Overcomplicating things

We’ve looked at jetpacks, hoverboards, tracked hovertrains, and self-driving cars: here is what I’ve learned from all these absurd concepts.

In the 1960s, people were convinced that there was a huge and growing problem with transport.  The then Ministry of Transport commissioned engineers and economists to look at those problems and suggest solutions.  The Beeching Report recommended closing all except the very core main lines of the railway network.  The Buchanan Report recommended razing cities and building neat modern concrete one-piece tower-block-and-motorway towns.  These were huge problems that called for radical solutions never before heard of.

That was the future of transport then, and every day since we’ve been treated to another great future of transport, from politicians, engineers, design students and photoshop fiddlers.

From the politicians we get grand projects: something that will leave a conspicuous legacy.  Boris spends millions on a distinctive new not-a-routemaster bus because the new bus (if it’s not ridiculed by Londoners) will be a conspicuous media-friendly achievement where fixing the distributed millions of little everyday problems with uncomfortable unreliable overpriced and overcrowded bus journeys would not.  Philip Hammond loves to play with High Speed Intercity Rail and motorways, but lets councils fight over the pennies that will determine the future of people’s everyday local journeys, because big billion-pound national construction projects give the impression of getting things done where the boring work to enable commuter journeys on the existing little lines in Conwy, Cornwall, Camberwell or Caithness doesn’t.

Perhaps the most perfect example in this category is the news that while the existing Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels fall apart (and the Clippers are cut back, and the road tunnels are closed at night, and the Woolwich ferry rusts), Boris thinks it’s a brilliant idea to build a massive cable car river crossing between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks.

Meanwhile the engineers are left alone to tinker with what we already have, attempting to keep the status quo viable by “managing” the problems, designing ever more complicated traffic management schemes, and attempting to fix fundamentally flawed designs and devices.  Things like 155mph superbuses and, of course, electric cars.  Things that will at best merely delay the day when a problem becomes a crisis.  This reaches its absurd conclusion with “shared space“, when engineers conclude that the best way to manage our problems is to rip out all of the myriad expensive engineering that we have spent eighty years installing to manage our problems, and just let the problems free to magically manage themselves.

And then there are the design students and photoshop fiddlers, playing at engineer.  People who come up with ideas like the hourglass traffic light.  Ideas that are all media-friendly pretty picture and no relevance to real world problems.  This gushing moron is so enchanted by the shiny computer mockups that he’s willing to put his name next to prose that earnestly declares the segway, the backpack helicopter, the moving pavement, and the zeppelin to be the future of transport.  When small children draw these pictures and tell us they’ve invented something brilliant we think it’s cute.

These politicians, engineers, and amateur inventors recognise that there is a problem.  (Most frequently they cite carbon emissions as the problem; sometimes it’s congestion; rarely the many other problems that afflict car addicted societies.)  And they all think that a solution is in need of invention — a shiny and expensive and conspicuous and media-friendly solution.  Fifty years ago it was jetpacks and hovertrains.  Today it’s segways and maglevs.

And all the while a handful of little European counties have been looking on in amusement, happily getting to where they need to be with a bicycle or a pair of boots and the occasional old fashioned railway train, wondering whether the rest of us aren’t overcomplicating things…

11 thoughts on “Overcomplicating things”

  1. Well said, and needs to be said. Our politicians need to understand these are serious issues which impact on all our lives and deserve serious consideration. We need someone with the intellect to take them seriously and understand that, no matter how they might want to, they can not repeal first law of thermodynamics and that hair-brained technological quick fixes just won’t work.

  2. Excellent, now let each of us read this aloud to our local MP at their next surgery. If anyone living in Hammond’s constituency reads it to him please put it up on youtube, I want to see his smug features grimacing.

  3. cheers, guys!

    Jim: that is the most delightful thing I’ve seen all week. Vertical roads and nuclear tunneling machines ftw. No wonder we let the car happen when such promises as these were made…

  4. We’re not quite sophisticated enough for Jetpacks up’ere in Manchester but soon all our congestion problems will be solved by water taxis!. Yep, none of that cycling business for us thanks, a couple of yellow dinghies and we’ll be sorted.

  5. Ah, but that seems all cool and chic and can be paraded before a credulous public to prove that all will be well, the status quo will be maintained and business will run as usual as long as they spend, spend, spend. And no need for politicians to do anything that might lose them votes, like actually make roads a little narrower so that pedestrians or cyclists can get some infrastructure, or shock horror, make motorists responsible for their actions with something like strict liability laws as seen in Germany. Just imagine what the Daily Mail would say to that…

  6. There is one thing that might happen soon, and that is the possibility of something like crowd-sourced carpooling. We have a very limited form of it in places here in the US, where commuters (not in cars) wait at informally designated pickup points to allow solo commuters (in cars) to become carpools and take advantage of faster travel and lower (or no) tolls.

    I’m not saying that I want this to happen, but if you are looking for a way to continue living pretty much as they live (far-ish from work) and not change their attitudes about risk and exercise, this might happen. It requires no infrastructure, actually would save a fair amount of gasoline, and would also perhaps reduce traffic and parking contention.

    The one thing that this has in common with bicycling, is that it is almost entirely a conservation step, and will not make a pile of money for the peddlers of the crackpot scheme du jour.

  7. Add to that (I forgot to say) that this would be something in the form of an iPhone app, or something like Zipcar super-lite. It does require a local database of origin and destination where/when, and the willingness of people to sometimes double up — if there’s an excess of passengers working late, how can they get home?

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