Yesterday I attended the unfortunately named “Driving Change” seminar at London’s City Hall, a “half day seminar exploring solutions to traffic congestion in London.” Jacqui Wilkinson, head of sustainable travel initiatives at the Department for Transport, spoke about all the trial cycling and walking initiatives they are pursuing (important programs to be sure, but which put together amount to only about the cost of one mile of motorway construction). In other words, crumbs off the table of the petrol fueled banquet.
She then said something that was extraordinary, considering the UK government’s urgent statements about climate change. Considering the fact that cars and planes are the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide in the UK. Considering the potential for public transport, cycling and walking to reduce this atmospheric dumping.
She said that when it comes to transport, the UK government is “modally agnostic” — meaning that they treat all travel modes equally. Wouldn’t do to express a preference in favour of non-motorized modes and public transport. You might offend drivers and frequent flyers, god forbid. No matter if the capital is threatened with inundation from rising sea levels in part due to our incessant and increasing flying and driving. Modal agnosticism in the face of climate chaos, it seems to me, is giving up the battle before we’ve even started fighting.
I was beginning to despair for the future of the country and its capital on the Thames, when a man named Christian Wolmar gave an upbeat speech in which he decried making lists of transport improvements and instead called for an overall vision in transport planning, and tore to pieces the government’s “modal agnosticism.” Thank god for people like him.
I tried to ask a question after the session, but they didn’t call on me, so I went up to Jacqui afterwards at the reception, and asked her about the wisdom of “modal agnosticism”: “When the scientific evidence for human induced climate change is now cemented, how can we continue to pretend that the rapid growth in driving and flying are acceptable? The government is certainly not agnostic on the issue of cigarette smoking and lung cancer.” She replied, “well changes in attitude take time– it took 40 years for action to be taken on smoking.” I replied, “yes but we don’t have 40 years to deal with this issue….” I was met with uncomfortable looks all around. This is the achilles heal of their transport policy, the elephant in the room.
This government is clearly unable to show any kind of real leadership on this issue, instead content to offer crumbs, platitudes, and excuses for real action. By hiding behind a veil of “modal agnosticism” while pretending to be leaders on the issue of climate change, they are guilty of a dangerous kind of doublespeak- paying lip service to the greener modes and action on climate change while mollycoddling widespread denial about the true nature of global warming, and allowing our fossil fueled habits to continue unchecked.
We need leadership and we need a new vision for transport, one that represents a radical departure from the old stale 20th century petrol dependent status quo. If that means the government getting a little religion around the issue of the climate, and promoting car and plane-free lifestyles, then hallelujah- bring it on! I wouldn’t hold your breath though. The likes of British Airways and Shell will ensure that the corporate profits keep rolling in as long as possible come hell or high water….