The Answer to Our Green Transport Needs

The Answer to Our Green Transport Needs

I covered 360 miles in a round trip on Friday and Saturday. In spite of all my environmental guilt, I drove. Why? Simple economics.

The choice was pretty stark. Taking the train would have meant leaving at 22:55 on the Thursday night and travelling for over nine hours with four changes. The return leg would have taken four hours. Total fare: £98, not including any taxis I would have needed at the other end (at least one at over £20).

Driving meant leaving at 05:30 and driving for three hours to get to my destination. The return meant leaving at 11:00 and driving for three hours to get back again. Total cost: around £25–30 in diesel.

So the train was four times as expensive, took more than twice as long, and was less than half as convenient. Yet fares continue to rise.

I think it is fairly obvious how this ties in to the future. Climate change remains the elephant in the room that most of us continue to ignore. But it is not out of bloody mindedness or lack of desire to change things. It simply isn’t realistic to take many of the decisions that we would like to.

I would greatly prefer to travel on the train, reading a good book or getting some work done, rather than spending six hours dodging the incompetents who inhabit the middle lane of Britain’s motorways.

But I cannot afford to spend an extra £90 or seven hours on travelling, and I am in the majority.

So what needs to change? Much as I like the idea of a dramatically improved rail network, clean, quick and subsidised for all, it ain’t gonna happen. There just isn’t a sufficiently large financial incentive for the private sector to drive such development, and the current government is not brave enough to renationalise the infrastructure and pour in the required investment. The next government will be ideologically opposed to such a move, whatever Cameron’s green credentials.

Instead I think we will see a renaissance for the pariah of the environmental lobby, much as we have for nuclear power. The answer to all our clean, green transport needs? The car.

Society is now too dependent on a means of getting themselves and their goods from A to B that gets them from door to door. The road network is the only really complete transport solution. But if it isn’t going to choke us all, or cause us all to have heart failure from road rage, a few things need to change.

1. Fuel
There are fuel options out there that are not perfect but a lot better than what we have today. I don’t believe electricity is the answer for the mainstream. Until there are serious developments in battery technology, the power to weight ratios are no good, the recharging too time consuming and inconvenient, and the source of electricity uncertain. Instead, liquid fuels such as biodiesel from recycled cooking oil and crops, plus ethanol from corn seem a strong option. They can be delivered through the existing refuelling network and they have a business and taxation model that everyone understands. They will also demand minimum changes to the performance we expect from our cars. Though neither is without issues, the benefits vastly outweigh the problems.

Unfortunately the money being spent by the oil companies on lobbying and PR to dismiss these options is vast. Even I was convinced that there simply weren’t enough acres of land to grow the fuel we need until I read otherwise (thankyou Wired).

2. Design
Cars have advanced a million ways and none. They are still fundamentally the same beast they ever were — a lump of steel with four wheels and an engine. The next phase of design doesn’t have to be revolutionary but there does need to be a significant evolution to improve efficiency further. Lighter metals, composites and ceramics are currently too expensive to make it into the multi-million-selling family hatchbacks but they will over time. Recyclability is obviously key, but safety too needs to improve, in part to compensate for the generally low level of ability displayed by drivers….

3. Training
But technology alone cannot compensate for this. While I am not a fan of the ‘nanny-state’ (where it exists in any sense other than some Daily Mail myth), I do believe that we have to improve the regulation of drivers. Looked at objectively it seems incredible that we are willing to put the incredible power of a modern car in to the hands of people with so little training. If driving were a niche sport, or perhaps was conducted only by the employees of a small industry, it would be regulated much more heavily. Licences would be renewed every five years; health and safety measures would be much more rigorous.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to retake my test every five years. But poor driving has much more wide-ranging effects than accidents, injuries and deaths. For example, congestion (and stress levels) could be dramatically reduced by better educating people and enforcing standards for motorway driving.

4. Culture
It’s an old hobby horse but I have to take it for a ride once more: 4x4s. We need to do something to prevent people from unnecessarily owning and driving vehicles that are dangerous to them, those around them and the environment. For the majority of owners, 4x4s are a statement of fashion and ego. Any argument from a parent about it being for safely transporting their kids — an argument you hear too often, even from people you previously thought sensible — makes my blood boil. Completely ignoring the actual facts about the safety (or otherwise) of 4x4s is one thing. Ignoring the damage it could do to someone else’s kids and the future of the race as a whole is unforgiveable. The answer? An additional driving test for 4x4s that requires the owner to demonstrate the ability to drive it off road, an appreciation of maneuvering and parking such a large vehicle, and a knowledge of fuel economy and the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment.

Again I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I’m not anti-materialism. I like to buy nice things and all things considered, I’m probably a bit of a show off. In fact I plan to own a 4×4 at some point. But it will be for a purpose that requires that type of vehicle. Not for the school run.

If we can address these issues, I don’t have a problem with the car remaining our primary mode of transport. What will not solve the problem though is the recently proposed road charging scheme. I agree with the basic principle of charging for use. But penalising people for travelling on busy roads at rush hour is absurd, when the public transport alternative is so clearly inadequate.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

Tom Cheesewright

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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