Friday, November 26, 2010

Predicting the Future

When I got my first 'proper' job, rather a long time ago, if you were male you wore a suit. It didn't much matter what you did, unless it was something oily or sweaty or food-related, or something that otherwise required specialist clothing, you wore a suit.

Suits are useless. They're not waterproof; you have to dry clean them, decent ones cost a fortune, they are too hot in summer and not warm enough in winter. You have to take the jacket off and hang it up somewhere or it'll get all creased. But still, back in the day, every man wore a suit to work. It was an unwritten, or often written, rule, but either way if you didn't wear a suit you might as well come in naked, suitless was that shocking a concept.

Then something happened. Stories started to filter through about the computer firm Apple, where everyone wore jeans. In more progressive companies, they started to have 'dress-down Fridays', where you could were what you wanted one day a week. Then people started to realize that if you could do it on a Friday, you might as well do it every day. Then the balance changed. Any company where suits were still de rigeur for men was a bit starchy, a bit stick-in-the-mud, not very forward looking. Salesmen still wore them, but other than that if you wore a suit you were a bit of a spiv (or possibly foreign).

What on earth has this all got to do with the price of chain-lube? Well, the Government plan transport for 10, 15 or 20 years in the future, partly because it takes a long time to plan and build new roads and railways, but also because there's not much money around at the moment so anything big gets put off in the hope that the economy will recover sufficiently. But the common assumption running through these plans is that attitudes and travel behaviour won't change much over that time. Well, I'd suggest that attitudes are already changing. Many people don't go into their office or workplace 5 days a week. With high-speed broadband it's possible in many professions to work from home and be effective. Companies are starting to realize they can save a huge amount of money by having smaller offices or renting space as needed, rather than having one central location with one desk per employee. In other words, in 10 years the commute, like the suit, may look outmoded.

Decarbonizing the UK economy is going to have effects. The current target is to reduce carbon emissions by 34% by 2020. It seems unlikely that can be achieved without having any effect on the balance of the economy or on patterns of travel. If the oil price increases significantly, which many observers consider likely, this will also significantly change the economics of travel.

So to have a 20-year transport policy which is based on business-as-before, when attitudes, technology and economics are clearly likely to change significantly, and to bet significant sums of money on it, seems - well, a little rash. Like bogus clairvoyants, Philip Hammond it seems is simply telling people what he thinks they want to hear. Clearly, we need a long-term transport policy, but one of the advantages of being in Government is that you have some control over the future - you don't simply have to predict it. Would it not be better to plan on less travel rather than more? To try to reduce unnecessary journeys, and increase the efficiency of transport? To help people live closer to their workplace rather than commute longer distances? Dare I say it, to increase active travel? If we did that, we'd be in rather better shape for the coming era of expensive energy.

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