It’s book review time folks, and the subject of our delectation on this occasion is a book produced by Sustrans with a lovely little forward by that ever congenial bicycle riding inventor and informer of how easy it is to do self-assessment tax returns online, which incidentally it is; Adam Hart Davis.
Do Humans Dream of Electric Cars? Is heavily focused on the use of cycling as an alternative method of transport which is not surprising given it’s produced by Sustrans but it does provide a few thought provoking arguments. Even though it touches on other wider environmental issues, it concentrates on transport issues in particular.
In particular I like the idea that cars should not be thought of as a necessity but as a luxury. Perhaps that’s because that is the way in which I’ve always looked at them anyway. We didn’t even own a car up until January this year and even though we now do, its usage is pretty light and designated mainly for taking the kids out to places that would be difficult if not impossible to do on public transport which mainly means trips out to the countryside. What it’s not used for is regular commuting or such things.
Herein lies a problem though. We’re blessed with a rather good public transport network in the West Midlands. Outside of London or Glasgow I’ve not come across others that I’d say rival it on our fair little island. Unfortunately large swathes of the country don’t enjoy these benefits, especially when you exit the urban areas so whereas it’s wholly possible to live ones life without needing a car in these parts, that’s certainly not true elsewhere.
It did make me think a bit about the viability of cycling more though. I used to cycle a lot and although long distances aren’t particularly applicable on a regular basis; I don’t think I’d cycle from Willenhall to London, it takes 13 hours (I know, I did it once) smaller distances are easily possible.
That said, I do like the idea of sitting down, letting someone else do the driving while I knock about on the web via my mobile phone, or perhaps I’m just getting a bit lazy in my old age?
There’s a nice little bit about the school run in there. I concur on this one. I seem to remember way back in the days when I were a lad that the number of parents dropping their kids off at school wouldn’t have topped half a dozen. When we were looking for a school for the little ones, unlike it seems (if you believe the newspapers) we weren’t hunting out the ‘best’ school for the little ones after hours of studying dopey league tables. We looked on Google Maps (not that we needed to) and found the closest/easiest to access by foot.
Hence we ended up with a school technically not, but sort of on the same road within 300 metres walk of the front door. Here however is where it’s not just about individuals attitudes or practices but that they also have to be supported by those who make the planning decisions and that those people need to be able to see further than a balance sheet.
There’s a particularly good example of this in our locality. Odds on our little ones wouldn’t have been going to the school they’re (very likely to go to) had Walsall MBC not closed down and amalgamated three other schools. When we’re talking about sustainable and practical travel to schools, no amount of good intention from parents is going to counteract bad planning decisions by myopic councillors. (In this case Tory and LibDem at the time). No one I knew argued against the need to combine the schools, they were low on numbers (no sign of the hoards of immigrants clogging up the schools ala Daily Mail fantasies round these parts) and the buildings themselves needed serious and costly upgrading, not to mention the limited access to outdoor recreational areas.
Those of us at the time argued (this was way before I had kids btw) that a school closer to the town centre that could be built on a reclaimed former industrial site (of which there are plenty) would both regenerate, bring people into the town which would help traders and be accessible as regards public transport.
Instead the decision was made to build a school on green belt, (a nature reserve to be more precise) opposite a haulage company (yes, think safety) on a road that has no public transport (not where the school is, one bus runs at the other end but goes nowhere near it) access. Not exactly a school for the 21st century, more a relic representing the knock it up on the cheap and worry about the consequences later of the 1980’s era. They did however make lots of space and indeed a dedicated drop off point for kids being brought by car which to be fair I wouldn’t blame the parents for as they simply built a school in a crap location by not thinking in the first place.
So yes, lifestyle change is important which is where the book focuses on, but equally good planning is just as important and a good amount of fore-thought on behalf of those making the decisions is even more handy, even if it’s lacking round these parts.
Another area of the book that I find interesting is it’s focus on the insular nature of modern child upbringing. I’ve thought about this a bit, from the practical issue of actually being a parent. In some respects it harks back to an era where kids were out kicking balls in the street which I assume did exist although when I was growing up you wouldn’t have stood a chance of kicking a ball about in my parents street (it was a rat-run between two areas and even back then was too busy with traffic). Likewise I won’t be encouraging my kids to play outside the front of the house because, 1. We live on a main road frequented by people who can’t drive, seem to have a problem with the concept of speed limits (although it’s better since the speed camera went up) and 2. Apart from the <15 square metre bit of real estate that constitutes Penguin mansions that has to fit a car and assorted Walsall Council wheelie bins, there ain’t no room to play there anyway.
Again we’re back to planning, not strictly in the local authority sense, but also in the building sense. If we assume that kids playing outside the front of the house is something desireable, which I’d agree it is, we actually need properties where it’s possible. Willenhall could be an odd little isolated example but I’m at pains to think of any of the recent housing developments that have any real playing area at the front of properties. They are dominated by paved driveways and if you’re lucky a strip of grass.Â This trend isn’t specifically according to the value of the properties either, even in places like Prince Thorpe Road where the houses would have set you back 300K when they went up, the emphasis on front side recreational area is pitiful.
Compare it with the council houses across the road in the Rose Hill area and they have almost acreage of front gardens in comparison. They were, looking at them anyway, built a fair while ago, they look like typical 1930’s builds but I’m happy to be told otherwise. So once again, it’s poor planning, coupled with economic desire to squeeze as much profit from bits of land by the developers that counteracts this need for frontside recreational space. These aren’t areas where individuals can make a real difference on their own, they require change at levels of governance and decision making which equally require the ability to see past balance sheets and appreciate the social capital that can be built up over time.
Even where we’re faced with roads outside the front door, the least we can do is make them safer. As I mentioned, we have a speed camera on our road. It’s been there a few years now. I’ve never seen it flash so there’s probably nothing in it. However it is better now. Not perfect, but people doing 60mph down the road doesn’t happen now like it used to. (It’s a 30mph limit btw). That said, the local council were on about getting rid of them across the borough. I vaguely remember the argument being that they weren’t cost effective. I know it’s not perfect, but I’d rather have the situation we have now compared to the one a few years back as regards cars speeding along our road. I can’t possibly imagine why local councillors (not strictly speaking local to me as ours are Labour and it’s a Tory controlled council that seems to not like them) but as we’re in the spirit of openness and honesty as our elected representatives go these days, how about making councillors driving records public, see if they’ve got any points on their licences and what they got them for eh?
It’s not impossible, there’s some great examples in the book where it’s happened. None in the UK of course, but some forward thinking continental cousins have managed it. In particular Freiburg in Germany where they only allow cars on a third of roads with the rest for buses and cycles only and the suburb of Vaubon where no cars are allowed at all. It’s a pity it’s on the other side of the country from where I normally go, otherwise I’d love to drop by and see how it works.
Again though, it’s planners with foresight that made it work. 20 years ago it was the same as everywhere else, trying to manage more cars but they changed the perspective and apparently it’s a rather sought after place to live these days with rather lengthy waiting lists so it’s not impossible, it just requires a bit of forward thinking. The question is, is there any sign of this forward thinking planning out there? Would be very interested to know.