I am intrigued to learn what comes of my chum Glenn Lyons's "Driverless Cars Emulsion" initiative. Over the course of 2019 he's aiming to bring together different constituencies of people and perspectives to discuss and debate the prospect of a driverless cars future, specifically to address the fact that this is both a complex and a somewhat divisive topic.
But this is not an essay about the pluses and minuses of automated driving. I've made my view clear in these pages previously.
Rather, the invite to attend one of Glenn's workshops reminded me of an incident I experienced some while ago, during my routine trudge from the office to Victoria Station at the end of the day, which involved a short stretch of pedestrian alleyway skirting along the side of a popular public house. As I started down the alley I saw a few people at the far end who appeared to have been enthusiastic patrons of the establishment. There was some arm waving going on. As I drew nearer it began to dawn on me that these were not gestures of conviviality, but of a somewhat heated argument that had the air of getting physical.
I suppose I could have turned back, but instead walked briskly forward, between the protagonists, neither looking to right nor left, hoping for the best. The argument continued, uninterrupted by my presence. I caught my train.
The thing is, while we were all – albeit briefly - in the same place, we might have been in different worlds. There was no connection between us.
And so I find it in so many of the conversations about transport policy that I find myself joining. Being, as my wife kindly puts it, an awkward sod, I feel almost duty bound to take a contrarian stance toward the mood in the room, if only to bring a bit of the real-world to bear in what can often feel somewhat abstract and theoretical debates.
I should stress that I'm not suggesting we should be aiming for 100% consensus. It will always be the case that different people with different perspectives can draw quite different conclusions from the same, common set of evidence. But it does make me wonder whether we are doing enough to ensure that our various transport conferences, seminars and conversations at least recognise the wide spectrum of opinion, experience and aspiration that exists.
Yesterday I found myself leafing back-to-back through two notable transport journals. One, aimed at transport professionals, was full of material about promoting active travel, lowering speed limits, installing cycle priority measures, interspersed with conference billings that looked to me to be little more that opportunities for violent agreement between like-minded people. The other, aimed at car enthusiasts, was largely devoted to extolling the virtues of vehicles that appeared purpose-designed to operate at their best outside any legally available parameters on the public highway.
I've deliberately chosen two extremes here to make the point. Not all drivers want a supercar, or even a hot hatch. It's bad enough taking a 4x4 over the speed humps in a supermarket car park, let alone a vehicle with no ground clearance and low-profile tyres. But a lot of people, and I'd be tempted to venture that it might even be most people, do not, as I sit here, aspire to the car-free world that some of my chums would so dearly love to see. How are we to engage with this community of – let's face it – voters?
The number of young people choosing to take the driving test is falling, true, but it is falling from a very high number to a number that is still high. Car ownership might not be on the cards for today's teens in the way it used to be, but car availability is still quite a big thing. New car registrations are down, but only from record highs.
I think we need three things.
One is more approaches like that taken in the London Mayor's transport strategy. I have extolled the virtues of this document before, not because I agree with everything in it (I think it is painfully light on London's outer suburbs), but because it draws from a wealth of evidence to convey what the Mayor wants London to be like – it concerns itself with the public realm and public health and puts transport where it ought to be – as an enabler of an attractive lifestyle.
The second takes me once again to my extensive back-catalogue of anecdotes, to the time when transport minister Steve Ladyman observed that if all the relevant people were not engaging in the debate you could sit and wait forever for them to come to you, or you could take the debate to them, hence his willingness to appear on Top Gear as a 'star in a reasonably priced car', and take questions and challenges from the petrolhead's petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson in front of a frankly partisan live audience.
I have a picture here of Mr Clarkson riding his bicycle in London. He hasn't stopped loving cars. Nor have many of us. And that's the third thing. We are often guilty of talking about motorists as if being a 'motorist' was a 24/7 thing. Maybe the proportion of our lives we spend driving ourselves is set to fall, not least if driverless technology succeeds, but might it be time to recognise that some driving by some of us is and will remain a legitimate part of the transport mix?