Friday, 7 June 2019

This Week in 1992. A thirty year old time capsule demonstrates both the problems due to cars and the lack of progress that we've made in addressing them.

This TV programme was transmitted in the UK in 1992. That's 27 years ago. I'm fairly sure that I watched the programme as I would certainly have been interested in this subject at that time. None of the the problems shown in this nearly 30 year old video have really been resolved. Many of the proposed solutions remain the same but they've not been implemented. It's another story of missing opportunities resulting in the problems only getting worse:



Points of interest:
  • Cambridge, like most cities, had a problem with car traffic in the city centre. They "solved" this by banning not only cars but also bicycles from some central streets. The bicycle ban was the reason why many of us who took part in protest cycle rides around that time. It was also the catalyst for the formation of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The bicycle ban has still not been overturned on the city centre streets so cyclists are still forced to make their journeys on less direct roads which were made more unsafe by heavier traffic due to the cars routed around the central streets.
  • When the video was made, there were already 23 million cars in the UK. A doubling was predicted to occur within 30 years. The last date for which Wikipedia has data is 2016 and by then there were 38.9 million cars on the UK's roads. i.e. up to 2016 the rate of increase was actually somewhat ahead of the prediction in the film (23*2*24/30 = 36.8).
  • Climate change effects due to cars are covered. Because the number of cars has doubled this is  twice the problem now that it was then.
  • Electric cars are suggested as a solution though the presenter points out that they could of course never solve the problem of congestion and that the emissions are mostly just pushed to power stations. We now know that total emissions of electric cars are comparable with those of internal combustion engine (petrol/diesel) cars. But even if that were not the case, adding a tiny number of them to a near doubling of the total fleet (all of which were sold as "green") they would have had no effect next to the near doubling of total emissions due to the growth in use of IC engine vehicles. This is why total emissions have also almost doubled.
  • Local pollution due to cars is seen as a problem. Many cars still ran on leaded fuel when the film was made and few had catalytic converters. These two changes to cars resulted in genuine reductions to health problems due to local exhaust emissions. However, particulate pollution always came in large part from the tyres and brakes. A doubling of the number of cars will have resulted in a doubling of this type of local pollution.
  • A traffic jam near Amsterdam. This is from a recent TV
    program about trying to solve the problem of traffic jams.
    Cars remain a huge problem in the Netherlands.
  • Amsterdam had supposedly "virtually banned" cars, with a policy of reducing car parking spaces which has echoes 27 years later as much the same thing is being done now, again to much fanfare elsewhere. I try to resist hype on this blog. The Netherlands genuinely has taken some steps to make life without a car easier. It's possible to cycle without many interactions with cars. However much more money is spent on improving conditions for driving and very little has been done to arrest the popularity of cars. Dutch commutes are the longest on average in Europe and many people find themselves pushed into car ownership to get to work. What's more, many Dutch employers pay their employees a tax free compensation per km travelled which with an economical car can make commuting so far as possible by car profitable. As a result, Dutch car ownership has grown at a very similar rate to the UK. The Netherlands had 373 cars per thousand people in 1992 while the UK had 360 per thousand. This has now grown to 556 per 1000 in the Netherlands (2015) vs. 579 per 1000 in the UK (2016). Similar growth can be seen in all countries across the world.
  • Business owners in all countries where restrictions on cars are proposed have always worried that their customers will disappear if motor traffic is reduced. It is never actually a problem. Through traffic makes streets look busy, but drivers anxious to get to somewhere else rarely stop to browse around shops while traffic jams can make it impossible for customers to reach their shops. Motor traffic free city centre streets make for a far better shopping experience. The Dutch hotel manager who fears that Amsterdam will "become a kind of Disneyland" where "most economic activity will have disappeared" can now reflect back on years of growth in tourism in Amsterdam since that time, resulting in a problem which is quite the opposite of his prediction.
  • Luud Schimmelpennink demonstrates a velomobile in Amsterdam. Velomobiles are genuinely zero emission 365 day per year vehicles which maximise the potential of human power. They fit well both into human scale cities and make the option of cycling into a viable proposition over longer distances in all weather. Unfortunately, this genuinely innovative transport mode still receives no government support anywhere, not in the Netherlands where they remain a small minority mode even though we have more velomobiles and more manufacturers of them than any other country. Schimmelpennink is better known for other innovations such as his involvement in the famous white bicycle scheme of Amsterdam and the WitKar shared electric car system from the 1970s.
  • Professor John Whitelegg is still saying sensible things about transport.
  • Finally, the last man interviewed laments that it takes him up to two hours to drive five miles in London and he wonders why he has a car. Five miles, 7.5 km, is an ideal cycle commuting distance and even at a relaxed pace this distance can be covered in half an hour by bicycle. But sadly the majority of London remains an unpleasant place to ride a bicycle even now, so many people find themselves as reluctant drivers because for them this is the least bad option.
Progress ? What progress ?
This video shows how not addressing the problems of the present simply results in them becoming larger problems in the future. If we don't learn from the problems of the past then we will repeat them. And repeat them. And repeat them.

The problems due to cars have become larger in the last thirty years, not smaller.

While it's very nice indeed to see positive developments, it's important not to pat ourselves on the back too hard when the overall direction isn't actually what we wish it was.

The number of cars on British Roads over time. While there was a slight reduction in growth coinciding with the 2008 recession and its aftermath, the previous rate of growth was continued from about 2013 onwards. The longer trend (the small insert) shows a nearly straigt line with a barely perceptible bump for the 1970s oil crises and slightly larger ones for recessions. Source: UK Department for Transport.
More examples
See also how the same problems were seen in the UK forty and fifty years ago and in New Zealand fifty years ago, but they weren't addressed then either. The Dutch provided a video blueprint 30 years ago, which was ignored everywhere else, but of course even these policies didn't prevent greatly increased car usage in the Netherlands.