REVIEW: “Urban Transport: Without the Hot Air”

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As someone who has tried to demythologise beliefs held not just by the general public, but transport professionals and not a few campaigners, I welcome Steve Melia’s addition to the debunking literature.

Let’s take a look at some of the common – and seriously obfuscating – myths tackled in this book:

  • “There has been a war on the motorist”.

Melia points out what has actually happened to the cost of motoring. This has been a key theme for RDRF – it still fascinates us how little is said about how it has become cheaper duringa time of austerity with items like housing becoming more expensive. Naturally we would have liked a discussion about the idea/myth/prejudice that motorists are constantly harried by the police – a key element in the wannabe victimhood of too many drivers, and which is restricted here to a brief discussion about speed cameras .

 

  • “Car ownership isn’t a problem – only car use”.

This was one of John Prescott’s favourite themes, supposedly based on the German experience. The author takes a look at the evidence from Germany – and comes to the opposite conclusion.

 

  • “Roads and airports benefit the economy”.

Melia whips through induced demand (and a little on the other side of the coin, traffic evaporation), movement of economic activity from one area to another caused by road building rather than increased overall economic activity, and the sins of cost-benefit analysis.

 

  • ”We are building too many flats”.

A necessary chapter on land use planning, often missed out in public debate. But professionals too can get things wrong. Melia avoids the simplistic: he shows how “The relationship between employment, housing and travel to work is complex: putting jobs next to housing doesn’t necessarily reduce travel distances”. Oh yes, and flats are only 20% of British housing stock, and only 19% of households are a couple with one or more children.

 

  • All we need is better public transport”.

How many times do you hear this from people – including transport professionals? If you think that, you need to read Chapter 5.

 

It’s seeing how a simplistic “solution” can fail that is a key strength of this book. To extend the critique of “just spend money on public transport” further, a key section is the author’s research on three European cities that have tried to reduce car use through support for public transport ,and also cycling and walking. The work on Freiburg, Lyon and Groningen shows – and this is my favourite quote of many from the book – that:

A combination of measures was key to the success of all three cities. If just one measure is taken, public transport, cycling or walking may substitute for each other instead of reducing car driving. Or people may simply choose to travel more. This can be avoided if all three are supported at the same time and car driving is restrained in some way.”(Page 147)

A question of adaptation

Melia has a sensitive scepticism to claims of certainty, no doubt based on his studies which show how people adapt their behaviours to changes in circumstances. I’d have liked more of this to come through in the discussion of shared space by discussing risk compensation, as I think the debate has moved on somewhat since the kind of arguments aired here (and also on cycling and the Netherlands).

Part of the problem is that brevity in this book doesn’t allow for the kind of depth I would have liked to see: my view is that we need to have more extensive discussion of issues like cost-benefit analysis, such as in the work of John Adams . The virtue of this book is its brevity and concision – giving an ability to swiftly demolish a common myth. But that concision is also its failing: for some of us there is the need for more in depth work. Still, that can come from other sources.

But he doesn’t let anybody get away from the truths of modern transport. Look again at how Dutch people have adapted – and here I’m not talking about cycling with its massive modal share. I’m talking about what has happened where motoring has been provided for with the Dutch motorway network. This is shown in Figure 11.9 and pages 120 -122. Yes, you’ll have to see for yourself! But don’t worry, that graph and its explanation are worth the price of the book alone.

 

Conclusion

There are inevitably some weak areas of the book. I think the chapter on London is overly optimistic and praiseworthy of its transport administration since 2000. Also, Melia’s s chief concern is climate change and he has an awareness of non-urban transport, so it would have been nice to have a look at rural and suburban solutions.

But this highly readable book demonstrates again and again how the problems caused by the rise and continuing extension of motorisation cannot be solved by piecemeal “solutions”. They need to be properly described and addressed with a coherent approach – one which is going to inevitably challenge myths and prejudices held by many professionals and much of the public alike. For those committed to a sustainable transport policy and its implementation, this book is a good start on the journey.

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