Tag Archives: infrastructure

Motorists are welcome to the roads they pay for

So George Osborne has decided that the money raised from Vehicle Excise Duty — “road tax” — should for the first time in 80 years be ringfenced for spending on roads, through Highways England (the recently rebranded Highways Agency). CityMetric think this sends a message telling motorists that they own the roads, and the Guardian Bike Blog is worried that it will increase the already prevalent sense of entitlement to bully other road users.

You can have your motorways

I think it’s brilliant. Osborne has “given” motorists the roads that they already own — those roads that sane people long ago stopped using with anything but a motor vehicle. And that makes it a perfect time to take back the rest of them.

This is the Highways England road network. Motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name.

highwaysSo if this tax sends a message it’s exactly the right one: you pay for the motorway network. Want to own the road? Bugger off to your motorway. The county A roads, borough B roads, city streets and country lanes are not yours.

By ringfencing the tax for Highways England, Osborne has made it much plainer that motoring taxes don’t come close to paying for the costs and harms that motoring accrues, and has emphasised that because streets and lanes and other lesser roads are run by the local council, motorists outside the motorway network are actually being subsidised by the rest of us.

His message fits neatly with a related one: “roads were not built for cars”. Because this tax is largely going to roads which were built for cars. The two combine to say: these motorways are the roads for cars; everywhere else you’re a guest benefiting from the generosity of local council tax payers. Motorists can take the motorways. In return, they need to start giving something back.

Sleight of hand

By giving the Highways Agency greater autonomy as Highways England and at the same time setting it up with an income stream, the worry for many is that Osborne is creating the conditions for a motorway building boom that can’t be traced back to government decisions when it inevitably proves to be extremely unpopular.

But I’m not sure we should be so worried.

It costs Highways England just under £4 billion per year to run the motorway network, including the small number of capital projects — junction rebuilds, carriageway widening, new technology, and the rare new length of road.

Very neatly, the road tax is expected to raise just a little over £4 billion per year for Highways England. CJZJJWKUwAAYjcO

Previously motorists paid £4 billion into the Treasury, and £4 billion found its way from the Treasury to Highways England via the Department for Transport. Now motorists will pay £4 billion into Highways England. There’s a bit less democratic oversight but otherwise nothing has changed.

It seems unlikely that Highways England would be able to greatly increase the scale of its road building activity without either borrowing money or, if a chancellor is feeling brave, receiving additional specific grants — either of which would further emphasise the extent to which motorists fail to cover their costs, the expense of road construction, and look embarrassing when repeatedly referred to in the inevitable backlash.

The clever thing Osborne has done, though, is delay the official introduction of this system until 2021. And even then it will take time for the new system to get embedded. So it will probably be a decade before those petrolheads expecting Osborne’s road tax announcement to lead to a massive road building boom realise that they’ve been had and that the tax only just covers the existing annual expenditure.

What really matters

You might have noticed that I’m not taking this thing all that seriously. I don’t think it will make much difference. Petrolhead pricks who need to dress in a metal shell to bully people will bully people regardless of whether they can cite some tax-based sense of entitlement in the sentences they attempt to string together. And a road building boom remains as dependent on the political will to be seen borrowing and spending on such unpopular projects as it ever did.

But the announcement perhaps isn’t entirely irrelevant. It creates another opportunity to make the serious point: there are some motorways for accommodating through motor traffic, and there are some streets and lanes that clearly aren’t. But at the moment most of our roads fall somewhere between the two, and aren’t fit for purpose because we’re trying to make them be too many things at once.

Osborne has decided, correctly, that motorways are for motoring. Now we need to look at the rest of our roads — the ones that belong to us all — and decide for each of them how best to make them do their job, because right now they aren’t working.

Better than nothing

So the scandalously inappropriate and inadequate designs for the Bedford turbo roundabout have come a step closer to construction, receiving DfT approval, and with grim inevitability Sustrans have proudly press released their support for this barefaced misappropriation of cycling funds for the construction of a high capacity motor road junction in an urban centre. Their defence of the scheme seems to be that, because they anticipate that motorist speeds will probably be a bit lower than in the current arrangement, cyclists will be able to “take the lane” as they ride amongst the heavy motor traffic; and if people do not wish to take the lane then they will instead be allowed to pootle on a pavement designed for pedestrians. A dual provision of equally, but differently, unattractive prospects.

But they’ll be less awful than what is there now.

And that seems to be enough for Sustrans. No need to fight for anything better, if it’s less awful than what’s there now then it gets the Sustrans stamp of approval. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect anything more from Sustrans after years of being ground down by the conditions in which they’re trying to operate, but “better than nothing” seems to be the limit of their aspirations in everything they do these days. On the National Cycle Network, where signposting flights of steps, heavily eroded sheep tracks, and private roads marked “no cycling” is for misguided reasons considered better than having no signed cycle route at all. And in the latest edition of their design guidance, where, for example, such guidance is given as to paint bicycle symbols on the carriageway at pinch points caused by traffic islands — rather than simply to stop squeezing bicycle users in with motor traffic in such a way — because such symbols are taken to be better than nothing.

I’m not convinced that paint on busy roads is in the slightest bit better than nothing for cycling. I think it’s delusional — or colossally gullible, perhaps — to believe that putting a piece of trunk road engineering in a city centre is worth anything at all for cycling. And I think that luring people onto heavily eroded sheep tracks is far worse than nothing for cycling.

But I don’t have time to argue about the specifics of cases like these, and I shouldn’t have to. Rather I have a more general point to make.

Things that are a marginal, almost imperceptible, or questionable improvement on what is there now are not better than nothing.

Marginally reduced speeds and crap shared footways are not better than nothing when they’re being employed in the theft of half a million pounds from the budget.

Rebuilding a junction to a design that you hope, maybe, might make things marginally less bad than they were, is not better than nothing if it means perpetuating a fundamentally anti-cycling and traffic dominated town centre for perhaps another fifty years.

Mediocre guidance is not better than nothing if it’s used in place of genuinely good guidance — if the Sustrans brand allows professionals to dismiss the recent London and Cambridge guidance as foreign or utopian when all that the cyclists themselves say they want and need is some paint at a pinch point.

Signing inappropriate cycle routes is not better than nothing if they give aspiring bicycle users an even worse experience of cycling than they would get from following their streets. They are worse than nothing when they are cited as an example of cycling already having been catered for and nothing more needing to be done.

Better than nothing is not good enough. Marginal gains aren’t good enough.

That’s one reason I’ve never got all that into local campaigning, much though I appreciate and admire those who do have the energy to do so. I don’t actually think it’s worth my time. I don’t think the tiny single victories are ever worth it. Call me selfish but I don’t think that one shared pavement that allows half a dozen or so additional kids to get to school by bike is worth it. I don’t think the lighting on that one path in the park that makes a couple more people feel safe getting home by bike at night is worth it. I don’t think that one bike lane that keeps one pensioner riding to the shops for an extra year or two is worth it.

I mean, I guess I’m happy for them and everything, but, whatever.

What motivates me is extreme selfishness and some bigger picture selflessness. That’s the selfish interest in the quality of the places where I spend my time, and my journeys around and between them. And the big picture of the problems that our communities, society and planet face. Transport policy has a big impact on public health — through air pollution and active vs sedentary lifestyles it impacts pretty much any non-communicable disease you can think of — on climate change, energy use and economic productivity, and so ultimately on quality of life. And on all of those counts a policy of mass modal shift away from motor vehicles and to cycling would be a huge net positive. But nothing short of a revolution will do.

A real revolution — not a 5% mode share target shoehorned in beside business as usual.

Anything less is not going to make the slightest meaningful difference. Not going to make any noticeable difference to my journey being spoiled by heavy traffic and air pollution. Nor is it going to make any noticeable difference to population, planetary, or economic health. Not even going to add up to something that does in time, or reach a “tipping point”. A “cycling revolution” that is not registrable in things like morbidity statistics, by air quality measurements, in transport sector energy consumption and carbon emissions, or in the population’s quality of life, is not a revolution. And if it’s not a revolution (and if it doesn’t help me personally), sorry, I don’t really care. It’s not worth my time asking for it.

And “better than nothing” is worse than nothing when it stands in the way of changes that are actually worth giving a shit about. One tiny aspect of one tiny tiny part of the whole being “better than it was before” is worse than nothing when it takes the pressure off and makes a handy excuse to allow everything else to continue as it was before. As an organisation or campaign, settling for better for nothing is worse than nothing when the people who have invested their time and money in you begin to lose the motivation to ever do so again. Better than nothing is worse than nothing when it distracts our attention from our actual goals and what actually needs to be done to achieve them: when it gets us too tied up in projects instead of policy.

They tell us that perfection is the enemy of the good. Well better than nothing is the enemy of anything actually worth having. And that, Sustrans, is why you’re losing so many friends.

(And before you start telling me that trite cyclesport-inspired cliché about marginal gains again: that only works when you’ve already done the big stuff and made it to the top of your game. Marginal gains make the difference when you’re a top olympic athlete. They’re not going to help when you’re the kid who doesn’t get picked at games.)

The tragedy around The Commons

I did a video, because I was too lazy to think about and research and write up a topic properly, and because I needed something for testing editing software. It’s about shared use foot/cycle paths in parks. I know! Super exciting, right?

This means that I now not only hate the sound of my voice, I hate my mannerisms generally. I was not entirely unaware that smiling/grinning/laughing doesn’t look good on me, but, damn, I do all those other things as well?

But in a fit of reckless impulsiveness I thought I’d go ahead and publish it anyway.

It starts with an apology, but I’m really not sure that one is ever enough.

For more on the topic, see Jon’s post at Traffik In Tooting. The London Cycling Campaign discussion referenced is here.

Don’t treat obesity as physiology or physics

I have a whole bunch of draft and outline blog posts from winter and spring that I was never able to find the time to finish off. To clear them out of the way, I’ve bashed out some half-hearted conclusions, and will post them this month.

Flicking through the pile of Natures that never got read properly, ready to be rid of them, I alighted on Gary Taubes’s opinion piece: Treat obesity as physiology, not physics. Bear with me while I appear to be completely off-topic talking science for a while.

Taubes argues that:

…obesity is a hormonal, regulatory defect… it is not excess calories that cause obesity, but the quantity and quality of carbohydrates consumed. The carbohydrate content of the diet must be rectified to restore health.

Taubes set out his case that it is not useful to think of obesity as a straightforward energy in/out imbalance that causes weight gain, but that it’s in understanding that specific forms of that energy — carbohydrates, and sugars doubly so — activate our body’s own fat accumulation systems (through the well understood insulin process) where solutions lie. You’ll be familiar with it from all that “Atkins diet” and “glycaemic index” stuff: energy in the form of carbs bad; energy from dietary fat not so much.

Taubes thinks this is important stuff because:

…the overeating hypothesis has failed. In the United States, and elsewhere, obesity and diabetes rates have climbed to crisis levels… despite the ubiquity of the advice that if we want to lose fat, we have to eat less and/or move more.

There is an obvious response to this, but Taubes pre-empts it:

Yet rather than blame the advice, we have taken to blaming the individuals for not following it ‘properly’.

Suggesting that Taubes thinks that if only we change the advice from “eat less and exercise more” to his “don’t eat high glycaemic index foods”, the advice will be followed and we will then succeed in defeating obesity.

I imagine any “advice” we give will be useless, whether it’s based on physics or physiology.

Because while obesity is about physics and physiology — and psychology and genetics and half a dozen other fields of science — none of those things explain what is important: why there is more obesity now than in the past, and how to make there be less of it in the future.

The laws of physics haven’t changed in fifty years. Physiology, and the genes that underlie it, can change — but only by evolution over the course of hundreds of generations, not a few decades. Sure, our bodies have a mechanism for turning carbohydrates into fat stores. But they always have.

The focus is on the quantity of energy in and the quantity out because that is what has changed during the rise of the obesity crisis. By all means refine that to a specific focus on an excess of high-glycaemic index foodstuffs and a deficit of burning off specific sugars, but the problem that really matters remains fundamentally not one of physics or physiology but of our environment.

Taubes is right to treat those who “blame individuals for not following the advice properly” with contempt. But not because the advice is wrong. Because any “advice” — right or wrong — is going to be useless. This is not a problem that individuals have created for themselves, and it’s not a problem that individuals can be “advised” to solve for themselves. This is a problem of the environment that we live in: the types of food that are available to us, and the opportunities for an active healthy lifestyle that have been taken away from us.

Taubes later uses an analogy with smoking and lung cancer, and the analogy perfectly describes what’s wrong with the idea that obesity should be treated as a physiology problem. We know a great deal about the physiology of smoking-related lung cancer. We know how all of the many different carcinogenic chemicals within cigarette smoke flow through the lungs and pass through membranes into the cells. We know the chemical reactions that they participate in and how those reactions cause damage to the cells’ DNA. We know exactly which pieces of DNA damage result in the harmful mutations that transform them into cancer cells, driven to grow and divide. We know exactly how those mutations — to genes with names like RAS and RAF, and EGFR and a dozen others — change the shape of the proteins that those genes encode, and why that change of shape causes those proteins to misbehave. We know how these things result in the tumour evading the body’s inbuilt defences, how they hijack the blood supply to allow their expansion, and how they go on to invade and destroy neighbouring tissue and eventually escape and metastasise.

And knowing these things about physiology makes not the slightest difference to solving the smoking problem. Smoking-related lung cancer, like obesity, is a process of physiology. But it’s a problem of environment. And the most important lesson from smoking for obesity is that you can’t solve a problem environment with advice alone. Bad lifestyle choices are not an individual failing. Good lifestyle choices need an infrastructure to support them.

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…