In the previous post, Transport Security, the link between energy security and transport was discussed along with the implications for the future here in the UK. One of the issues touched upon in that post was the importance of a diverse mixture of transport modes.
In transport as in nature, diversity is important. In agriculture, monoculture is the practice of growing a single, large and genetically (almost) uniform crop. This practice might be expected to provide certain benefits due to economies of scale, but it is not without its problems. A uniform crop has uniform susceptibility to disease, pests, weather conditions. This makes the whole crop vulnerable to resilience problems when the crop is subjected to unforeseen external stresses. It is uniformly welcoming or unwelcoming to specific animal species, which can have numerous and varied unintended consequences. There are obvious parallels between the practice of agricultural monoculture and the transport monoculture we have allowed to develop in the UK.
In the UK, transport is currently dominated by the private car. It could even be said that this dominance has reached the point that the UK is a transport monoculture. This is compounded further by The Department for Transport’s own predictions that the next two decades’ growth in transport will further increase the total proportion of trips made by car. Cycle use is predicted to stagnate.
As in agriculture, a transport monoculture is vulnerable because of its uniformity; in the case of our car monoculture significant vulnerabilities include uniform reliance on inefficient use of fuel and uniform reliance on inefficient use of space. A good example of when these vulnerabilities have been exposed include the refinery blockades for the former and the few weeks of snowfall the UK has seen in each of the past few years for the latter. Both of these types of events are examples of stresses on the UK transport system.
As in nature, a more diverse mixture of transport modes is more able to cope with stresses such as those discussed above. During a fuel shortage, modes which rely less on inefficient use of fuel such as bicycles, walking and public transport are in a good position to relieve some of the strain. During heavy snow, modes which use space more efficiently such as bicycles, walking and trains can more easily and quickly have sufficient space cleared to allow their safe passage. The same is true of freight. Diversity allows the weaknesses of a particular mode to be complemented by the strengths of another, and builds an element of much needed redundancy into the system.
These other modes are not without their own disadvantages and a transport mix which relies too much on trains or bicycles would be similarly (although perhaps less overall) vulnerable to unforeseen stresses. Whilst it can be tempting, when faced with ridiculous straw-man arguments, to suggest that the UK could manage perfectly well without cars, their continued availability compliments the vulnerability of bicycles to high winds or of trains to staff disputes.
Cars are only a problem at the moment because their near-total dominance of transport in the UK. Our road infrastructure is designed around them at the direct expense of the viability of walking and cycling. The public subsidy of car use leads to perverse economics which make local bus services ‘economically inviable‘ and allow road haulage to uncut rail freight in a manner which simply should not be possible. Increasing the diversity of the UK’s transport mix means directly addressing these problems. Road infrastructure should be designed around cycling, walking and motorised vehicles, not just motorised vehicles. Transport investment should include significant investment in rail rather than just motorised road transport and the external costs arising from motor vehicles should be shouldered directly by their users rather than shared by everyone.
By removing the perverse incentives strongly favouring motorised road transport in the forms of private car and road freight above all other modes we can more evenly spread the UK’s transport needs over a more diverse range of transport modes. This shift will increase the overall energy and space efficiency of transport in this country, currently dominated as it is by the most inefficient modes, as well as strengthening transport as a whole against the predicted and unpredicted stresses encountered the future.