Saturday, 3 March 2012

Brand New Old Fashioned Modern Transport System of the Future from the Past

We have mentioned on several occasions the folly of hoping to solve traffic congestion problems by building more road capacity - that would be like trying to lose weight by letting your belt out. So we were pleased to see the major booster of a motorway project - Tom Smith, chairman of local business development quango ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) - at last admitting to the true motivation for proposing to build a new motorway. Appearing on local BBC news broadcast "Reporting Scotland" Mr Smith said "if it had not been for the [protestors' court] appeals, we would already be enjoying driving on this road".

Mr Smith was invited onto the TV programme because the most recent appeal by campaign group "Road Sense" to prevent the building of an orbital motorway around Aberdeen was rejected by Court of Session judges in Edinburgh on the 29th of February. This new road will be a "special category road" (which is to say, a motorway in all but name) and is known as the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR).

We found Mr Smith's "enjoying driving" statement refreshing, because - at last - there was no assertion that purpose of the AWPR was to reduce the congestion, pollution, noise or danger caused by motor traffic in Aberdeen. Nor was there any attempt to try to suggest that the £750m project would in some way save (or generate) money for Aberdeen and "safeguard the future" - all of which were the sort of rationalisations offered by him in previous years. No, now that a last barrier to the project going ahead has been removed, Mr Smith reveals what we already knew; this road is for people like him to enjoy driving upon. By this ill-guarded admission, Mr Smith has let slip something else which we already knew: that this road is a solipsistic solution only to itself and the demands of drivers to drive more, drive everywhere, drive always. In the view of Mr Smith and his fellow motorists, motor-traffic transportation is the desired outcome of providing infrastructure for motor-traffic transportation.

Let us be clear: we would be vociferous supporters of the AWPR if this major road-building programme were to be accompanied by a range of new-urbanism measures which would reduce traffic flows into and through the residential and central business/retail districts of Aberdeen - measures like suburban rail and trams, bus-only roads, pedestrianisation, bicycle infrastructure, parking restrictions and charges - just the kind of contemporary urban transport planning policy you see all across continental Europe, the Middle East and increasingly these days even in the cities of the USA. But, unfortunately, none of these measures is present in the planning of the AWPR, quite the reverse. Instead the AWPR will be complemented by multi-million pound radial access projects (including new inner-urban dual carriageway expressways) which will increase motor-traffic flows into central Aberdeen. We can't possibly support a scheme which will dramatically increase the proportion of space allocated exclusively to motor transport in and around Aberdeen. The results will be as predictable as they will be devastating to the liveability of our town.

More than once we have flexed our fingers typing rebuttals to the tired old "predict and provide" arguments for building ever-more motor traffic infrastructure - arguments which decades-long and worldwide experience have long-since discredited. And so then, flexing their politically-aspirant muscles, the business-community boosters of this orbital motorway project shifted their rhetoric onto the unfalsifiable ground of appeals to 'common sense' and populism. "Everyone knows" they said, "that the long-awaited Aberdeen Bypass is much needed, and the majority want it built." 
Check out the 'Common Sense' pro-motorway blog:
(The type of discourse displayed in the comments section of the "Common Sense" blog-post is an object lesson in the dangers of unleashing populism in the service of business interests. Have a read, but it's not for the faint-hearted.)

For the sake of balance, we're happy here to quote some of the opposing voices, which have not been offered a platform by our local mainstream media:

Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland:
The Scottish Government seems addicted to tarmac yet has set itself demanding targets to meet with regard to reducing Scotland's carbon emissions and tackling climate change. This new road will not help them in this regard, and goes to show that Scottish Ministers just aren't able to see the bigger picture. You can't cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change while simultaneously building massive new roads that create more traffic and development.

WWF Scotland director, Dr Richard Dixon:
It is deeply disappointing that the the court have thrown out this challenge from community campaigners trying to stop the Aberdeen Bypass. This scheme will trash local wildlife and increase climate change emissions as it generates new traffic. We call on Transport Minister Keith Brown to use the forthcoming budget to commit to ensuring that Scotland's transport sector plays its full part in tackling climate change.

Colin Howden director Transform Scotland, the national sustainable transport alliance:
The bypass will do nothing to address the key traffic congestion issue in Aberdeen. The real problem is car commuting into the city, especially during the morning rush hour - something that an orbital road will do nothing to address. The best way that this could be tackled would be to deliver commuter rail routes into the city. It is unfortunate that the Scottish Government seem unwilling to invest in public transport, and instead continues to subsidise car use. The only thing that this project will deliver is car-dependent commuter sprawl and out-of-town retail tin-sheds.

It's that "car-dependent" quote from Colin Howden of Transform Scotland which we think goes to the heart of the issues surrounding road-building projects like the AWPR. As we walk the streets of Aberdeen, we see the car-dependent all around us, and it perplexes us to see self-admittedly car dependent people correctly identify road-provoked urban sprawl as the cause of their dependence, and yet they call for the building of more, bigger, "upgraded" roads as a palliative. 

Only policies which lead to a shift in transport modes by a reduction in the use of motorcars (like roadspace reallocation away from use by motor-vehicles) will deliver a sustainable reduction in motor traffic congestion and its attendant externalities. Yet the old-fashioned motorists of Aberdeen stick to the old discredited roadbuilding polices of the 1960's. Like the people in the US midwest who Barack Obama ridiculed for clinging to their bibles and guns, the car-crazy folks of Aberdeen can't see over their dashboards; they want more, bigger and faster, "better" roads, "upgraded". It's embarrassing.

Those unfortunate addicts who seek the help of Alcoholics Anonymous are invited to consider why they do the same thing over and over again, yet expect different results. Were the extent of tasteless self indulgence, waste of natural resources, and disastrous externalities not so catastrophic it would be amusing to observe how closely aligned the rationalisation strategies of addicts and motorists are. We cannot be sure whether it is car dependency which leads to car addiction or vice versa, it's so difficult now to tell the difference. But what we can say is that the results are devastating.

Again, let's be clear - we are not anti-car. Cars are undoubtedly useful and I use a car when and where it's appropriate to do so - when and where there are no alternative transport modes available which would be less harmful to health, the urban environment, and the wider ecosystem. I have chosen a way of life which minimises my need to use personal motor transport - it was more than a decade ago when I stopped driving regularly. It was difficult - yes, but only for about a week. I soon became entranced by how quickly I became much, much fitter. I soon became enamoured by walking the urban environment, seeing things unmediated, feeling my range and freedom increase and engaging with the town I inhabited. In short, I began living in Aberdeen for the first time since I was a child. That's living in as opposed to merely inhabiting.

And now, on the rare occasions when I'm obliged by circumstance to drive, I feel the terrible oppression of claustrophobic restrictions. Queuing at traffic lights; one-way streets; speed limits; parking restrictions; inconsiderate fellow motorists; and all the other minor and major strictures which people have convinced themselves that they are happy to put up with daily - all the while tied to a chair in the tightly restricted space of a hot locked box full of plastic and metal and volatile refined hydrocarbons. Isolated from the outside environment. View restricted by glass screens, metal pillars, the rear-view mirror. Hearing restricted. Movement restricted. Personal space restricted. And we are expected to aspire to this? It was Voltaire who said "its difficult to free fools from the chains they so revere". It is clear that today, in this town, in this country, the motorcar is one of those chains. But, per Konkin "each individual can free himself, immediately". All that is required is an effort of will.

The magnitude of that effort of will would be less were our planners, politicians and the businessmen (who wield increasingly more and yet more power) to embrace the new urbanism movement which is sweeping the rest of the world. It's a source of great shame and embarrassment that - as our business tycoons here in Aberdeen gleefully look forward to "enjoying driving" on a new motorway - towns and cities in the United States - Portland in Oregon for instance - have implemented free (yes, free!) public rapid-transit systems while others, like San Francisco, are bulldozing up their urban dual-carriageways (or turning them into woonerf-style mixed use boulevards).

It's heartbreaking to see our town not only falling behind the new urbanism agenda, but so comprehensively repudiating it as to buy wholesale (and at great financial and external cost) into a transport system which was dreamed up sometime in the middle of the car-crazy 20th century - a time when it was thought that there were no limits growth and no limits to the pressure which could be put upon the planet's resources. A time when the devastating impact of high traffic levels on the liveability of urban centres had not yet been experienced. Today, of course, we know different.

Unfortunately, our local politicians, planners and business tycoons are embarrassingly forward at displaying their backwardness when it comes to their love of cars and driving. Their acknowledgement of neither the externalities of their plans nor the unsustainable implications of provoking continual exponential increase in distances traveled by hydrocarbon-powered personal motor vehicles makes us feel that we are the subject of a sick joke. The sickness of this joke is compounded by the fact that (with straight faces) they call this a "Modern Transport System". It is not; it is in fact quite demonstrably more than a little bit old-fashioned.

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