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The problem in microcosm

Image: William Murphy

In the years before the Welsh Government was granted law making powers, Wales became known as the land of the strategy document.  Perhaps because of the lyrical nature of the Welsh language, the nineteenth century resurrection of druid poetry, or all of the time spent singing in chapel choirs and on rugby terraces, Wales’ strategy documents took pride of place on the world stage.  Nobody, it seemed, could write governmental works of fiction with anything approaching the eloquence of the Welsh.  Welsh public health strategies, for example, were quite literally to die for.  That is, the more sick and disabled the Welsh population became, and the more our life expectancy crashed into reverse, the more poetic and flowery our health strategy documents became.

Little has changed since the Welsh Government gained legislative powers in areas like health, education and local government.  The Welsh Government continues to churn out florid documents promising The Earth while ultimately delivering mere dirt.  A case in point is Wales’ Active Travel Act; a modest and – one would think – easy to achieve strategy (backed by legislation and cash) to encourage a few more of us to get about on bicycles or on foot.  In this one small measure was the potential to improve public health, to relieve traffic congestion, curb air pollution and meet at least a fraction of our carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets.  And we were beginning from a really low starting point.  Prior to the Active Travel Act, just six percent of us made just one “active travel trip” by bicycle once a week.  Walking was more common, with 46 percent of people making at least one trip per week; but that still left plenty of room for improvement.

One would imagine that a combination of legislation and new funding would easily boost the number of trips by bicycle, and encourage more people to walk rather than use the car for local trips.  One would, however, be wrong.  As the BBC reported earlier this year:

“The numbers of people walking and cycling to work has not increased in the five years since a law aimed at encouraging the practice was passed.

“A new report from AMs blames a lack of leadership in councils and the Welsh Government for the lack of progress that followed the Active Travel Act becoming law in 2013.”

The number of people using bicycles fell over the period.  More worrying, given the intention to alter long-term behaviour:

“…while in 2013-14, 53% of children walked to primary school and 2% cycled, by 2016-17 it had reduced to 42% walking and 1% going by bike.”

There are several reasons for the failure to translate political promises into real changes in behaviour.  Two stand out, however, as seriously undermining the policy.  The first is that it treats a population with diverse needs to a one-size-fits-all aim.  The geography of Wales makes the towns and cities along the coastal strips far more amenable to cycling and walking than its hilly valleys and mountainous rural areas.  Moreover, travelling to work, school or shopping on foot or by bicycle is far easier in urban areas than in the rural hinterland where work and shopping can often involve 60 mile or more round trips.

Despite their potential advantages, however, Wales’ coastal cities failed to meet their active travel targets either.  This is because neither local nor national politicians are prepared to contemplate the one single thing that would increase cycling and walking:

“Highways engineers remain primarily focused on ‘moving cars around,’ five years after a law to encourage walking and cycling was passed…”

According to Sustrans – a charity founded to promote walking and cycling:

“Despite the introduction of the Active Travel Act, transport policy in Wales is still largely driven by the car. In a Wales designed around the car, those that are unable to afford to own or run a car risk being excluding (sic) socially and economically. With more cars on the road, we know that levels of air quality are worsening and congesting (sic) is increasing, generating greater negative impacts on our health, economy, communities, and environment. There is a danger that new technology like EVs and major infrastructure projects like the South Wales Metro will be seen as silver bullets, but our concern remains that without a fundamentally different approach to the car, we will continue to entrench problems that harm the well-being of future generations.”

Our towns and cities were radically redesigned in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to accommodate a massive growth in private car ownership.  However, the streets that were subjected to car-friendly redesign were originally constructed to facilitate walking and horse-drawn vehicles.  The result was that cars crowded out all other road users.  Cycling – once a common form of transport for ordinary people – became too dangerous as the risk of collisions with cars increased.  Moving cyclists onto pedestrian pavements – a preferred means of encouraging cycling in local government – merely transferred to risk of collision to pedestrians who had to give up a share of their already limited space.  Starting from scratch, we wouldn’t have designed our cities in this way.  But we are where we are.  And thus the only means of truly encouraging walking and cycling is to remove road space from cars.

In a democracy, however, it is far easier to alienate the relatively small number of voters who cycle or walk to work than it is to negatively impact the travel arrangements of the car-using majority of the electorate.  And so, local politicians continue to promote policies – like shared pavements – that purport to make walking and cycling more accessible while not having any impact on car use.  The result, of course, is what we see in the data – fewer cyclists, a slight increase in walking (most likely due to the declining economy) and a collapse in active travel among children.

What, you might be asking, has this inconsequential tale of woe from the Celtic fringe of Empire got to do with anyone living elsewhere in the world?  The answer is that in this one small issue we find a microcosm of our global predicament and the reason why we are not going to do anything about it.  Indeed, the car symbolises our global predicament:

  • Emitting too much greenhouse gas
  • Powered by a fuel that is increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain
  • Made from increasingly rare and hard to recycle mineral resources
  • Central to our excessively-consumptive lifestyles.

If we were serious about mitigating climate change, resource depletion and environmental destruction, among the most important (I would add a ban on commercial air travel and a one-child policy) things we would do would be to cease all non-essential private motoring immediately.  And yet, when it comes down to it, politicians lack the spine even to implement what would amount to little more than some additional inconvenience for motorists in order to begin to redress some of the vast imbalances between cars and other road-users. 

If they will not even do that, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to implement the massive lifestyle changes necessary to offset the unfolding environmental catastrophe or the cascading failures that will follow from resource depletion? 

If you do, I have a solar-powered bridge that you might be interested in investing in.

As you made it to the end…

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