. Then when you’d unloaded it you’d take the trolley to a nearby trolley park where you could retrieve your deposit. Supermarket staff would do regular sweeps of these parks to collect empty trolleys.
The idea of this and other innovations was that the public transport system should be modelled on what people actually need; you present them with some new, useful thing as a carrot to entice them to use it, rather than relying on a stick, such as increased parking or congestion charges. Of course the problem with this is that our society is not run by bright young things from the transport industry (however much the Tories want us to think that the unions have too much power!) but by “market forces”, which are in turn manipulated by the rich and powerful, in their own, selfish, interests. In fact, there are few issues that more clearly illustrate the left-right divide: on the one side the concept of shared community values as epitomised by public transport, on the other the naked selfishness that the private car makes possible.
Let’s just hope people manage to change their ways before a magic solution to the emissions problem is found!