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The lesson from our transport chaos: work with nature, not against it

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The recent bad weather has brought floods to roads across the country, cancelled trains and caused delays to flights, while commuters everywhere have faced additional disruption and difficulty as government faced down further threats of action against petrol tanker drivers in the light of increased fuel taxation.

To compound problems, WAGN is among many operators reporting daily train cancellations through staff shortages, while hundreds of restaurant cars, inoperable due to food supply failures, are regularly towed up and down the country empty. Meanwhile, London Underground struggles to manage platforms congested with commuters because of widespread escalator failures.

Some people will think back to the '70s when the oil crisis led to the three-day week, strikes became endemic and the nation's social services ground to a halt while union leaders chewed sandwiches in Downing Street.

The mood then was grim. Strikes by gravediggers saw bodies left piled high in mortuaries, garbage filled the streets, rats ran amok in the filth, Hyde Park became a temporary tip, and there was the threat of widespread disease.

But what is happening now is very different. Industrial relations are generally good and the workforce is compliant.

What we face now are management and systems failures: as government continues the process of transferring responsibility for social and transport infrastructure away from the state the private sector is increasingly found wanting.

Remember that the privatised water authorities initially failed abysmally, leading to widespread drought, while Railtrack has, despite taking over £1.5 million a day in profits, failed to maintain safe tracks.

But these are merely the inevitable teething troubles in a relentless process of change from a representative democracy, where service delivery lies with nationalised operations and local authorities, to a market democracy, where responsibility is transferred away from bureaucratic professionals towards commercial entrepreneurialism.

But while we will struggle onwards and eventually get these new privatised operators to function effectively, the operational failures that have resulted in changing weather patterns and global warming are set to worsen year on year, bringing increasing hardship en route to ultimate catastrophe.

That is unless governments act in concert to deal with the source of the climate change.

In the meantime, we must learn to manage our land appropriately to deal with the climatic changes which have already taken place. This means operating with a new respect for our flood plains, which we have effectively transformed from sponges to draining boards.

So two hard facts emerge as we take stock following the worst flooding this country has seen in more than 200 years.

Firstly, we must act at political level to determine a strategy for dealing with these circumstances: the untempered free market cannot, and will not, waiver in its hungry pursuit of profit, inevitably wreaking havoc in its wake. Secondly, architects have a major role to play in positing alternative strategies for the design of our buildings, our towns, and our cities, that will enable us to work with nature and within her rules, not against her.

Lord Rogers has already made a major contribution in this respect with the Urban Task Force report, which he chaired. Marco Goldschmied has done much as RIBA president to raise the profile of the sustainability campaign, and we now see this complex subject being incorporated into the curriculum of schools of architecture.

But this is not a matter that can be allowed to fade at the conclusion of Goldschmied's presidency. The RIBAmust intensify its efforts in this area, working extensively with our sister professions, other industry players and government. Architecture has no purpose if its essential objective fails: safe shelter.

We must learn, and show others, how to make and maintain buildings and cities that are sustainable. That is now our challenge at every level of practice.

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