Thursday, 24 May 2007

Back to the Medieval Village

A few years ago I put forward the 'what if?' history scenario, 'what if cheap public transport had never developed?' As I will outline in a moment it is an issue which seems to be coming on to the political agenda in the UK, but first I will outline by what I meant by this scenario.

The 19th century saw a rapid change from the fastest form of transport being a horse or the wind in your sails to machinery that did not tire and was less influence by the weather. Canals cannot go up hill except using locks which are time consuming, trains can tackle very varied environments. The span of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) saw steam trains and ships become commonplace. Not only was this important for opening up North America and Russia, but it brought great changes to much smaller countries such as the UK. The age of the commuter was born and suburbs grew rapidly around large cities, particularly London. No longer did you have to live within a few miles of your job. Seaside resorts which had been the reserve of the wealthy now became accessible for daytrips. The way people moved around the country and what they could access became very different. The railways were a vital element of the industrial revolution, not simply because of the cargo they could move but also because of the workers. In the Middle Ages and beyond, even to the late 18th century, the bulk of the population never moved farther than a 2-mile (3.2 Km) radius of their homes now they would often travel many times that just to get to work. There were people who lived near their work, many factory, mine and farmworkers did, but even they could travel to the market town or the big city. Importantly, it enabled political movements to take speakers and pamphlets to the people and for those people to travel to towns to hear speakers and take part in political rallies and in riots. The spread of the railways also came alongside the development of the telegraph system (the first one was invented in 1837) and Tom Standage has argued that this was the first internet age, because you could telegraph orders and have them despatched to you by train in the way that we order stuff from Amazon or eBay online and a van brings it to us.

Right, so that was the way things developed: a railway system with fares that ordinary people could afford, so unlike their ancestors they could move around for work or leisure in a matter of hours rather than days that had been the case before. My 'what if?' scenario was what would have happened if railways had developed in a different way. In the UK many canals were built on the orders of nobles and wealthy landowners who used them for own purposes and certainly not for mass transit. Could railways have developed the same? Was there ever any need for passengers? What if heavy, slow trains only capable of shifting loads of coal or other raw materials had been the only ones on the railways. What if rather than cheap fares, the companies decided to focus on exclusive, luxury, high cost travel. Well, likely, as happened to some extent anyway in the 18th century, people would have moved to the factories on foot and then stayed in their vicinity. Communication across country would have been a lot slower and democracy may not have developed as quickly as it did with the widening of who could vote through the 19th century. As in the Middle Ages, there would have been people who travelled even in the 11th century some went on Crusade and others traded, but the bulk of the population would have not had access to things that were created far from where they lived and certainly would not have got to travel to the seaside or London or wherever. Potentially similar trends could have happened across Europe and the East coast of the USA.

So what relevance does this brief history of trains and telegraph and a 'what if?' of a different pattern of transport development have to issues now? Well, in previous posts I have already noted how increasingly expensive it is to travel on trains in the UK now. This is combined with the fragmentation of the service which has taken it back to a system that had not been seen in the UK since the early 1920s. This means getting connections is difficult and lengthens journey times. The complexity of different ticket systems and the lack of reliable information about services and tickets means you run the risk of incurring heavy fines, not for fare dodging, but from getting on the 'wrong' train at the 'wrong' time of the 'wrong' company with the 'wrong' ticket; some services now even have different parts of the same train run by different companies. Unsurprisingly, many people like myself, now drive, as it is cheaper and generally more reliable, though adding more to pollution and meaning you face the problems of congestion.

These issues of congestion and pollution have prompted the government to move towards 'road pricing', announced this week (in the face of a 1.8 million person petition against it). Effectively by means of electronic devices all main roads will become toll roads, with the price varying depending on when you are travelling. I accept that this will reduce congestion and contribute revenue, which, hopefully, will be directed to reducing pollution. However, with no reliable public transport system to fall back on what options are there for us to travel in the UK. What happens to visitors to our country? Other countries have toll roads, but the charges are not excessive. The UK is very densely packed. London has 10 million people in it, with another 15 million living in commuting distance of it. This is more than the number of people who live in the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) countries all put together but in a smaller area; it is 50% more than the total population of Australia, and a little less than 1/10th of the population of the USA (the UK as a whole has over 60 million people now, so about 1/4 of the USA's population living in a space, half the size of the state of Alabama). The tolls will drive people even more on to backroads and in many cases simply stop people going outside their home towns. I drive 60 miles (96Km) per day so my bills are going to rise sharply, on top of all the utility ones I am suffering under.

I accept pollution needs to fall, but in the UK, without a good public transport system, you are effectively deeming the freedom to travel to be based on the status of individuals. The rich will be able to take trains or drive, us in the middle (I earn £8000 more per year than the national average salary) or poorer will be denied access to other areas. I have not had a holiday for 2 years simply because I cannot afford it. In my youth, in the 1970s, my parents (my father was a technician for a television company, my mother a nurse) could take me and my brother abroad each year, so we were exposed to other cultures and languages, I am effectively wealthier than they were then, but cannot afford to take my wife and step-son anywhere (going on holiday in the UK is far more expensive than going to a country like Spain or Greece because hotel, house rental, food and entertainment prices are so high).

When I lived in East London in the late 1990s, I was a rich man in my street. I earned £9500 per year (€13800; US$19000) and many of my neighbours were on unemployment or sickness benefit. The radius in which they moved was about 2 miles of their homes. I would talk about taking the 25-minute underground train ride to Covent Garden in Central London and to them it was as if I was talking about flying to Paris for the weekend. As most were dependent on council or housing association housing, when their children left home they tended to stay close so that they came under the same housing provider (and because of the population density of London, each borough is often only a few miles end-to-end), and so that they could draw on family to provide child care, etc. These people, effectively were living in a similar structure to ancestors 600+ years ago. 60% of the people of the UK die within 5 miles (8Km) of where they were born. Of course some people manage to get out, but so did some people go on Crusade from their medieval village.

This problem which affected the bottom rung of society is now going to rise higher and higher so that even me in the middle will be limited in where I can go. The problem with that is it closes down minds. If people of my age and standing and our children do not encounter other people and other ways we become closed in our attitudes and very parochial in outlook. Do not tell me, 'well, the internet solves that, you can be in contact with people across the world', because in the UK, the lag in connection speeds, the poor service broadband providers give, the technical difficulties and above all, the rising costs, are denying access to such provision to more and more people, rather than increasing coverage.

The UK needs an integrated transport policy which tackles pollution and congestion but allows people to travel around. UK governments complain the British are unwilling to relocate to find work and yet all their policies in terms of transport and housing make it so hard for anyone to afford to move even if they want to. A whole new approach is needed now, because as most people know, the attitudes and behaviour of the medieval village are not what we need in 21st century society.

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