Clued-up thinking should make capital immobile in time of crisis
Six months ago or thereabouts I recorded in this column my enthusiasm for a page in the Sunday Times devoted to the proposition that railways were out of date and, instead of spending £33 billion on bringing them up to the state they were in back in 1914 - when (railway buffs assure us) everything worked perfectly, Thomas the Tank Engine-style - we should tarmac over the tracks and rely on minibuses instead. A subsequent edition of The Times took a similarly bracing line with a threat by several airlines to discontinue internal flights unless a go-ahead was given for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.On this occasion a London MEP for the Green Party urged the transport secretary to accept the airlines' offer and let them close down as many flights as they wish in 'a truly environment-friendly deal'.
I mention these ephemeral stories, otherwise long since forgotten, because they point up the extraordinary rarity of such lateral thinking in connection with the urban transport crisis. Demands for huge sums of money to 'modernise' this or that element in our national museum of Victorian infrastructure have been two a penny for years, but always in connection with some contest for supremacy between cars and buses, or trains and bicycles, or swingeing speeding fines and soaring council taxes. Never, or almost never, does the so-called 'debate' on the urban crisis rise above the level of a demand for money followed by a reluctant half promise to pay it, followed by a postponement of the project the money was supposed to pay for, followed by renewed clamour for more money. Indeed, so sterile is this confrontation that we must all begin to wonder whether there are any new ideas of any importance on the transport front other than more speed bumps, more train crashes and more planes stalled on crowded runways.The pro-rail dinosaurs blame the motor industry polluters; the motor industry polluters blame the taxation system.What none of them will do is to take seriously the big picture that we all glimpsed in the funeral march of the Concordes last week; the limitless possibilities, not of the mirage of sustainable development, but of the promise of that most ancient of remedies: immobility.
Anyone other than a professor of transport studies would see in an instant that the solution to London's transport woes does not lie in piling population upon population and development upon development, making London more fragile and vulnerable with each passing day, yet that is the policy that is in place to see 700,000 new residents by 2016 - equivalent to the importation of a city the size of Leeds - and another 600,000 commuters living outside the city but working in it.
Compared with the impact of this new population influx, the specious arguments in favour of retaining the Green Belt sound like special pleading for the pony club, rather than a concern for wildlife and recreation. In any case, there is a much more powerful argument in favour of recolonising the countryside that concerns the huge strides in de facto decentralisation that have been made in the past 20 years as a result of computerised distance working and the rural relocation of offices, businesses and corporations - all of which has had the effect of reducing population pressure on the capital and its creaking services.
The fact that most transport problems are urban problems does not mean that their solutions have to be urban solutions.
Low density 'wireless' communities distributed across the vast swathes of land no longer required for agriculture could ease the pressure on the capital and put an end to 'cramming' in the countryside at the same time.