An essay about personal transport that I often recommend to people (but which they only occasionally read) is John Adam’s 1996 essay Can technology save us? (if you do open the link, don’t be deterred that the pdf appears to be 32 pages long – the article is only 16 pages).

It is worth reading the whole thing but in essence it presents an argument that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and in this case the good thing is personal mobility. Not the technology that gives us that mobility but the mobility itself. This idea seems not outrageous but simply unthinkable. Once one has managed to think it, then it seems outrageous – patronising, elitist, anti-progress and just self-evidently bad. Or at least the conclusion seems bad if you haven’t followed the arguments that lead to it. Here is the crux of it: a personal choice made by one ordinary person is negligible. Hurrah for choice, we’re all in favour. The very same choice made by many people is not negligible, yet in the case of transport, this is ignored. Adams argues that we were not (and are not) given the true choice. He puts this is the form of three imaginary opinion polls:

1. Would you like a car, unlimited air-miles, and all the computers and communications facilities presently enjoyed by Bill Gates?

” … at present most people in the world have never flown, and do not own cars or computers. Their answer to this question, everywhere in the world is overwhelmingly yes. In answering, most people probably imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having access to the enlarged range of opportunities that they see present car and computer owners enjoying […] politcians, technologists and transport and communication planners everywhere are encouraging people to believe that everyone’s wish can be granted”

2. Would you like to live in the sort of world you would get if everyone’s wish were granted?

For such an opinion poll to yield meaningful answers there would need to be agreement about what such a world would be like. It would probably be grossly polluted, noisy, congested and anxious about the security of its energy supplies. Let us assume, however … that technology will solve these problems. What else might we expect? [drawing on the previous discussion in this paper] we can can speculate about some of its main features:

  • It will be a polarized world. Not everyone’s wish can be granted. About a third of the world’s population will never be old enough or fit enough to drive … Their disadvantage will increase as [everyone else’s] car dependence increases. they will be second-class citizens, dependent fortheir mobility on the withered remains of public transport or the goodwill of car owners. [universal car ownership will never be possible]
  • The world will become one continuous suburb. The traditional city, built for people not cars, could not exist. The last unspoilt islands and wilderness areas – which travel writers incite us with a sense of urgency to visit before they are spoiled – will be spoiled …
  • Geographical communities in which people know their neighbours will be replaced by aspatial communities of interest. People with similar tastes, interests and life-styles will commune on the internet or meet at conferences and vacation resorts. More high-security enclaves of the wealthy will be developed, but because of the fragmenting force of their inhabitants mobility, they will not function as true communities […]
  • Travel opportunities will be destroyed. The cultural and linguistic diversity in the world – the experience of which provides the motivation for much travel – will be obliterated by the rising tide of tourism […]
  • Fragile ecosystems will be destroyed: wilderness retreats with access to it. The provision for parking and road space for more than ten times as many motor vehicles will require paving much more of the world […]
  • Street life will disappear. The spread out scale will defeat pedestrians, and traffic will make cycling too dangerous. There will be no local shops to walk to. […] A world full of traffic and strangers will require the constant supervision of children who will no longer be alllowed to play in the street. […]
  • Law enforcement will become Orwellian. A world full of highly mobile strangers will require ever more ingenious technology to detect and apprehend wrong doers. As travel becomes easier physically it will become more difficult bureaucratically. […]
  • […]The ease with which one can live one’s life in a community of interest will diminish the contact people have with their geographical neighbours. concern for the local environment and the welfare of one’s geographical neighbours will diminish as people sped more time in cyberspace
  • Political authority will become more remote […] As technology deluges us in information, it leaves us less time for contemplation and reflection, and forces us to employ ever cruder perceptual filters in order to make sense of it all […]
  • Democracy will disappear […] democracies, to function effectively, require common values, and a measure of agreement about societal goals forged out of common experience. If distance is vanquished the requisite minimum level of concensus and trust will be unattainable … “

And what of the third question? The one that we really ought to ask?

3. Would you like to live in a cleaner, quieter, more convivial world in which you know your neighbours, it is safe to walk and cycle, and children are allowed to play in the street?

Transport and communication planning is in the grip of of a linear, backward-looking vision which extrapolates past “progress” indefinitely into the future. The vision is being sold on a false prospectus that invites individuals to imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having acess to the enlarged range of opportunites currently enjoyed by a small elite – an impossible world in which everyone is richer and more mobile than average.

Transport and communications planners alone cannot, of course, create the world described in opinon poll 3. But they can create conditions which will make such a world impossible […]

He therefore argues for priority to be given to policies which:

give absolute priority to those forms of land use and modes of transport – walking, cycling and local bus services – that promote a human scale of living

Well. That seems an extreme dystopian view of everything. It simply cannot be right. I’m sure my selective quotation does not look convincing – clearly Adams has overlooked this, that and the other obvious thing, and of course it was written in 1996. However, I think it is worth reading the whole thing. When I read it myself I found his conclusions chilling.

Ultimately the argument comes to the conclusion that we simply have to travel less – and yet I see no possibility of this happening because I cannot see that there is any limit on our desire for mobility. Obviously, it is better to be able to get about, travel a bit. Obviously, it’s bad to be confined to your village or town all your life and never see the sea or visit a foreign country. And yet, if too much casual travel (and who decides what is “casual”?) is as problematic as Adams argues, where do we draw the line? And who draws it? There is no logical point at which increasing travel passes from “life-enhancing” to “life diminishing”. As with so many sustainability issues, we simply have to engage with this – yet it is almost certain that the more-powerful are going to try and hijack it as a way of maintaining their power.

So don’t expect a simple conclusion from me – this isn’t that sort of blog.


See the following other posts:

The problem

How much choice do we really have?

More about choice


The problem restated