This pretense of neutrality

On Saturday I wrote about the leaked draft of the Tories’ coalition’s draft new planning policy document:

LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this.  Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?

The line reminded me of the comment made recently by Andrew Boff, summarising the views of Conservative members of the London Assembly, who recently rejected the idea of a “road user hierarchy” which puts cyclists and pedestrians above motor vehicle users:

“It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be.”

Boff’s statement and the planning policy document imply the Tory position is that politicians should keep their own ideals out of transport planning and merely provide for the journeys that are already being made — to remain neutral, and let the people choose.  Leaving aside how this fits with the idea that creating new journeys is required to boost the economy (“roads for prosperity” under Thatcher; high-speed rail and reduced planning control under the current government), the idea that merely “making decisions to accommodate” the modes that people currently “choose” to use could be either a neutral or a desirable policy is either spectacularly naive or spectacularly dishonest.

People’s transport “choices” are informed by the real world. The fact that somebody is making a specific journey by a specific mode does mean that they choose that journey and that mode or that they wouldn’t prefer to go somewhere else or use a different mode if it were available. This should be self evident. I write from a village in Dorset where people have today “chosen” not use the bus or train.  Their choice may be informed by the fact that neither have been provided.

It is impossible to make a transport decision, even a decision to “accommodate” the status quo, which does not affect people’s choices, because people’s choices do not reflect an ideal isolated from the real world.  And “carry on with what we’ve had for fifty years” is no less a political decision than “do something different,” because what we’ve had for fifty years is itself the result of a political decision.  Cities do not naturally grow up with eight lane roads running through them; there is no objectively correct traffic signal priorities determined by the laws of physics.  These are things that we have been given as the result of political decisions, decisions which affect our choices for which modes of transport to use, and more importantly, which modes not to use, however much we might want to use them.

This is a pretty core principle which affects everything in transport.  Politicians must understand this if they are to get it right.

A couple of quick examples that passed my eyes this week (just a couple — really, any transport project or infrastructure could illustrate the principle).

First, Ian Visits reviews the history of the Docklands development, and the reason that the DLR was built.  The original idea was that the Jubilee Line would be extended through the derelict industrial lands of the East.  But the government took a look and realised that nobody was trying to make that journey — well duh, there was nothing and nobody there — and concluded that the £450 million would be wasted building a tube line for a journey that nobody made.  So the Docklands Development Corporation built the light railway instead, and of course the glass skyscrapers and posh apartments soon followed.  Suddenly there were a lot of people making journeys to and from the Docklands, so they reversed the earlier decision and extended the Jubilee Line out to it.  Now there are 64 million journeys a year on the DLR, over 40 million through Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line, and now Crossrail is on the way.  The whole point of the Docklands redevelopment was “build it and they will come”.  Saying “they don’t come so there’s no point building here” clearly missed that point.

Second, in Reversing Dr Beeching, which looked at the fact that Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) is reopening its railways, the new Kincardine Line, north of the Firth of Forth in Fife, was explored.  The line connects the town of Kincardine to Stirling and the rest of the railway network.  In the planning stages, all of the journeys made in the catchment area were analysed, and an estimate was made of how many of the journeys to Stirling would shift onto the railway.  About 150,000 journeys a year were predicted, and the line only really got built at this time because it could also be used to get coal to the nearby power station. But of course, in the first year of operation it took three times as many passengers as predicted.  Why?  Because the railway opened opportunities for people to work and shop and spend their leisure time in Stirling and Glasgow, instead of having to drive to Dunfirmline or Falkirk.  The fact that people were driving to Falkirk before the railway was built is not evidence that they wouldn’t rather have been going to Stirling by train.

There is always a difference between people’s transport ideal and the least-worst option that’s available in the real world.  That difference is latent demand.  There was latent demand for a railway to Stirling, and there was latent demand for a tube line to the Docklands.  The fact that people were making different journeys, to different places, by different modes, was not evidence that the new lines, when built, would not be used.

(This is, incidentally, why the government’s decision not to pursue a network of electric vehicle charging points, though the correct decision, was made for the wrong reason.)

London can never provide for everybody’s ideal means of getting around.  Most people in London travel in overcrowded buses and overcrowded tube trains, not because they want to, but because those are the least worse options available.  Maybe on their journey they are dreaming of an ideal world where there is room and resources enough for all of us to have our own personal helicopters, but there isn’t.  Or perhaps they have a more down-to-earth fantasy of room and resources enough for us all to drive into Central London, where congestion has magically been solved.  Perhaps they have already abandoned those dreams, and merely long for the day when they can onto a bicycle without fear of being run off the roads by the trucks and taxis.  The politician’s job is to eliminate the impossible and decide which are the least worst remaining options.  That inevitably means accommodating some people’s ideals more closely than others’.

I fear I’m labouring the point, and anyway, the Tory assembly members’ argument fails on, from the politician’s point of view, a much more basic and important point: if Tory AMs think that the people who take the bus, or the people on the tube, or the people sat in cars in traffic jams, or the people braving the streets on bicycles are content with the transport choices available to them and would like their representatives to carry on giving them more of the same, they’re clearly not talking to their electorate, who would disabuse them in a second.

12 thoughts on “This pretense of neutrality”

  1. The claim that Conservative are “by instinct, anti-hierarchical” is poppycock anyway. If they were they wouldn’t be pro-monarchy or pro-rich. Hierarchies always exist, either we create them ourselves out of legislation/social constructs or they arise naturally.

  2. It is not simply a matter of government transport infrastructure provision. The evolution of road transport in western countries is inextricable from their planning policy. In both choice of transport mode and choice of planning model, there is a large element of consumer choice, driving both suburbanisation and motorisation. Consumers do have preferences for suburban housing, and for car ownership and car use. Not all of them, but a very large share. It is not so that the wicked government has forced the common people to drive on the motorways.

    To cut a very long story short, fundamental changes in modal split will not result from offering alternative infrastructure and modes, but from negative policy toward the existing infrastructure and modes. War on the motorist, in other words, and inevitably ‘statist’ and unpopular.

    Specifically on cycle infrastructure in the UK, it is unlikely that there is a huge latent demand for cycling, outside places like Cambridge or central London. It is very questionable whether new cycle infrastructure generates its own use, in the same way that roads do.

  3. Please note I am not the Paul above (who seems to have surfaced on David Arditti’s blog as well, by the looks of it).

    Danny and I met Andrew Boff, and his colleague James Cleverley, yesterday afternoon. While I don’t share their view on hierarchy, or the perfection of individual choice which strikes me as a libertarian concept popular with Thatcherites but also with Blairites, I certainly didn’t detect any hidden agenda in their position, along the lines of “only poor people ride bikes and we are the party of the rich”. Both are keen cyclists and commute to City Hall by bike, over respectable distances (Andrew from Hackney, James from Bromley).

    I would however have to agree with you that their viewpoint, which is widely shared, is flawed, for much the reasons you lay out. There are no entirely free choices, uninfluenced by interventions which either ‘nudge’ you towards one choice instead of another, or effectively make something a total non-choice. As you quote, they dislike hierarchies and so do I but where we differed was that we see the road user hierarchy proposal not so much as setting a hierarchy, but correcting the effects of one which exists de facto – bigger or stronger over smaller/weaker.

    James made an interesting point on which I am sure you would agree – he questions why it should be necessary to people to travel 12 miles to work, and thus (let’s get real here) pass over cycling or walking in favour of the train or a car, when the greater London economy could be more evenly distributed, so that (to quote James) a resident of Pett’s Wood could realistically choose to work a couple of miles away in Bromley, and cycle there, instead of having to commute a dozen miles into the centre.

    And they are both sympathetic to tailored infrastructure measures (not always segregation, but then no-one, not even David Hembrow, is arguing for that) which incentivise cycling, and which are properly designed with proper consultation with prospective users before they are built. That might collide somewhere with their views on hierarchy and choice, but it appeared to be sincerely held.

    Oh, and finally, talking to your final paragraph (and this is an appeal I hear from City councillors as well), they would love constituents to tell them what they want. It is far easier to go into bat against a Brian Coleman character if you are not simply saying “I think what people want is”, but “my consituents call me up and tell me that what they want is…”. Truth is, we cyclists either allow the CTC to misrepresent what we want, or we moan to each other on our blogs, we don’t get out there and make our voice heard where it counts. I hope the CEOGB will help there.

  4. I am no expert but even I can see that Paul (not Paul M) contradicts himself. Sure, the availability of the motor-car influenced planning decisions that had roads built to new suburban developments, so people could buy a car and live further away from the urban centre. In other words, a fundamental change in modal split DID result from offering alternative infrastucture and modes. There was no ‘negative policy’ towards cycling and walking as far as I am aware. The demand for those modes merely decreased as people drove more (and further) on the new roads infrastructure. There was an obvious latent demand for roads and the roads generated their own use, because people fell in love with the car and what it could do for them.

    Now we are reaching saturation point and it is blindingly obvious that we are starting (if slowly) to fall out of love with the car. I can see no reason whatsoever, that creating ‘alternative infrastucture and modes’ (ie. for cycling and walking), would not generate its own ‘huge latent demand’. The point has already been proven in the Netherlands.

    I’m a complete layman in this area, as you can probably tell, but all this stuff seems completely obvious to me..

  5. A huge shift in modal split did result from the construction of roads all over Europe, a process that is still occurring in eastern Europe. However, that does not mean that no-one wanted to drive before the roads were built. In other words there was and is a latent demand for road transport. And if there is a latent demand, then you can not claim, as this post seems to, that the road infrastructure created the demand for road transport.

    The fact that there was and is a latent demand for road transport does NOT mean that there is a latent demand for any other transport mode, such as cycling. This is the point about consumer choice. The post is implies, that there is a huge latent demand for cycling in the UK, which will translate into actual cycling if the infrastructure is provided. The truth is that many adults in the UK prefer to drive a car, live in a low-density suburb, and at least accept (if not prefer) a longer commuting distance. They will not cycle, regardless of what infrastructure is provided. Nor will they accept the planning policies, which would be necessary for a major shift in modal split. If only a small minority want to cycle in the UK, then any cycling infrastructure will only be used by that minority.

    And so to the matter which irritates so many cycling advocates: the lesson from the Netherlands. No evidence has ever been provided for the claim that Don repeats above, namely that the provision of good cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands has resulted in higher rates of cycling. No evidence is available that their policy can be exported, either. Dutch cycle policy has taken on a mythical status among cycling advocates in the English-speaking world (apparently not so much elsewhere). That is accompanied by inflated claims about cycle usage at national and local level in the Netherlands, and typically by a refusal to back up claims with relevant research or evidence. This post is not specifically about this issue, but it is there in the background.

    These cycling advocates who refer to the Dutch model are usually unfamiliar with Dutch planning and transport policy, and make false assumptions about what it is designed to achieve. For most of the last 20 years that policy was in UK terms ‘Thatcherite’: demand-led and therefore assertively pro-car, with a residual public transport system subsidised for electoral reasons, just as it is in the south of England. Most of the cycle infrastructure featured on David Hembrow’s blog was built in that period. If you don’t understand a set of policies, it is not a good idea to argue for their transposition to another country.

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