No wonder that understanding of transport, tourism, and travel issues, and their connection to other aspects of society, is a prime concern for governments, businesses, and policy and research institutes around the world. Yet the very ‘professionalisation’ of this concern can itself remove us from the heart of what travel is about: the experience of movement.
Indeed, the problem with much of the conventional debate about transport policy is that it is preoccupied with the quantity of movement rather than the quality of experience. While rightly concerned with the damaging ‘externalities’ of travel – traffic accidents, pollution, despoliation of the landscape, unquenchable appetite for finite environmental resources – transport experts pay too little attention to the ‘internalities’. By this I mean the sense of existential autonomy which often comes with travel, the rugged invulnerability which drivers clearly feel as they escape the traffic and find a clear road, the pleasures of the view from the train window passing through a landscape, as well as, of course, the immiserating attenuation of the self and of the spirit which results from just as many other journeys – grid-locked in traffic on the motorway, waiting for a bus while passing cars spray you with surface-water, or stuck at an airport as the fog descends with only yesterday’s paper to read and ’flu coming on.
These banal yet essential realities of many people’s lives are very far from the images of travel that surround us – in tourist brochures, lifestyle magazines, and television advertisements or programmes – which often present the travel experience as an escape from confinement to freedom. Departure, movement, and arrival are bathed in a luminous glow of carefree contentment. All is sleek, shiny, smooth, spacious, and smiling. To be on the move is to be fulfilled.
The sheer, lived contrast between reality and fantasy is a further reason to start a discussion about transport that begins with human experience. Thus, rather than agonising over the travel statistics which confirm the sheer scale of travel across the globe, it might be more productive to reflect – at the outset of this debate at least – on the nature of movement itself, its existential highs and lows, its role in everyday life, as well as its opportunities and dangers. Otherwise no amount of legislation, regulation or moralising will make a scrap of difference in the long term.
What we want, and do
Changing people’s travel patterns – and not just other people’s – hypocrite, lecteur! – is going to involve a significant change in lifestyles and values: for travel is only one factor in an inter-related world of social and cultural complexity and change. No amount of admonition or exhortation is likely to make a certain Mr Prescott of Hull wait fifteen minutes for a bus in Castle Street or Ferensway to get to Hull station in order to catch the 10.25 to Kings Cross, changing at Doncaster for the delayed Edinburgh-London train, only to wait in darkness and squalor at Kings Cross Underground Station for the Circle Line, arriving a total of five and a half hours later at Westminster, exhausted and bad-tempered. No, Mr Prescott will travel by Jaguar or jet; that is why we know he is important – because of the forms of travel he uses. Travel is an exercise in power and responsibility, which can be used for the good or for the bad. How you travel is who you are.
So unless we change people’s perceptions of themselves and their relations to others, we are unlikely to see politicians queuing for buses, city analysts donning cycle helmets, or pensioners swanking it in the back of limousines. In its present form, in Britain at least, travel is ridden with status-envy and sheer bad faith. As the recent Select Committee report on Walking in Towns and Cities (June 2001), noted, “Pedestrians have been treated with contempt. In a myriad of ways when we walk we are treated with less respect than when we drive”. This equation of travel mode with moral worth was made by Margaret Thatcher who claimed that if a man found himself on a bus at the age of twenty-five he knew he had failed in life. (I suspect that privately the present Prime Minister feels much the same).
Yet politicians are not the only ones guilty of hypocrisy by any means: it comes with the territory. At a recent meeting of the Town & Country Forum – the informal seminar group which inspired thisopenDemocracy strand – several rural campaigners admitted that although one of the rallying cries of the Countryside Movement was for more buses in rural areas, they admitted that in reality very few would use them. As we know, in public people will claim to want one thing, but in practice often choose to do something else.
Aux jambes, citoyens
Therefore, in this opening contribution to the transport strand of City & Country I want to start a discussion about the most basic form of transport: walking. Perhaps if we could understand walking better, who does it, when, where, why and so on, it might be possible to effect a small shift in attitudes and behaviour. In turn, such a shift would have impacts further down the line, because the whole issue of mobility is that an intervention in one area re-configures the entire field.
The British are following their American rather than European cousins in this respect, and slowly giving up the habit of walking. Between the 1980s and 1990s the number of trips per person by foot fell twenty per cent. In 1971 seventy per cent of seven-year-old children made their own way to school, mostly on foot. Today it is less than ten per cent for that age group. In the last twenty years or so, it seems as if some ghostly pied piper has spirited away the children from the streets of Britain – a displacement even more pronounced in North America – to the extent where their presence, when it occurs, is regarded as a sign of trouble. Partly this is the result of the disastrous priorities of twentieth century urban planning, illustrated by the words of one Los Angeles planner, cited in Rebecca Solnit’s engaging new history of walking, Wanderlust (Verso, 2001), who asserted that, “The pedestrian remains the largest single obstacle to free traffic movement.” In the war between the car and the walker in the modern city, the car clearly seems to have won.
Take the example of the Greenwich Millennium Village, which according to its designers was intended to be a model of environmentally friendly construction and long-term sustainability. Despite the fact that the Millennium Village has at its heart one of the most modern and expensive metro stations in the world, only completed two years ago and connecting residents to central London within minutes, a recent article by aGuardian journalist reported that – at ten minutes’ walking distance – a number of Millennium Village pioneers considered the station too far, and carried on using their cars to get to the local schools, shops and even work-places in the city.
Transport policy alone does not provide transport solutions. There are clearly many non-transport factors in the Millennium Village at work, about which as yet we know too little. Still, where there are feet, there’s hope. Of all journeys in the UK, large and small (though mostly small), walking is still a significant way of getting to places, as the following table shows:
|Main mode of travel, all trips (Source: National Travel Survey 1997 – 99)|
In short, therefore, daily travel patterns in the UK are largely made up of walking journeys and/or travelling by car. What the figures in this table do not distinguish is the length of journey, though common sense tells us that walking journeys are likely to be shorter than journeys made by bus, rail or car. However, this in itself raises an interesting philosophical question, as to why traffic planners invariably attribute greater importance to long journeys than shorter ones – which they most certainly do. The sheer amount of money spent per user-journey on motorway and air infrastructure, is, I suspect, rather more than that spent per user-journey on city streets, pavements, minor roads, or cycle-paths. (The writer, Iain Sinclair, who recently gave a lecture at the British Library on walking round the M25, discussed with his audience the suggestion that much motorway and air infrastructure has covert military capabilities – making certain kinds of long-distance travel a continuation of war by other means, I suppose).
We have a right to query, surely, whether small journeys really are less important than long ones? Is the accompanying of children to school on foot, the pensioner’s trip to the library or post office, or the lunch-time walk of office workers to the park, restaurant or café, really less socially or economically important than the car journey of the commuter, or the long-haul flight of the sex-tourist? The American urbanist, Jane Jacobs, famously argued that most business in New York was done in the street, café or restaurant, rather than at business conventions or trade fairs.
Walking into the light
The concern with the quality rather than the quantity of travel could help us see transport policy in a new light, and walking comes with a distinguished history of human insight and self-improvement. The walker-philosopher is, after all, a key figure of the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau admitted in hisConfessions that he could “only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs”. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Henry David Thoreau, Kant and Kierkegaard were among other famous meditative walkers. In the late twentieth century, this connection is happily still asserted. The French structuralist, Jean-Christophe Bailly, has spoken of a “generative grammar of the legs” (grammaire generative des jambes), while his compatriot, Michel de Certeau, claims that “The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language”.
Reflect also on the fact that two of the most interesting and original – though not always consistently brilliant – writers in England at present, W.G.Sebald (though his native language is German) and Iain Sinclair (already mentioned), derive their reflexive, free-associational style from their walking expeditions, which often form the basic subject matter of their books. Or think also of the narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s great novel, Korrektion, who recalls his daily walks to and from school with his best friend as constituting perhaps the most enjoyable and instructive moments of his life, much more educational than the time spent at school itself.
Those of us who love the cities we live in, know that it is only by walking (or cycling) through our favourite districts that we experience them again and again in all their uniqueness, atmosphere and detail. So – there is much to be gained by re-asserting the human scale of walking and its social richness in urban transport policy, remembering the Latin dictum, solvitur ambulando: “many things are solved by walking”.
In addition to the essay on the problems at Railtrack by Christian Wolmar already posted, in the weeks ahead we look forward to contributions from John Adams, Professor of Transport Policy at University College London, on some of the dangers represented by a world of “hyper-mobility”; Ben Plowden on “living streets”, some original thoughts on “tourism without traffic”; reflections on “the school run”; and many sharply divided opinions on the pleasures and pitfalls of the modern car.
We welcome all thoughts on this most vital of subjects, given the original assertion of this strand that “how you travel is who you are”.