REVIEW: “Are Trams Socialist? : Why Britain has no transport policy” by Christian Wolmar


If you’re a regular reader of this site and well versed in the need for a sustainable transport policy based on reducing the car-centred status quo, you won’t necessarily gain much from reading this book. But for most people – and particularly the politicians supposedly representing them – who are not, this book is a timely and concise reminder of the main problems, and what is needed as an alternative.Where John Whitelegg’s “Mobility”  is more of an in depth and  general critique of the cult of going further and faster for the sake of it, Wolmar’s book  focuses on the UK.

Wolmar concisely critiques the road-building dogma of decades of UK transport policy – although, as he puts it, this is more a default position than an actual thought-through policy. He refers to the famous quote by Nicholas Ridley as encapsulating the road building philosophy:

The private motorist…wants the chance to live a life that gives him (sic) a new dimension of freedom – freedom to go where he wants, when he wants, and for as long as he wants.”

To which one might add “and how he wants”, but otherwise how much has changed since the 1970s? Wolmar traces problems back to Buchanan in an uncompromising analysis of Traffic in Towns and the doctrine of “predict and provide”.

There is a neat review of technological fixes as supposed solutions to transport problems: Wolmar makes the basic point against technological determinism that :

The starting point…must be to ask: if technology is the answer, what is the question? What are we trying to achieve? What, therefore, are the major transport problems that technology could and should be addressing?”

Indeed. Information technology can reduce the perceived need to travel to meetings, but encourage it by increasing connectivity.

I have a few differences of opinion with Wolmar. I think cost-benefit analysis is more problematic in the assessment of disbenefits than he suggests, and I think he lets John Prescott off too lightly. And on a minor point, the 1930s cycle tracks on the A4 were not “excellent”. But his main thrust is spot-on: placing the onus on politicians to get it right and concentrate on access rather than mobility:

Any attempt at transformation needs to start with a recognition of our failings and a willingness to address them, as well as a key cultural change. That is probably the hardest bit.”

Again, indeed. Wolmar urges three principles to take us forward: firstly, we have to state what we think transport policy should be about. Secondly, we require demand management – for him this is essentially road user (motorist) charging and “soft measures. Finally he urges governmental change linking devolution with local governmental financial independence.

Getting across to the general public the idea that transport policy has to be re-framed with a full awareness of the negative effects of mobility for its own sake – and the need to control it – is vital. Wolmar’s book is an excellent start for the general reader – and for politicians who have so far been too scared to face up to their responsibilities in this area.

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