On a highway to hell

Aramis or the Love of Technology - Blueprint 5: The True Costs of Road Transport - Transport and the Environment
March 7, 1997

It is a measure of the importance of transport in a large number of contemporary debates that publishers have pulled out the stops to fill a growing and still unsatisfied demand for debate, comment, insight and hard information on these topics.

Transport figures centrally in the debate about global warming, climate change, pollution and costs associated with these effects. It also figures centrally in the debate about freedom, choice, the design of local environments and the failures of democratic institutions to cope with local feelings. In many ways government has failed dramatically to recognise the very basic signs of what is going on when transport demands rises, pollution worsens and the illusory search for freedom and satisfaction seems to get more difficult by the day.

These three books take us into all these areas and provide enough material to feed anyone's appetite for information, course material and well-informed criticisms of market failure, government failure and the problems yet to descend upon us.

Bruno Latour takes us into an important area but fundamentally misunderstands that importance in his desire to show us all how clever he is. Transport technology is little understood. The debate about the car and the lorry, the high-speed train and the aeroplane tends to dodge the big questions about why we get side-tracked into planning, funding, worshipping and organising lumps of metal, speed and very expensive ways of satisfying very basic everyday needs. Right across the spectrum of transport planning, engineering, economics and trainspotting there is a fascination with the objects of desire and a thundering lack of interest in the travel needs and accessibility needs of children, the elderly, the mobility disadvantaged and those interested in community and aesthetics.

Latour adds to this problem. Aramis, apart from being a character in The Three Musketeers was a very expensive, highly automated, rail-based metro system planned for Paris in the 1970s. It attracted high-level political support, attracted the excitement of the machine fetishists and the sociologists who study them but had absolutely nothing to do with meeting ordinary everyday travel needs in a way that recognised social diversity and the importance of place and space.

Latour misses all this and constructs an elaborate, confused, convoluted, hyperactive and overly clever account of the Aramis debacle. The text reveals very little of what actually went wrong and ignores the needs and the wishes of the citizens of Paris who, presumably, did have a role to play in all of this. He ignores the environment, local democracy, mechanisms for testing investment plans against the agreed objectives of those plans and the need for clarity and explanation.

Readers will have to make up their own minds about the relevance of buses without sex organs or Frankenstein's "big dick" (both on page two) but this reviewer is left with a very strong feeling of being "had". The book tells us a great deal about Latour's fascination with Latour's ability to create chaos out of order and fog out of clarity. It tells us absolutely nothing about transport, technology, people, Paris, politics, society, economics, community, decision making and what might happen the next time round.

The next time round is in fact happening with the Maglev project between Hamburg and Berlin in Germany and Latour has wasted an opportunity to help us understand the timeless ability of technology to distort and destroy and create a world that is regrettably ready for more of the same nonsense.

The True Costs of Road Transport is a timely, masterly and accessible piece of writing. The debate about "externalities" or the costs of transport borne by those other than the traveller or the beneficiary of the car/lorry trip has gathered momentum and importance through the 1980s and 1990s and now needs an answer from politicians and decision makers. The six authors of this book cover the basic methodological territory which is by no means straightforward and still lacks consensus.

Greenhouse gases, air pollution, noise, congestion and accidents all receive the treatment producing very big numbers which can all be added up at the end of the book. The answer is (for the United Kingdom) Pounds 45.9-Pounds 52.9 billion which is approximately three times greater than all taxation income from road transport. This ratio will give comfort to environmentalists and anguish to the RAC and AA who expend a great deal of time and effort to convince us all that motorists pay more tax than is then spent on roads, neatly sidestepping the more important question of the relationship between all the costs which must be paid for and all the ways in which motorists pay for these costs.

The authors are understandably reluctant to take this much further. Should we extract the full amount from motorists and lorry operators so that the actual costs of their journeys are three times higher than in the relaxed, fossil-fuel-greedy times we have become used to? What do we do with the money so collected and how do we really tackle the damage caused by road transport and provide alternatives? More importantly we still need a dimension in policy making which is not cost driven. It may, for example, be completely unacceptable that cars and lorries should use residential streets as their preferred route.

There is enough evidence around on the relationships between traffic volumes and the respiratory health of children to suggest a public health response to ban cars and lorries and create car-free areas in cities. If road users pay their "true costs" the implication is that the problem is solved and they may move freely when and where they wish. Not all things in life and transport can be reduced to costs and not all kinds of human behaviour can be tolerated on the grounds that it has been paid for.

The Royal Commission's report on transport and the environment was eagerly awaited, heavily publicised and much acclaimed. It appeared in October 1994 and still has not been acted upon by government. Its publication by OUP in this accessible format is very welcome indeed and the text provides enough material for all the debate and content that should inform political argument as well as courses in higher education.

The report is powerful. It comes from a stable of high repute and while it says things that have been said by environmentalists and dissident transport renegades for 20 years or so it gives these views authority and status. Sir John Houghton (the chairman of the Royal Commission) and his colleagues are clear that we cannot go on the way we have always done in the past by meeting the demand for transport with the supply of roads and airports.

They endorse the view that "predict and provide" is dead and launch the new world of "demand management". They are scathing about air transport which continues to grow as if there was no such thing as global warming, traffic congestion on the ground around Heathrow or local air pollution and it shows just how inefficient our transport systems are when one compares "transport intensity" with "energy intensity". It is a tour de force.

Transport and the Environment is replete with recommendations and advice for the politician. It is highly unlikely that either Labour or the Conservatives will take that advice, neatly illustrating where we now stand in transport in Britain. We have more information and analysis than we can cope with. The Royal Commission and the True Costs team have added breadth and depth to that information base but still we have rampant growth in transport, road-building proposals that will not work even within their own narrow terms of reference and airport expansion plans that make road builders look like ecowarriors.

What we lack is a spark of political vision and political determination to grasp this particular nettle and create a transport system that genuinely serves the needs of everyone but particularly serves the needs of local residents, children, the elderly and those who see the importance of community and neighbourhood as greater than that of rivers of traffic.

John Whitelegg is at the school of the built environment, Liverpool John Moores University.

Aramis or the Love of Technology

Author - Bruno Latour
ISBN - 0 674 04322 7 and 04323 5
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £28.50 and £12.50
Pages - 314

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