Transport: breaking through the impasse

ESSAY: Six arguments for innovation in transport.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

‘A community’, I once heard the American rock lyricist and defender of internet freedom John Perry Barlow say, ‘is something you grow up in, and get the hell out of’. Yet around the world, getting away from where you are is hard. The rising popularity of cycling to work in major British cities, for example, can be partially explained by the cost, congestion and sheer hassle of using either the car or public transport there (1).

Helpless in the face of traffic, elite opinion has for 40 years stigmatised the whole idea of getting away from where you are. During the energy crisis of 1973-4, the Swiss priest and author Ivan Illich won worldwide adherents to the view that high speed only increases social inequality (2). In 1976, the American space scientist Jack Nilles put forward telecommunications as a substitute for transport, hoping that IT would end the urban sprawl engendered by the car (3). Today, fruitless attempts are still being made to manage transport demand downward. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that transport could outrun all other sectors in raising greenhouse-gas emissions: it wants telecommunications to lower the use of transport and, in freight, more products to be sourced locally. In its New Climate Economy Report, prepared for the September 2014 climate summit in New York City, the pompously named Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (GCEC) has also discovered that, to cut car journeys, cities need to be more compact. Smaller cities, public transport, bicycling, walking, outright journey avoidance: these energy-conscious methods, the IPCC and GCEC chorus, form the only way forward.

All this received wisdom even claims to have a dynamic programme for transport innovation. It wants… low-carbon technologies – and little else. Once again, reduction and reaction in transport are dressed up as progress.

Transport with the brakes on

For today’s culture of environmentalism and state policy, the internal combustion engine and the jet are suspect. The International Energy Agency projects cars as the main source of increased demand for oil (5). So in the environmentalist worldview, transport must be restrained. The dread motorisation of India and especially China will accelerate the emission of greenhouse gases – not just through the movement of cars, vans and especially lorries, but also in manufacturing these items, and in building new roads for them. The noise of road and air transport, and most recently the particulates issued by diesel and other vehicles, together invite further distrust.

From every angle the true costs of road transport are seen as horrendous. Even electric vehicles (EVs) get flak. Five years ago, spiked noted that New Labour preferred cutting down on travel to EVs. Today, critics still fret that only wind and solar power can make EVs truly pollution-free; they add, too, that EVs are carbon-intensive to make. Others worry that EVs will overload America’s electrical power grid.

Newspapers aver that flying, too, must be curbed: ‘the world must reduce air travel, and go on reducing it’, says the Guardian. Researchers at the University of Southampton say of flight: ‘Ticket price-increase necessary to induce behaviour change’ [sic].

Faced with all this antipathy to travel, few can or will make the case for ambitious breakthroughs in transport, and still fewer look ready to deliver such breakthroughs in practice. Like free speech, the free movement of freight and human beings is more and more hedged about with ifs and buts.

Take Britain, once a pioneer in transport. Roads are now so bad that the Royal Automobile Club has launched an app for motorists to report each pothole they lurch over to their local authority. In rail, plans for the High Speed 2 (HS2) line were belated and weak, and prompted equally misguided hatred. And a new airport to unjam Heathrow? That can only happen after the next general election, when the Airports Commission issues an endlessly delayed report. As for Labour leader Ed Miliband, he wants to devolve powers over transport to towns and cities, review Britain’s system for franchising private operators of train services, keep Britain’s East Coast line in state hands, and cap rail fares. This is hardly visionary stuff.

Big obstacles now beset transport. State levies on mobility are telling: in Britain, the government exacts well over £10 billion a year in petrol, vehicle and flight taxes, as well as in parking charges (6). More importantly, worldwide demand for transport remains broadly unmatched by both capacity and reliability. And in the wake of two Malaysia Airlines disasters and a panic over Ebola, security measures at airports, borders and ports are set to bring more delays.

Elites are disillusioned with transport. Some hope that the West, at least, has passed what is trendily termed ‘peak car’. In 2010, the journal Transport Reviews detected stagnating passenger-kilometres travelled across several different transport modes. Now the US business magazine Fortune chortles about a nine per cent drop, between 2004 and 2012, in the average distance driven by Americans, as well as car sales falling from 16.7millon to 15.6million, between 2003 and 2013. (7)

To its credit, Transport Reviews suggested that reduced spending on transport infrastructure might be one of the factors constraining travel growth (8). Yet for the middle-class transport missionary, that matters little. He can afford an inner-city property, not to have a car, and, instead, to walk or cycle to work. He knows that, in 2006, the American behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger made a startling discovery: ‘Commuting in the morning appears particularly unpleasant’. So the transport missionary tells others that driving to work in the suburbs is bad for weight and health, both physical and mental health. He wants motorists to change their behaviour, just as Fortune adds that our ‘reliance’ on the car has hit ‘our relationships, our finances, and the way our children grow up’ (9).

Utopias, not practical innovations

Alongside all this dissing of transport, however, a curious utopianism about transport innovation has opened up. Some good, working innovations are, of course, being made: London’s 118 kilometre Crossrail line, due to open in 2018, is one example. However, forward movement in transport technology is much slower than that in, say, IT; and enthusiasts for transport IT need to remember that advances in general IT are also often exaggerated.

For the present, outlandish hopes about transport draw attention rather than practical research and development (R&D). Especially in Europe and America, the intensity of R&D, which is measured by dividing R&D budgets by sales revenues, is high in aerospace and defence, sectors strongly orientated to transport. And in Europe and Japan, vehicle manufacturing also does intense R&D (10). Yet even R&D intensity in these three sectors sector lies beneath that in drugs, IT and leisure goods:

Table 1 Intensity of R&D among the world’s top 2000 investors in it, by sector and region

The commitment to R&D made by transport in it all its forms – including infrastructure, rail and boat manufacturers, and operators across all modes – is much weaker than that made by aerospace and vehicle manufacture. Government budgets for R&D in transport, for instance, are erratic and poorly measured, where they are not obviously pitiful (11). Indeed, R&D intensity in transport as a whole is probably weaker than in the adjacent sector of energy, and may well descend to the depths of another adjacent sector: construction (12).

Even in today’s capitalism, breakthroughs in transport innovation are always possible. Yet though there has been little that has been both revolutionary and practical since the absurd demise of Concorde (2003), flights of fancy are everywhere. Just three years after the financial crisis of 2008, Britain’s government declared in all seriousness that, in just 26 years, average emissions of new cars and vans could be near zero. In America it’s the same. In his 2008 presidential campaign programme, Barack Obama promised to have a million 150 mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrid vehicles in circulation within six years. But what has happened? There are just 250,000 plug-in vehicles on America’s roads, and the Toyota Prius does a mere 50 miles per gallon.

The taxi app firm Uber has been valued at a ludicrous $18.2 billion. Likewise, the South African electric roadster king, Elon Musk, has had his Tesla Motors, America’s only new successful carmaker in decades, valued at $30 billion – more than half the value of General Motors. Yet Tesla currently delivers cars internationally at the rate of just 30,000 a year. That rate is nothing compared with annual worldwide car sales of about 70 million. Or take Musk’s SpaceX, his venture in reusable, vertical takeoff and landing rockets. With them, the Financial Times believes, capitalism will be fit enough to arrange flights from London to Sydney in four hours or less.

One can hope for such journeys, but such hopes look pretty delusory. Commentators rhapsodise about driverless cars, underestimating the legal barriers and social impediments in their way. There is more talk of planes launched and even flown by electric means. Great excitement attends the launch of hydrogen-powered vehicles made by Toyota (April 2015), and by Daimler, Ford and Nissan (postponed from 2015 to 2017). Last, videoconferencing is celebrated as an alternative to transport – not just in the West, but in India, too.

Yet if excessive optimism about technology in transport can be forgiven, the belief that transport can circumvent geopolitical rivalries cannot. In rail, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s election manifesto promised high-speed lines between Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai; now Modi has to decide on a partner for the project – but will he choose Japan, or, angering both that country and the US, will he choose China? Even more oblivious to realities, the Korea-Japan Undersea Tunnel proposes to connect the two twentieth-century enemies with a link more than twice as long as the Channel Tunnel – one that would, indeed, then stretch through beneficent North Korea, and on to that country’s border with China.

To beat both technological sloth and diplomatic pipedreams, transport needs political advocacy. Neither the psychological nudging of people into less mobile patterns of behaviour, nor technological and economic fantasies about imagined transport revolutions, will deliver the changes that are desperately required. What are more relevant are tenacious support for investment and innovation, and strong arguments for mobility. In the rest of this article, we present six such arguments.

1) You can’t manage demand for transport down

To avoid taking risks with major projects and innovations in powered movement, elites will propose anything to cut demand for transport. Thus the intergovernmental, 53-nation International Transport Forum (ITF) loves two-wheeled road vehicles. Why? To hold worldwide ownership of cars down to two billion, not three billion, in 2050. Indeed, the ITF hints that the scooter’s bizarre hegemony over the streets of Taipei, Taiwan, ‘provides an extreme example’ of the low-tech motorisation the ITF would like Asia to take.

China’s unique and rapid adoption of electric bikes has helped perhaps 200million people – though Shanghai, at least, restricts riders to 15 kilometres per hour. But as the ITF admits, between cars and bikes there are ‘strong differences in terms of size, safety features, load factors, range and comfort’. Bikes of any sort expose riders to the elements and to danger. Bikes cannot easily transport old people, young children, families, or much luggage. Comfort, and minimising the tiredness associated with travel, are important aspects of transport – though the ITF is pleased to divine that, ‘for certain tasks’, two wheelers can be ‘sufficient’.

The ITF wants to use second-class transport to try to slow down the growth of car ownership. From there, it’s a short step to trying to cut down movements of food. In Britain in July environment secretary Liz Truss instructed public-sector catering managers to buy local produce; Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude added that this was the way to cut ‘the environmental cost of food miles’. Of course, public subsidies for food grown locally look unlikely to stop people wanting food imported from abroad. Nevertheless, critics of food miles bang on, dictating diet to the masses in the unlikely and dubious cause of using fewer ships, planes and lorries.

As we’ve seen, there’s a third way of opposing modernity in transport: blithely suggest that telecommunications will make it unnecessary. Yet this is silly: calls prompt more physical visits, not fewer. IT helps people book more travel, not less.

As first pioneered around air navigation and the avoidance of air collisions, IT clearly aids transport; but, just as clearly, IT cannot make any kind of general replacement for transport. IT adds to the productivity of the sector, makes it safer, helps avoid and manage incidents, helps limit congestion, and improves passenger information. It can monitor not just road traffic, but also the condition of rail lines. Advances in air-traffic control have also been remarkable. However, IT will always be a supplement to, not a full substitute for, personal contact. A video-feed can’t match an ambulance. A long-distance hologram can’t beat freight transport (13).

Rail travel already makes for an intensive and thus more productive passenger use of personal IT. Air travel will shortly be open to every kind of personal telecommunications. One day, driverless cars will do the same. For all this potential, however, environmentalism constantly conscripts IT as a soldier against transport use. As a result, technological advance in transport is de-prioritised, and even the scope for transport IT is narrowed. In a familiar environmentalist gambit, a professor at Britain’s giant Open University holds that the success of ‘technical measures’ around fuel-efficient vehicles and low-carbon fuels could actually be a ‘danger’ to society: it might lead to the ‘neglect or abandoning of demand-management policies’, and to more over-lengthy journeys by road.

Here technological advance in transport is felt to lead to both dysfunctional policy and dysfunctional behavior. Yet the real problem with fuel-efficient vehicles and low-carbon fuels today is that they encounter not too much technical success, but too little. It has taken more than three decades for the fuel efficiency of a typical American car to rise by less than 50 per cent – from 24.3 miles per gallon in 1980 to 36 miles per gallon in 2012. Similarly, while carbon-neutral biofuels could cut emissions from cars and aircraft, progress has been slow. In batteries, Tesla has pushed ahead; but its batteries still cost $15,000 each. Anyway, across all kinds of possible fuels, efficiencies face limits imposed by the second law of thermodynamics. Moreover the Jevons Paradox in energy, otherwise known as the rebound effect, means that more fuel efficiency will thankfully see people use more transport, not less (14).

Nor will denser land use deliver decreased motoring. It has taken a century to build the world’s infrastructure and technologies around fossil fuels; and, as part of this process, an enormous cost has been sunk into cities and suburbs. No re-concreting of or zoning restrictions in cities could easily compensate for the economic inefficiencies consequent from the loss of car and lorry. Nor would the funds easily be found, or the requisite political will be mobilised, for such a momentous change. For a start, the scale of rebuilding necessary to rid the world’s existing cities of long journeys by car would itself invite environmentalist derision. (15)

Given the growth of the world’s economy, population and cities till 2050, the ITF’s Transport Outlook 2013 rightly anticipates that demand for transport faces ‘continuous and rapid increases’, and that infrastructure will be ‘strained’ unless, in the words of the economist Amartya Sen, it is ‘revised upwards, rather than being based on an extrapolation of the past’. Indeed, alluding to capitalism’s current stagnation, the ITF adds that in future transport is likely to become more important, not less important: ‘If growth becomes less dominated by investment, the role of lower trade costs in terms of communications, travel and freight transport will come increasingly to the fore’.

Yes, some of Asia’s plans in infrastructure are fantasies. Yet the fact of world demand for transport running ahead of supply will not go away (16). Transport needs innovation, not because every transport innovation is good (think Segway), but because billions of people want to move about, and smoothly, too. To cut back on transport so as to check climate change is to deny that we can innovate our way round climate change. That is a sedentary and despairing requiem for humanity.

2) Transport has always developed alongside telecommunications. It means progress

Historically, transport gave us the wheel and the sailboat. However innovations in transport only really became systematised once capitalism developed the world market. In this, at least, developments in transport have always accompanied those of its otherwise far-from-identical twin, telecommunications. During the First World War, for instance, Winston Churchill’s historic decision to power gunboats by oil, rather than coal, was fully matched by the British Empire’s reliance on worldwide telecommunications for military messages.

To suggest in 2014 that IT can lower traffic is to ignore history. Telecommunications complements and supplements transport, because the same force – globalisation – drives both. Thus steam coming to US rail in 1830 laid the basis for the telegraph (1844), which itself proved to be a key means of organising railroad traffic safely and, subsequently, efficiently (17). After the first durable transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866, America and Germany led the establishment of the General Postal Union (1874). Alongside telecommunications, then, the transport of the mail, posts and newspaper media played a major role in the emergence of more-or-less ‘objective’ lists of world prices and international rates of exchange (18). Today, too, the very fact of being able to compare prices between different supermarkets would not be possible without transport and telecommunications.

Transport also helps goods that were once luxuries become mainstream necessities. If you insist on your tomatoes being sun-dried, their transport from the Mediterranean will usually need to be rather efficient and cheap for you to be able to afford them. In leisure travel, too, what were once out-of-reach luxuries can also become necessities. That is how we have witnessed the emergence of the car as a leisure accessory, of low-cost package holidays, and of low-cost, point-to-point air travel.

From the American Civil War (1861-5) onward, transport has played a central role in militarism (19). Yet transport means progress. Since the discipline of transport history emerged in academic journals more than 50 years ago, the precise impact of the railways on the growth rates of America and Britain in the nineteenth century has been vigorously debated (20). Still, there can be no doubt that industrialisation in those two countries, as elsewhere, was inseparably linked with the spread of rail freight and travel.

Hostility to transport means hostility to the very creation of wealth. Yet on top of these economic arguments for transport, personal mobility is politically progressive. Moving about the world is a universal need, and also, as countless explorers have shown, a human talent. Mobility broadens the mind, and allows people to move beyond their local and parochial environs. It has also contributed greatly to innovation. Without seaborne and airborne transport, Nikolai Tesla and Charles Steinmetz, the European fathers of alternating current, would not have brought it to America; and nor would Elon Musk be where he is today.

3) Speed is a noble priority. On their own, safety, energy efficiency and low CO2 are not

Whenever, before takeoff, airline captains announce that ‘safety is our first priority’, they lie. Transport’s first priority is to get from A to B – not to save lives, energy or the planet. Safety is vital, but it is not transport’s chief objective. Yet the Guardian warns that China’s possible involvement in building and operating high-speed (HS) trains in Britain is wrong, because the Chinese have a ‘mixed safety record on high-speed rail’. That’s rich. In 2011 an HS collision in a suburb of Wenzhou on China’s Yongtaiwen line, Zhejiang province, killed 40 people and injured nearly 200 more. It was a real disaster. Yet HS passengers in China now number two million a day. The horrible casualties at Wenzhou remain a very minor danger on what is now a 10,000 kilometre network, connecting 100 cities. Road transport in China is more capacious than HS trains but slower. On average, though, it kills 265 people every day.

Once capitalism establishes a world market, foreign markets are distinguished not by their distance in space, but the time it takes to reach and/or get back from them. Thus speed – distance divided by time – is a key measure of the productivity of transport, and one whose exactitude will always surpass the cloudy business of establishing the emissions of a particular transport mode (21).

In recent years, as the feminist zeitgeist dictates but in what they pretend is a startling new insight, journalists and even car designers have denounced fast cars as ‘thrilling, particularly to men’, and their drivers as ‘testosterone-driven pleasure seekers’. Yet speed is not testimony to testosterone (22). Setting new records distinguishes homo sapiens from animals. Speed has inspired science, technology, design, sport – and art (23).

Speed ferries one to friends, family and the workplace sooner, rather than later. Innovations that bring higher speeds are not just the fetish of petrol-heads such as Jeremy Clarkson. They make for an earlier embrace, a faster return home from work, a timelier fire engine. They help us, in short, to be more human.

4) Transport is part of the productive process. Yet even Asia stumbles to innovate in it today

Transport realises the value of production that cannot be sold on-site. It transforms simple products – raw materials, manufactures, construction products, the products of agriculture – into something more powerful: commodities on the market, with a new use value on account of their new location. In this sense transport is as direct a part of the productive process as, say, the transfer of raw materials from beneath the earth to its surface. Transport is a productive force, one of the general conditions for other kinds of production to take place, and, importantly, can add a further value and surplus-value to that already contained by an item which is in the ‘wrong’ place (24).

All the labour it takes to throw finished products, through transport, on to the market: all this is, in principle, a barrier that capital seeks to overcome. Such a rule ought to apply, also, to workers commuting as much as to goods, for transport that is directly and productively related to work embraces not just freight, but also movements of labour-power. And yet in London a declining proportion of local employers is, in 2014, happy about rail services, and a majority believes – rightly, according to a recent report – that the UK capital’s roads are getting worse, because of traffic congestion, poor surfaces and disruptive road works. For all the impressive improvements recorded, in recent years, by London’s underground and overground rail services, the wealthiest region of British capitalism still very often finds it hard punctually to deliver workers to workplaces.

Among nineteenth-century capitalists, freight and passenger transport were fields for vigorous technological innovation. Today, by contrast, only some Silicon Valley visionaries hope for that. At this July’s Farnborough Air Show, for example, Airbus Group CEO Thomas Enders, in an admission of the impasse now facing civil aviation, confessed: ‘it’s clearly time our industry allows itself to be more exposed to the digital world’ – a world, he hinted, that his industry had largely ignored. Yet it’s important not to be starry-eyed about what IT can bring to aviation. Passengers may soon ride airliners in which interactive plastic screens displaying images of the outside world substitute for windows. But this will all be to reduce weight and fuel use, not to go faster. As the Financial Times was moved to point out at Farnborough, this is ‘the age of diminished expectations in aerospace’.

Nowadays much of global innovation, both in and beyond transport, has headed toward Asia. Yet even Asia finds the going in transport tough. Japan, still a major force in cars and HS trains, is nowhere in aviation. China, too, has strengths and weaknesses. It made 18.1million cars in 2013, compared with Japan’s 8.2million, Germany’s 5.4million and America’s 4.4million. Chinese HS rail companies have also racked up $26 billion in exports, to places like Turkey, Nigeria and Angola. Last, Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation has great expertise in running rail systems, and offers 4G mobile telephony throughout the underground of its home base. Yet China doesn’t buy home brands in cars, and, in passenger jets, will likely have to import its wide-body jets till 2020 or later.

That even forward-looking Asia, the workshop of the world, finds transport innovation hard is a reason to redouble the world’s efforts in the field, not to slacken off. The West’s IT buffs applauded the innovations in the iPhone 6, and wished they could have bought it sooner. Transport innovation is one way to get that coveted item into their pockets sooner.

5) In today’s sclerotic capitalism, state intervention is unavoidable. It is also retrogressive

Before the nineteenth century, the British state was obliged to preside over major transport projects, paying for them out of revenue. In the nineteenth century, however, the shift from state-backed transport projects to ones privately undertaken by capital was a mark of capitalist dynamism. Indeed in that period it was railroad firms, more than any other, which, in America, accelerated general commerce and the capitalisation of companies, as well as major innovations in accounting, management, retailing – and telegraphy (25).

Things were relatively straightforward then. To turn a profit, the capitalist builder of transport infrastructure had to realise a surplus-value on the labour-power he employed. That was important, because transport infrastructure was – and remains – lumpy: a bridge, for instance, cannot be sold at once, in the manner of iron, or a coat. To get a profit, then, the transport infrastructure builder would often, Karl Marx remarked, ‘compel payment by means of protective tariffs, monopoly and state coercion’. That’s still true today (26).

Classically, a nation’s wealth had to be large for it to build a major transport link: thus while the Netherlands, in 2014, has a booming airport in Schiphol, it must wait till the end of 2016 to enjoy a direct high-speed rail service from London. Moreover, a transport link must bear enough commercial traffic of a high enough value, and last over enough years, for the prices it demands to attract freight buyers. So to lay down transport infrastructure at the scale the market demands, a capitalist builder of it must both mobilise and multiply the impact of large numbers of workers, and do the same with a smaller, skilled layer of menial project managers. Because of all this, the employer active in transport infrastructure is typically large and quoted on the stock market: it will be a WS Atkins, or a Ferrovial (owner of BAA). Unlike most small businesses, then, those providing transport links will tend to have the funds for innovation, and in principle the desire to do it. And if the first enterprise building a major transport link goes bankrupt, as often happens, the subsequent devaluation of the capital deployed may help other capitalists make it a profitable business – one that, through innovation, can be both produced and promoted as inexpensive to use (27).

Like machinery, transport links are a form of fixed capital – capital tied up as an investment in the productive process. As such, they were, historically, the subject of technological advance; and the fact that they also helped people make outings for pleasure increased the incentive to make cost-saving innovations. These merits were added to by the fact that freight vehicles were also a form of fixed capital. Yet something has changed. Over the decades, the state has had to step into transport infrastructure more and more to compensate for the weaknesses of private capital in that sector. In the process, the state has first taken on some of the mantle of capitalist innovation, and then moved into a new, more degenerate phase of pettifogging interference and financialisation.

The passing of the London Passenger Transport Act in 1933, which moved many slump-ridden private transport firms in the nation’s capital into the public sector, testified to the decline of British capitalism. Even America’s postwar boom involved federal and state authorities funding the National Interstate and Defense Highway system – though, as its name suggests, this was done partly for military reasons. In the same way, postwar British governments built motorways because they thought it the proper business of the state. Motorways were not profitable; but officialdom was confident, then, that they would add to national wealth.

Life isn’t so simple now. The bridges linking Wales to England are state-owned, but Severn River Crossing plc runs them, charges tolls linked to retail price inflation, and carries their debt: great financial mysteries surround the denouement when the private contract runs out in 2018. In rail, complexity is even worse. After a series of botched privatisations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, making a profit in rail has become so hard that the state has often been forced to step in once again – on the London Underground, after the collapse of public-private partnerships involving Tube Lines and Metronet, and on Britain’s East Coast Line, after National Express withdrew from running it. Indeed today’s regulatory and organisational chaos in rail dwarfs even the manifest defects of purely state-owned rail systems.

The British state now intervenes in transport infrastructure not to get it built, but to slow that process down. In a culture sceptical about transport, the state has a universal if unconscious interest in making transport trickier. For all its inertia, the Department for Transport employs more than 18,000 staff; its organisation chart is monumental. Thus the phrase ‘the Fat Controller’, a satire that began on the railways, speaks more widely of burgeoning state regulation in transport. That phenomenon, in turn, explains why all five members of Britain’s ‘magic circle’ of elite law firms have major arms that profit from state-sponsored legal confusion around transport.

If every state is now enmeshed in transport infrastructure, that’s a sign of capitalist weakness, not strength. Look at market-orientated Taiwan. There, the world’s first private HS line, which moves more than 40million passengers a year, could be nationalised, so great is its debt. Or take drones in the US: in February 2012, Congress told the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to build ‘the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems [UAS] into the national airspace system’ by 30 September 2015. Yet the FAA will likely miss this deadline. No wonder the Authority reckons that, once able to legally operate, five whole years will have to elapse for just 7,500 small UAS – those that deliver ‘the largest near-term growth in civil/commercial unmanned operations’ – to get flying.

Instead of being a site for innovation, transport reveals what, on spiked, Phil Mullan has more widely described as state financialisation. This goes beyond the transport taxes we’ve mentioned earlier. Dubious ‘public-private sector partnerships’ are once more key.

As of March 2012, the Department for Transport was running no fewer than 61 such schemes under the Private Finance Initiative. Just the capital costs of these public-private sector partnerships amounted to nearly £8 billion. The state’s control of rail fares, which subjects them to rules that again relate to retail price inflation, is another example of blurred boundaries. Control of fares is loose enough for train operators to choose which exceed state rules, and which will be cheaper.

The result of all this is just arbitrariness, passenger bafflement and as much transport work for Britain’s big accounting houses as there is for its lawyers. Worse, after all the failures that have succeeded both the Kyoto agreement on climate change (1997) and the European Trading System in carbon (2005), governments still want to use state-backed market mechanisms to try to control transport emissions. EU emission taxes on air travel, for example, have been a source of international rancour, but plans for them continue.

Our analysis of state and finance in transport by no means implies that the capitalist state shouldn’t subsidise transport infrastructure. Famously, in his Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith insisted that, if tolls and the like would not suffice to maintain transport infrastructure, ‘the deficiency must in most cases be made up by the general contribution of the whole society’ – that is, by the state. No, our simple thesis here is that countries such as Britain now suffer the worst of both worlds in transport. There is neither the drive of rapacious Victorian capitalists for innovation, nor the magnanimous budgets of President Eisenhower, or, later, prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson. Instead, in UK transport we just have mush, sloth, and some unpleasant noses in the trough.

6) Britain needs a bigger, better HS2 – and more airports, too

Christian Wolmar is Britain’s best-informed and most influential commentator on rail. So his critique of HS2 deserves serious attention. After all, he lands some striking blows against the project. HS2’s ‘fundamental’ problem, he writes, is its ‘origin as a sop to environmentalists’, which ‘skewed its development and planning’. Tellingly, too, he mentions how the original Labour Government’s March 2010 proposal for HS2 computed that it was, in his words, ‘as likely to increase carbon consumption as reduce it’.

Rather like the multiple rationales given for the Iraq war, those for HS2, Wolmar outlines, have glided from environmental, through timesavings, to additional passenger capacity, and on to its closing Britain’s North-South divide. The compensation offered those displaced by HS2 is not only poor; the laws around it are very probably, as Wolmar says, ‘unfathomable’, just as the consultants attached to the project form ‘a specialised industry that adds vastly to the costs’. He acutely notes how television journalists were ‘dispatched to carry out interviews with angry locals against a backdrop of fields, fences and furry animals’. Though he hopes to be Labour’s candidate for London mayor, he acidly observes that Ed Balls’s remark about blank cheques ‘caused widespread panic’. He is again right that while overcrowding does exist on conventional lines, some of it follows from passengers having no option but to jam themselves into carriages when fares are off-peak. Finally, Wolmar honestly breaks down the cost of HS2 to include a contingency of £14 billion and a figure for rolling-stock of about £7 billion, making the cost of the line alone – without the inevitable overruns, it’s true – amount to £29 billion, not the £50 billion that’s usually quoted.

Yet even here, and certainly elsewhere, Wolmar errs. The £29 billion formal cost of HS2 refers to a two-phase construction programme that’s planned to run from 2017 to 2032. This means an annual expenditure of about £2 billion. Compare this trifle with, say, Britain’s defence budget: in 2014-5, that ran to £33 billion.

Wolmar rightly highlights the muddle and revisions around whether to connect HS2 to HS1 (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), or to Heathrow. Yet his general attitude to HS2’s nodes makes no sense. He rules out linking to Heathrow (that would encourage air travel) and to ‘parkway’ stations (that would encourage travel by car). Yet despite adding that ‘people want trains that go into city centres’, he laments HS2’s impending ‘destruction’ of parts of Camden, central London. With this logic, the only place where HS trains might just be allowed to arrive must be the suburbs, or – even more unlikely – the unconnected countryside.

HS2 has highlighted how the worldly-wise environmentalist perspective, so popular among elites, now ridicules serious innovations in transport as unnecessary baubles. Yes, HS2 is unlikely to close Britain’s North-South disparities: wider innovation than that in transport will be needed for that. But for Wolmar to begrudge 30 minutes saved between London to Birmingham, as he and repetitious environmentalists do, is to dismiss the idea of travel itself. As Adam Smith was moved to write, ‘Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expence of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements’.

With HS2 we’re dealing with the principle of innovation and progress. Under capitalism, and especially today, innovation and progress in and beyond transport are rarely perfect – and the rational side of Wolmar’s critique confirms this. Yet that’s exactly the reason we need more HS routes, nodes, networks and intermodal connections, just as we need more conventional rail capacity for passengers and freight (28). And if we Londoners or northerners really don’t want to ride the rods, fast, to Heathrow, as Wolmar contends, then let’s at least remember that that Heathrow took no fewer than seven million tourists just in August 2014, many of whom had onward northbound journeys which would have benefited from longer, better HS2 lines.

As with HS2, so with Britain’s airports. Recently, China and Britain expanded the maximum tally of flights between them to 40 a week. But does fewer than six flights from China to Britain a day look adequate for the future? Will the Chinese never have a reason to fly direct to destinations outside London? In fact they do already, from Beijing (direct to Glasgow) and from Hong Kong (direct to Glasgow and Manchester). So there’s a case for Britain – including very definitely Scotland – to run a total of three Heathrows, perhaps more. (29)


The globalisation of the world’s labour markets means that even the very youngest child or the most infirm old person often now needs to go to distant places. At the same time, the world faces continuing fertility, the overall ageing of humanity, and a tendency for people to take more and larger baggage or shopping. Put together, these trends confirm that, for billions of people, walking and cycling are not really much of a transport option – no matter what difference these modes of transport may make to popular health. Regular, predictable, safe and comfortable transport, at rapid speeds, is one of those entitlements to modernity which people are right to want.

Defending transport means defending the right of people to go where they please. Not for nothing does transport often become a life-and-death matter for immigrants, from fugitives to Italy in the Mediterranean, to Sri Lankans caught in the Indian Ocean trying to get to Australia. The cause of transport is internationalist in spirit, or it is nothing.

International freight also remains a must. The world economy would collapse without it; yet British officialdom now exudes a kind of gleeful hysteria about the ‘embodied carbon’ in goods that are imported from abroad. On top of the cant about food miles, that can only serve to frustrate freight transport.

The arc of transport innovation now curves low. In 1880 the Chicago meatpacking plant owner Gustavus Swift invented the refrigerated railroad car and, in the process, transformed America’s eating habits. In 1985 the doyen of American management gurus, Peter Drucker, saluted roll-on, roll-off ocean freighters, and the container (1956), as icons of innovation. Then, few years after the Cold War ended, a big shift in opinion took place.

In 1994, seven professors, two knights and an earl, sitting on Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, declared that meeting demand for air travel, like meeting that for road transport, would be ‘incompatible’ with sustainable development. Our learned experts blazed a trail by contending that the full environmental costs of air travel should be reflected in fares, as a means of checking its growth (30). By 1998, indeed, a government white paper sneered that the days of Predict and Provide were ‘over’, and that such an approach had anyway never worked.

Of course it hadn’t. Capitalism was never any good at prediction, or at meeting expanding demand. But at least the technocratic, Cold War years of Predict and Provide showed a confidence that the future could be auspicious for transport innovation. At least, unlike what the government promised in 1998, civil servants in an earlier period did not represent the sweating of old transport assets – ‘improving the maintenance and management of existing roads before building new ones’ – as a ‘New Deal’. At least Predict and Provide did not insist that motorists change their behaviour in order to save on fuel.

Yet today, ideas about transport are in an even worse condition than they were back in 1998. Enthusiastic messengers for peak car wish for the end of the automotive era. Techies imagine that mass electric vehicles are just around the corner. Asian planners dream that transport deals and links stretching across continents will simply put an end to historic animosities.

These kinds of innovations are utopian. Worse than any of them, however, is the idea that IT can reduce transport. The idea is beguiling, because the achievements of IT are there for all to see. Yet those who boost IT in this way ignore how IT and transport are twins, not adversaries. Indeed, the glibness with which IT is deified in transport is very evident in its application around cars. There, the new Apple watch may unlock vehicles; but, for all the Wifi systems installed elsewhere, we are still a long way from getting rid of the 10 per cent of a car’s weight that’s bound up in its wiring.

That day will come, and even promises lower carbon emissions. Yet as Google’s commendable efforts in driverless cars show, capitalism would rather play with automotive IT than halve or quarter the cost of buying, run or maintaining a normal car. What a pity! Billions of families would benefit from the achievement of such a goal.

Transport innovation could revolutionise everything from eating habits and family life to rates of economic growth. And yet now is also a moment to ridicule childish unicorns in transport, and to ridicule, too, state bureaucracy and inertia there. What we want is a more mobile, more fluid world. Genuine transport innovation can do a lot to make such a world come about.

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.


(1) Between 2001 and 2011, the growth in cycling to work in England and Wales was patchy. London, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield saw big increases, but most local authorities did not. For the statistics, go to

(2) Energy and Equity, by Ivan Illich, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1974

(3) The Telecommunications-Transport Tradeoff: Options for tomorrow, by Jack Nilles and F Roy Carlson Jr, Paul Gray and Gerhard J Hanneman, 1976; 2007 edition, p3

(4) Contributing to the deeply radical Global Commission were Britain’s Lord Stern of Brentford; the top American behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman; the chairman of Bank of America; the CEOs of Unilever and insurer Swiss Re; United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the deep green World Resources Institute, Washington. A leading article in The Times enthusiastically took up the Commission’s call for skyscrapers, not sprawl. A Financial Times leader likewise echoed the Commission’s demand that state subsidies for transport fuel be ended. Interestingly enough, the countries singled out by the Commission as needing higher fuel prices are Iran (more than $80bn of state subsidies in 2012), Saudi Arabia (more than $60bn), Russia and India (more than $40bn), Venezuela, China, Indonesia, Egypt, UAE and Iraq. How nice of our climate experts to urge inflation on the developing world! Yet this is no aberration: one of the GCEC’s recommendations on cities is that banks active in developing countries ‘work with’ them to stop ‘investments which lock in unstructured, unconnected urban expansion’. This enormously two-handed measure should, it says, be ‘effective immediately’.

(5) The International Energy Agency (IEA), which represents rich, oil-consuming nations, reckons that transport already accounts for well over half of global demand for oil, and expects this share to rise to perhaps 60 per cent by 2035. Improvements in fuel efficiency and the use of non-fossil fuels will not be enough, in the IEA’s view, to counteract oil demand growth, especially in developing countries: see IEA, World Energy Outlook 2012, p88. While passenger light-duty vehicles will likely remain the dominant transport user of oil, the IEA suggests that 45 per cent of transport’s increased demand for oil, 2012-35, will be taken by road freight, with freight in developing Asia contributing two-thirds of this growth. A third of global net oil demand growth by 2035 could come from lorries and light-commercial vehicles in developing Asia: see IEA, World Energy Outlook 2013, pp511-2. The IEA believes that growth in the use of oil, from 87.4 million barrels per day in 2012 to more than 101.4mb/d in 2030, will be concentrated in transport. Demand for diesel, it holds, will surge by five mbd by 2030. Ibid p501

(6) Annual British taxes on road and air transport amount to £2.2 billion on petrol, about £6 billion in Vehicle Excise Duty, and £1.9 billion in Air Passenger Duty. Local council profits on parking charges are estimated to be £0.6bn. Altogether, these sums total nearly two per cent of all UK tax revenues. This might seem small; but, when compared with the giant revenues from income tax (£150 billion), VAT and National Insurance (£100 billion each), it’s clear that transport taxes on drivers and passengers make up a handy revenue for the state.

(7) In an article titled ‘The End of Driving (as we know it)’, Fortune sums up: ‘Young professionals, including those with families, are increasingly opting for urban life. And cities, even Los Angeles, are responding with new or improved public transportation systems, bike-sharing programs, and more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. Companies, in turn, are moving back to cities…. The proliferation of mobile-app-based rides like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar all but eliminates the need for car ownership, especially among technology-savvy twentysomethings…. The romantic ideal of the open road and cross-country drives has given way to crippling, stress-inducing traffic, high rates of road fatalities, and safety issues, including GM’s recent recall of 14 million vehicles in the US’.

(8) The case of US transport infrastructure is telling. In 2009 dollars, annual US real state and local investment in highways and streets declined from more than $100 billion in 2001 to less than $75 billion in 2012. Over the same period, investment in transport was roughly constant, at just $20 billion. Investment experts BCA Research report that in the decade ending in 2012, real US state and local government civilian investment in ‘structures’ declined by an annual 2.4 per cent; in the more recent five years before 2012, it declined by an annual 3.3 per cent. Between 2002 and 2013, public civilian spending on structures fell from about $325 billion to roughly $275 billion.

(9) The end of the suburbs, by Leigh Gallagher, Portfolio Penguin, 2013

(10) The intensity of R&D in automobiles and parts is not to be underestimated. In 2012-3, Volkswagen spent €9.5 billion on R&D, the largest sum in the world. Toyota Motor spent €7.1 billion. Among the world’s top general spenders on R&D, most of the top 100 increasing R&D the most were either in ICT, or in automobiles and parts: Tata Motors upped R&D by 78 per cent, Fiat by 52 per cent, VW by 32 per cent, BMW by 17 per cent, and Bosch by 16 per cent. On top of cars and aerospace, transport R&D is effective in boats and, lately, in British Olympic bikes.

(11) Government efforts in transport research, design and development (RD&D), as far as they are available, are as follows:

Table 2 Government spending on transport, €m, 2012 prices and exchange rates
Source: International Energy Agency, RD&D Tables, Detailed Country R&D Budgets.

(12) We cannot go into it in this article, but there is a special sclerosis brought to the construction of British transport infrastructure by the country’s byzantine system of land-use planning.

(13) ‘Smart’ cities – broadly, the use of IT to manage demand for transport down – rarely arrive. Perhaps that is because a city is smart because of its population, including its transport planners. For a survey and critique, see here.

(14) In the usual manner, the University of Southampton critics of air travel recycle the point that cultivation of carbon-neutral biofuels for aircraft will create ‘competition with food production’. The fact that agricultural yields have improved and can continue to improve does not occur to them. For a discussion of the problems with fuel cells, a special kind of battery, as well as a demolition of the ‘hydrogen economy’ of the future, see ‘The hydrogen economy – global solution, or pie in the sky?’, by Wilson Flood, Energy & Environment, Volume 23, Number 6-7, October 2012. For a treatment of the Jevons paradox, see ‘Innovation in energy: expressions of a crisis, and some ways forward’, by James Woudhuysen, in the same issue of Energy & Environment.

(15) As for freshly built compact cities, equally designed to minimise car use, mainstream opinion is at best ambivalent about new eco-cities, especially since China is reported to have at least 12 new ‘up-scale ghost towns’.

(16) In world airlines, Boeing says that passenger load factors ran at 79 per cent in 2013. The company is probably right to project, between 2013 and 2033, annual percentage growth rates in passenger numbers (4.2), passenger revenues (5.0) and cargo revenues (4.7) that are way ahead of what it believes will be the likely annual percentage growth rates in GDP (3.2). In rail, the ITF’s Transport Outlook 2013 records that passenger kilometres in the West returned to 2008 levels in 2011, but climbed very fast in China and India over a similar period. Between 2004 and 2010/11, the billions of Euros invested in rail infrastructure in Germany and Italy dropped enormously (from 6.4 to 3.9, and from 8.8 to 4.8). It is true that the sums invested in rail infrastructure recorded big increases in Turkey (0.2 to 1.5), the Russian Federation (3.6 to 9.9), India (1.5 to 3.0), Japan (6.2 to 10.2) and Australia (1.1 to 5.5). However, the absolute sums spent are quite low, given that the relative expense of rail infrastructure is typically very high.

(17) The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Orrigins of the Information Society, by James Beniger, Harvard, 1986, pp17, 130, 180-1, 221-6, 262, 318-323. Interestingly, Beniger speculates that ‘the control of transportation – which necessarily involves control of complex movements, processes, and speed’ may present ‘a greater challenge for computing than number-crunching per se’. Ibid p323

(18) Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, [1857-8], Pelican, 1973, p161.

(19) One need be neither the television presenter Michael Portillo nor the historian AJP Taylor (War by timetable: how the First World War began, 1969) to appreciate, despite these pundits’ overestimation of it, the contribution made by transport to the First World War. Yet if the pace of innovation in transport before 1914 – the bicycle, car, plane – has only occasionally been emulated since that date, the globalisation of imperialist war after 1914 has brought about a series of transport innovations: the jet, the missile, the unmanned satellite, the manned space mission.

(20) Essays in British transport history, 1870-1970, by Derek Aldcroft, David & Charles, 1974

(21) With a bus, for example, modellers at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, maintain that adding an extra passenger may cut per-passenger emissions by five per cent if the bus is largely empty, but only by something like one per cent if it is crowded. Imprecision is also the rule when we consider the fuel consumption of cars. Cars with an engine capacity of less than one litre are now reported to be less fuel-efficient than those with a larger capacity.

(22) Andrew Gilligan, Cycling Commissioner in Boris Johnson’s mayoral administration of London, has extended the critique of hormonal imbalances among transport users, targeting male cyclists. He wants them joined by more women and older people, as part of an effort to ‘just generally reduce the testosterone level’.

(23) Speed has inspired JMW Turner (‘Rain, steam, and speed – The Great Western’, 1844, now on show at Tate Britain, and derided for its modern theme by John Ruskin). It is also a leitmotif among contemporary British artists such as Richard Wilson (‘Slipstream’, Heathrow Terminal 2) and Fiona Banner (‘Harrier and Jaguar’).

(24) Rivalry between different capitals frequently calls forth new transport links: think of Amazon’s plans to sound the final death-knell of bookshops by deploying drones for delivery. Conversely, international transport links are an important force in the competition between nations.

(25) The Visible Hand, by Alfred Chandler, Harvard, 1977

(26) Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, Pelican, 1973, p532. Thus in 2014, when airport operators negotiate landing charges with airlines, big tensions often emerge. Again, ticket collectors on British train lines today have a different job title: they are in ‘revenue protection’. Also, while the number of general police officers in England and Wales fell by two per cent in the year to 31 March, the numbers of British Transport Police rose by 10 per cent.

(27) Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, Pelican, 1973, pp523-5, 528-31.

(28) In June 2014, British Chancellor George Osborne proposed that a third high-speed train line, HS3, help create a ‘northern powerhouse’ by improving on the current, deeply lethargic transpennine link between Manchester and Leeds. At least he went further than his cronies on Britain’s City Growth Commission, a group of the great and the good chaired by former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill. In an October report bent on ‘unleashing metro growth’ outside London, the Commission endorsed ‘accelerated connectivity’ between the between the cities of the Midlands and Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool. However the words ‘road’, ‘train’ and ‘airport’ failed to appear in the Commission’s report. Its only specific proposal on transport was a Northern Oyster card – though this, it said, ‘would probably require some new integrated transport authority’.

(29) Point-to-point flying still has plenty of potential, as low-cost airlines have shown. For a discussion of hub-and-spoke flying, and of how to improve point-to-point air travel, see Lean Solutions: How Companies and Customers Can Create Value and Wealth Together, James Womack and Daniel Roos, Simon & Schuster, 2007 (new edition), pp211-237.

(30) Fast-forward 20 years from the Royal Commission’s work to today, and we find slightly more plebian environmental ‘campaigners’ at the obscure Aviation Environment Federation trumpeting that the addition of about €54 for each 1,000 kilometres flown by passengers, and about €271 for each 1,000 kilometres flown by a tonne of freight, ‘is the fair and equitable solution’.

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