The war on transport

Even before Covid-19, elites were keen to reduce our mobility.

James Woudhuysen


It is hard to know where to start with transport. One certainly shouldn’t start from home, if at all possible. In our age of lockdown, transport away from the home is considered anti-social, if not downright dangerous.

In this atmosphere, it is worth recalling that democratic rights relate not just to free speech, but also to freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Some restrictions on travel have been lifted recently. But with every new official statement about how we can and cannot move around, the government confirms that the state and only the state holds the cards in relation to our basic freedoms.

Covid-19 has hit transport workers hard – workers on buses, trains, public carriages, airlines have been exposed more than most either to the virus or to job cuts. There is a case for the government to answer on testing, tracing, PPE and all the rest for these workers who have carried on during the pandemic. However, the state is not restricting travel to protect transport workers, but rather to control the behaviour of transport users.

Back in the mid-1990s, the videoconferencing business of the US telecommunications giant AT&T, riffing on a wartime British poster, ran a giant billboard ad over London’s A4, asking: ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ Since that time, we have seen the rise of IT, environmentalism, behavioural science and Covid-19. Together, these four forces now appear to have given Britain’s state, its white-collar professions and the media their moment. Whitehall’s misnamed Department for Transport has spent years promoting largely unnoticed ‘walking and cycling strategies’, so it was no surprise to see these very recommendations in its official guidance on travel during the Covid outbreak. Like AT&T, this official guidance also asks: ‘Is your journey really necessary?’

The softly worded instructions are: if you can, stay local. Try to reduce your travel. Work from home where possible. Shop less frequently and more locally. To relax the pressure on public transport and the roads, ‘consider’ walking and cycling. And this: ‘Where possible, try to maintain social distancing when you walk or cycle, for example when approaching or passing other pedestrians or waiting at crossings and traffic lights.’

It so happens that, between 2016 and 2019, reliance on the car as the main means of transport increased from 27 to 35 per cent. Nevertheless, the car is more and more stigmatised. Congestion charges are spreading to new cities, while London’s charge goes ever higher. In fact, transport as a whole now has a bad name – unless it is by bike or by any means electric.

Despite the recent relaxations on travelling to work, there appear to be more transport police and guards at stations than there are passengers. In London, journeys on the tube are down to eight per cent of last year’s levels. In such a climate, it looks unlikely that Boris will ever be able to go through with HS2, or with many other, less ambitious rail schemes. A third runway at Heathrow? That could be history.

Instead, transport minister Grant Shapps has found £2 billion for cycle lanes and trials of e-scooters. There has been a sudden convergence of enlightened political opinion around the merits of cycling, electric bikes and electric cars with little thought about their practicality. To expect the majority in Britain to switch from cars and trains to bikes is a utopian pipe dream. But the facts only make anti-transport enthusiasts more ardent.

In 2016, Londoners made perhaps 730,000 bike trips a day – equivalent to just a fifth of all tube trips, and a miserable tenth of journeys by bus. This is not helped by the fact that London averages roughly 100 rainy days per year. One academic, who specialises in the burgeoning field of travel and behaviour change, has noticed that ‘the reality of people’s everyday life is that you cannot walk or cycle to everything you need to do’. In the face of this problem, she says we need to ‘challenge the assumption of mobility’ in order to promote her preferred means of travel.

In a similar vein, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, wants to create a ‘15-minute’ city – in which housing, work, consumption, healthcare, education and leisure are just a short walk or bike ride away. Such visions imply enormously disruptive changes in cities, lasting decades. It also expects the majority to embrace Working From Home (WFH).

The new elite mobilisation for immobility doesn’t just neglect freight transport, logistics and delivery. In its idolisation of WFH, it is also indifferent to economies of scale, cooperation, automation and a division of labour.

What is more, WFH enormously transforms the nature of work. Workers on site are understood to be working by the hour. But home workers are essentially paid by the piece, not by the hour. ‘Piece wages’, Karl Marx once wrote, are ‘the most fruitful source of reductions of wages and capitalistic cheating’. For him they were ‘the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production’. In general, WFH will tend toward getting paid not by effort, but by results.

This is the Net Zero, no transport, no freedom of movement world today’s green officialdom wants us all to adopt. And they call this progress. WFH? WTF.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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Christopher Tyson

21st May 2020 at 9:52 pm

I just mis-read ’15 minutes city’ as ’15 minutes cry’, whatever next a state sponsored cry, maybe once a week at a given time we can all sob for 15 minutes. I’m reading this and the TV is on in the background and poor old (or not so old) comedian Tony Slattery is trying to get to the bottom of his mental health problems. During the ads, Prince William is doing his sympathetic face, ‘tell me all about your mental health problems’. But Prince Williams shrink calls him ‘Sir’, Prince William will not be sectioned and forcibly injected, ‘you lay a syringe on Sir Divine Right of Kings, and you will never work in the NHS again’.
The article references ‘behavioural sciences’, and I have tried to critique these things in a serious way, but to what end? What is the use of nuance and subtlety? Proudhon said ‘whosoever puts his hands on me to govern me, is a usurper and a tyrant, I declare him my enemy’. A bit adolescent perhaps? Haven’t we outgrown Proudhon now? Don’t we want to be more mature and reasonable? I have continued going to see my mum throughout the lookdown, my mum can’t go to church now, can’t go shopping, can’t go to get her hair done, many of my mum’s friends are dead, in her youth she worked as a nurse in a TB sanitorium, she knows death, she would rather risk death than not see anyone.
I’m no swearer, but when I look around I see that I’m the bolshiest person around, indeed I can see why some might weep for 15 minutes, people have to learn to tell the behavioural scientists, and Prince William, and Stephen Fry, no matter how ‘nice’ and well meaning they are to ‘f**k off’. A loose acquaintance of mine paraphrased Proudhon as saying ‘anyone who tells me what to do can ‘f**k off’. This is what we have been reduced to. They can section me, diagnose me, they can even say that I have a ‘personality order’ actually that last one is just malicious, they can’t diagnose you, they need to justify all the wrong headed treatment that they’ve given you, ‘personality disorder, no one will give a f**k’. So what do you think of that Mr Fry and Prince William? Or you prefer you mental health sufferers to be a little more compliant and grateful? An apology? Yeah that would be okay, I mean I’ve had an apology for the whole slave trade things, or have I? It’s all a bit vague, a bit general, I’ve certainly never seen my share of any of the reparation money that people are always talking about. Actually stick you apology (for slavery, and personality disorder thing) up your a**e. Yeah transport…

James Knight

21st May 2020 at 7:33 pm

Yes, and just at the moment people were supposed to be getting back to work but avoiding buses, what does Sadiq Khan do? Slap on a congestion charge hike.


21st May 2020 at 7:00 pm

It is well known that the human body cannot withstand speeds of over 8 mph, the speed above which suffocation is inevitable. For this reason, the masses must be made to bow to The Science and prevented from travelling more than a five-mile radius from their homes.

Mike Smith

21st May 2020 at 6:17 pm

The number of people in the country and their expectations can’t be met by reducing transport . Electric cars are a gimic . How will people living in flats recharge their cars ? Or should they no longer have cars because they are not wealthy enough to deserve one ? When you see the likes of Emma Thompson and Sparkle regularly flying transatlantic and lecturing us about climate change you realise we are f……..


21st May 2020 at 7:01 pm

Any gains made in terms of air pollution reduction owing to the use of electric cars are more than wiped out by the ever-increasing size of the petrol-driven SUVs that we see on our roads.

Lyn Keay

21st May 2020 at 9:06 pm

I dunno, all those disabled people getting SUV’s as their mobility car so they can actually get into them. It’s terrible.

Lyn Keay

21st May 2020 at 5:41 pm

wrt “In general, WFH will tend toward getting paid not by effort, but by results.” I think we’ve lost that one anyway. For most project based office jobs anyway. Individual performance appraisals & salary reviews are what made this happen. For companies, especially those in London, the WFH is a great part of the ‘flexibility’ orthodoxy, allowing them to reduce office space & give them brownie points on the ‘I’m a great employer’ charts at the same time.

James Woudhuysen

22nd May 2020 at 9:15 am

Excellent point.

The 360-degree performance appraisal is a pernicious thing which does indeed tend toward payment by results.

As with a lot of HR doctrines, its origins lie around WW2; its development, in the Cold War; its heyday, since the end of the Cold War.

Most recently, the Internet has facilitated both WFH, and appraisal systems that rely on the judgements of many managers, peers and subordinates — 360!

Naturally, it goes unquestioned in many workplaces.


21st May 2020 at 4:34 pm

One of the main objections of the ruling class to the advent of the railways in the early 19th century was that they’d give common people too much mobility. Class-prejudice, like the poor, is always with us.

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