Transport utopianism is stupid, and Elon Musk should shut up

No. Image: Getty.

One of the things that’s most irritating about politics in 2018 – and goodness me, aren’t there a lot of choices – is the utopianism that’s crept into the transport debate. There is an apparently endless supply of people who wouldn’t be seen dead on public transport, or using any other service labelled with the word “public”, if they can possibly help it, yet who have come to the conclusion that they are the people the staid and dusty world of transport policy has been waiting for. 

And the message they are keen to send is that the old ways of doing things is over: shiny new technologies are going to disrupt the transport sector, just as they disrupted the music industry or retail. Why bother investing in mass-transit, when autonomous vehicles (AV) and ride-hailing apps are about to take over the world? Why waste money on high speed rail, when Elon Musk’s exciting new hyperloop will be along any minute? Silicon Valley types ask these questions, even as they earnestly suggest some kind of fixed route, ride-sharing service based on vehicles larger than the private car, blissfully unaware that they’ve just re-invented the bus. Again.

It’s true that new technologies will have huge, and occasionally unexpected, effects on our transport systems. AV, for example, could reduce the need for parking spaces, freeing up huge amounts of land for other uses, and may eventually make roads safer, too. As sci-fi as it sounds, the hyperloop – pods in vacuum tubes, travelling at up to 760 miles per hour – is, technically, feasible; if it happens, it could radically reduce demand for carbon-spewing short-haul flights.

But these two technologies have something else in common: low capacity. The pods on most of the – still largely theoretical – hyperloop designs can carry only a few dozen people each. And however clever AVs are, they don’t change the rules of geometry. A world in which every journey involves a private car, travelling at a limited speed, means continuing to give over a load of space in our cities to roads. If cars end up taking longer routes to avoid traffic, we might even need more.


There are transport technologies that don’t face these problems – that can carry a lot of people, at decent speeds, while producing relatively little pollution and taking up relatively little space. But they aren’t excitingly sexy and new things like AV or Hyperloop: they’re boring ones, like trains and trams and buses.

New technologies will improve those, too. Smarter and more integrated payment systems will make them easier to use. Big data will help planners spot gaps in the network, that could be usefully or profitably filled. Apps will help users to plan more efficient journeys, and spread them out so they don’t all travel at once.

But the point remains: if you want to move large numbers of people around limited space in the most efficient way possible, you should invest in fixed and predictable high-capacity routes. The solution is the same as it ever was: decently run mass transit networks. There is a reason Silicon Valley keeps re-inventing the bus.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman’s sister publication Spotlight.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.