Never waste a crisis

Never waste a crisis, they say.

In a crisis we do things that would otherwise have been unthinkable.

So now is a time to think the previously if not unthinkable then at least the implausible.

It was sometime in the early 1990's that I emerged blinking into the sunlight after several years working on rail privatisation to find myself in the world of local transport and, in that world, the document fondly remembered as PPG 13.

'Planning Policy Guidance note 13: Transport' was, shall we say, an ambitious tome. It took as its central theme the idea that were we to reduce the need to travel the world might become a better and happier place. Because if we reduced the need to travel we would all travel less. By private car, in particular. Deny the home-owner a garage and they might choose to forego owning a car. Nonsense then and still nonsense today.

But the reason I raise this now with the readers of Transport Times is that thirty years on we might, just might, have found that we really have reduced the need to travel in 2020. Specifically, to travel to our office jobs. But also to travel in order to buy stuff that instead we can select over the internet and have delivered to us, or to our neighbour's hedge, without ever having to leave our homes.

That would have been considered a mighty policy win in 1994. Some of you reading this will, if you stop and think about it, remember life in 1994. We didn't have smart phones. We (mostly) didn't have laptops. But if we'd been able to see into the future we might have been able to see that there was a world that wasn't predicated on muddling two things, as one of my bosses wisely observed: "work", he said "is something you do, not necessarily somewhere you go." He went on to add "There's working from home, and there's being at home, and they're different".

December 2020, even if we aren't locked down we are hugely constrained in what we do.

Like so many others, I miss office life. I miss the casual connection with colleagues. I miss the casual connection with the folks I used to meet at conferences. But I find myself wondering what of that world I really want – or need – back, and whether there might be a more sustainable future to be had that provided connection without a daily commute.

Peak travel – the 'rush hour' – has been a constant challenge for all of my many decades working in transport, and we've all just watched it evaporate. Are we happy? It seems to me the answer is 'no'. Strange, that. Did we want to 'reduce the need to travel' or didn't we?

I'm tempted to stop right there.

But instead I want to pose a challenge to anyone who has done the decent thing and clicked the 'read the full article' link, namely to muse on what a more sustainable future might look like if we stopped mithering over the ending of a pattern of work and retail that had come to feel comfortable and instead saw its end as an opportunity.

I recently had cause to revisit the town where I grew up. There were only two retail units still in use in the same way fifty years on – the barber and the chemist. Oh, and the pub was still there, though, by the end of 2020 I'm not making any promises on that front.

There will be things that we want to do in person, and there will be things that we want to do together. But the same things, in the same places? Maybe not so much.

PPG 13 was, in my view, a milestone document not because of its foresight, I regard it as a deeply flawed piece of policy and not just with hindsight, but because it did that all-too-rare thing of bridging policy silos. Transport isn't something that can sensibly be thought about in isolation; our transport needs and our transport desires (two loops on a Venn diagram that overlap but are by no means congruent) are a product of the lifestyles available to us.

What if those lifestyles became less travel intensive, but more, dare I say it, enjoyable?

I can't remember ever seeing the word 'enjoyable' in a document about transport policy.

Strange, that.

Enjoy Christmas at home, everyone, and have a think about how 2021 might be a year when we move forward rather than reverting to a 'normal' that was more problematic than we might currently choose to remember.

Steve Gooding is Director of the RAC Foundation