It is likewise to be remembered, that forasmuch as the increase of any estate must be upon the foreigner (for whatsoever is somewhere gotten, is somewhere lost), there be but three things, which one nation selleth unto another; the commodity as nature yieldeth it; the manufacture; and the vecture, or carriage. So that if these three wheels go, wealth will flow as in a spring tide.
These are the words of the great English statesman-philosopher Sir Francis
Bacon, from his essay Of Seditions and Troubles, published in 1601.
Bacon had a skill which is in our era very rare, for all our talk of global
vision and holistic strategies: he saw things as a whole, he saw the
connections between things. Indeed, the unity of all things was at the heart of
his philosophy, as he wrote in The New Atlantis (1627): 'The end of our
foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the
enlarging of the bounds of human Empire, to the effecting of all things
possible.' Bacon's concern in Of Seditions and Troubles is the stability
of the state. He argues that one of the great pillars of stability is trade,
and through trade the 'increase of ... estate' that is the only guarantee of
the continuing health of the realm. Bacon reasons thus: the realm must thrive
if it is to be strong and stable; it can only thrive by trade: and if it is to
trade it requires three things: the raw material ('the commodity as nature
yieldeth it'), the transformation of that raw material into the goods that
people need and want ('the manufacture'), and transport ('the vecture, or
carriage'). Each is dependent on the other; 'if these three wheels go, wealth
will flow as in a spring tide.' Inherent in this concept is the notion of
transport, for trade without transport is inconceivable.
Bacon lived in what can justly be called the first global age. Since the fifteenth century a complex economic and commercial system had evolved, a system which had spread from Europe to embrace the world and which had its origins in a potent conjunction of technology, discovery, empire and trade: 'Who e'er rigged fair ship to lie in harbours,' asked Bacon's contemporary, the poet John Donne, in Confined Love, 'And not to seek new lands, or to deal withal?' The London in which Donne and Bacon lived stood at the centre of a great web of commerce and transport which extended from the East Indies to the Americas, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Baltic. Antonio, we learn from Shylock in The Merchant of Venice,
hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand moreover, upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath, squandered abroad.
As it happens, Shylock believes that Antonio is over-extended and
vulnerable, but such were the risks of being a player in the world economy. The
rewards made the risks worthwhile, especially if you had all or part of your
investment in shipping. 'God,' a Norwegian shipping manager once remarked,
'must have been a shipowner; he placed raw materials far from where they are
needed, and covered three-quarters of the world with water.' There is now, as
there has always been, money in movement: money made, risked and invested in
the business of transport, without which - as Bacon understood - there would be
no trade, no commerce, no thriving state, no wealth, no stability. Without
transport, of goods and people, nothing happens. There could be no more
important issue for us to discuss this evening.
Yet as a thing, an entity, a phenomenon, transport is surprisingly difficult to pin down. It is extremely various, in scale, nature, and purpose: is the subject of this lecture transport, or the business of transport? When I am walking back from the corner shop with two pints of milk and a loaf of bread, am I engaged in transport, as much so as Eddie Stobart or Railfreight Distribution? I would say that I am. Yet I am not - as Mr Stobart is and RfD are - in the transport business. If I choose to drive to and from the corner shop to get my milk and bread, then I am part of the phenomenon of road transport; and if I go on the bus, I am participating in public transport. Then again, perhaps it is the fact that I am carrying goods (albeit on a small scale and of humble description) that makes what I am doing transport rather than just moving myself around; but if I ride on a bus, whether I am carrying anything or not, that is public transport, and it is me, a passenger, an item of self-loading freight, that is being transported. Perhaps movement becomes transport.when it doesn't primarily involve walking? Surely not; almost every journey involves some walking, and walking is as near to being a universal human activity as you are likely to find. Crowds of people walking are as difficult to manage as streams of road traffic, and can constitute a major contribution to urban congestion: the crowded pavements at Bank, or in the centre of Oxford, come to mind. What if I walk down to the end of the garden to collect a tool from the shed; is that transport? What if I didn't have the tool I needed, and crossed the road to borrow it from a neighbour; since that would take me onto the public highway, would that be transport? I think it probably would. But you see, I hope, what I am trying to get at. You cannot define transport with any rigidity; you cannot separate it from all the other activities which go to make up what we call society. I think this is one of the essential lessons of transport history, and an absolutely fundamental point in approaching transport as an issue of today and tomorrow. Nor, and this is just as important, can you necessarily assess transport effectively in narrow economic terms alone: what is the monetary value, after all, of my walk to the shops to buy the milk, or my trip across the road to borrow a rechargeable drill?
In the first of these lectures, 'Transport: Master or Servant?', professor Tony Ridley remarked that
the study and practice of transport is essentially eclectic. This is not to deny the importance of science and engineering in transport, of rational (mathematical) analysis of problems, but to contend that the subject is more complicated than that.
Transport is indeed essentially eclectic: one only has to think of the sheer
range and variety of things that are transported, the almost infinite variety
of wants, needs and purposes that motivate people to travel, and the enormous
and multifarious influence which transport exerts on society. The tools of the
economists, the statisticians, the planners and the engineers can only ever
tell us a part of the story. Transport is a social and cultural phenomenon as
much as it is anything else, as the increasing input of sociologists,
anthropologists, psychologists and, yes, historians, into academic transport
studies bears witness. Our attitudes to transport are as much to do with its
social and cultural dimensions as its economic determinants, they are as much
shaped by intangible and unquantifiable perceptions as they are by the more
measurable, and therefore (for some) supposedly more real, influences of
economics. I think history has a valuable role to play in tracing the
significance of transport as a social and cultural, as well as an economic and
commercial, phenomenon. Our perceptions of and responses to transport today are
in large part culturally determined, and that process of cultural formation is
one that must be understood historically.
I would, therefore, like to congratulate the Worshipful Company of Carmen and the Royal Society of Arts for choosing to include in this prestigious series of lectures on transport a contribution from an academic historian of transport, and not only because I am broadly in favour of a public role for academic history in general. This forum brings me into very distinguished company, and I am not speaking here only of the breadth of experience and intelligence represented by my audience, but of the quality and standing of the three lecturers who have preceded me - Tony Ridley, Rees Jeffrey Professor of Transport Engineering at Imperial College London, in 1992; John Gummer, who was Secretary of State for the Environment when he spoke here in 1994; and Jack Short, Deputy Secretary-General of the European Conference of Ministers of Transport, in 1996. I feel somewhat awed to be of this company, but whatever the merits of my own presence here this evening I hope that there is no need for me to defend the inclusion of the discipline of history in this forum. As a historian of transport I hope that what I can offer is historical perspective. When the Carmen and the RSA invited me to give this lecture, they explained that they were looking for contemporary concerns about transport, and possible future prospects, to be put into a historical context, and this I will seek to do. I believe it is important to do so, for in my experience historical perspective on transport is very often lacking, and a little more understanding of where we have come from can be of immense value in clarifying both where we are now, and where we might be going in the future.
The Institute of Railway Studies, of which I am a member, is a joint initiative of the University of York and the National Railway Museum; it was established to further the scholarly study of railways through the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, and our intellectual trajectory is essentially, although by no means exclusively, historical. While our central focus is on railways we also concern ourselves with other forms of transport; and it is inevitable that we do so, for - as I hope my remarks at the beginning made clear - transport must be understood as a whole, if it is to be understood at all. This breadth of scope is indicated by my own job title, Lecturer in the History of Urban Transport a post established and funded through the generosity of the Transport History Research Trust with the express purpose of enabling an integrated historical view to be taken of every mode of transport relevant to an urban context. I can therefore assure you that despite my institutional affiliation I am not here to address solely railways or even to promote what might be characterized as a pro-railway point of view. There are plenty of people more capable than myself of doing that, although sadly few of them are to be found in the modern railway industry. It was the great historian Herbert Butterfield who wrote in 1931 in The Whig Interpretation of History that 'if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge' he (it is always a 'he', in Butterfield) should take it as his aim:
to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete all things will ultimately be reconciled.
Special interest lobbies are the bane of transport discussion and
decision-making, and even if it were not that as a historian I do seek to take
a lofty, detached view of all social and political affiliations - even if I
must disappoint Butterfield in promising neither complete understanding nor
ultimate reconciliation - I would wish to escape from the polarizations,
particularisms and entrenched positions that afflict thought and action in the
field of transport. I seek in what follows, therefore, to take a historical
overview of the development of transport, and to relate the past of transport
to its present, before concluding with a risky venture and one which historians
tend (wisely) to shy away from: a glance into the future.
Transport is as old as human society; as long as people have been around, they have moved themselves and the things they need from place to place. The oldest recorded story in the world, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh from the third millennium BC, contains an important and enigmatic passage about Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim, who carries king Gilgamesh of Uruk across the Ocean that is the boundary of the known world; this is possibly the earliest reference we have to a transport professional. Fifteen hundred years later we have the account of the difficulties Odysseus encountered in voyaging from Troy to Ithaka. The 500-mile journey ended up taking him ten years; not for nothing in the ancient world was the sea regarded as alarming and untrustworthy. Land travel, too, had its perils. In the OId Testament we have, in the Book of Numbers, the story of Balaam and the angel; the seer Balaam, travelling in the course of his duties (but contrary to God's will) to the land of Moab, was baffled, then infuriated, then violent and abusive, when the ass he was riding came to a sudden halt, having seen, as her rider could not, the angel of the Lord blocking the path. Balaam's anger, we are told, 'was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff' and threatened the beast: 'would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee'; an early example of road rage.
Rome, of course, had its roads. The heart of Rome was the ancient equivalent of a road sign: the milliareum aureum, the golden milestone, from which the great roads - the Via Flaminia, the Via Aurelia, the Via Appia - radiated the length and breadth of Europe, and beyond, into Africa and Asia. And along those roads moved merchants, artisans, farmers, doctors, civil servants, and of course generals and soldiers; and along them, too, travelled the language and customs of Rome, literature and philosophy, religions old and new. The Roman road was simultaneously military hardware, political symbol, cultural conduit and economic infrastructure, and this is by no means the last time transport systems have embodied this conjunction of the political, the cultural and the economic. The stupendously-engineered road network of the Incas had a similar significance in their society; and in more modern times the Grand Trunk Road of Mughal, and then British, India, memorably described in Rudyard Kipling's Kim, provides another example.
The Roman Empire came to an end in the fifth century AD, but the roads remained to form the basic element of land transport in Europe for another thousand and more years. The people of this post-Roman world travelled a lot more than we tend to think. The old image of medieval and early modern people living their whole lives in their own village, generally travelling no more than two or three miles, with a trip to the local market town amounting to a major adventure, while not without elements of truth, is a simplistic generalization. Medieval society was full of people on the move: officers of state, nobles, armies, clergy, scholars, pilgrims, drovers. Roads were, by modern standards, poor (although it should be remembered that, most medieval roads saw only foot and horse traffic, and that it is wheeled vehicles, which inflict the most damage on unmade road surfaces), and travel was highly seasonally dependent, but travel people did. The pilgrimage to Canterbury was no great adventure for Chaucer's 'worthy woman from Bath'; she has been, we learn, three times to Jerusalem; she has travelled to Rome, St James of Compostela and Cologne. In the fourteenth century fellows and officials of Merton College, Oxford, travelled regularly to Ponteland near Newcastle upon Tyne, where the college held property; the journey, of some 300 miles, took between eight and ten days in spring or summer, which seems a long time to us but was in fact, at an average of around 30 miles a day, very creditable; and such journeys were not exceptional. The medieval Sacrists' Rolls or account books of Ely Cathedral reveal a constant coming and going of people and goods: in 1291-2, for example, the sacrist, Clement of Thetford, co-ordinated the carriage of food and materials from various cathedral properties to the places where it was stored and used; he travelled to fairs at Bury St Edmunds (22 miles away), Barnwell (30 miles) and others to buy and carry back goods ranging from rice and honey to cartwheels and axles; he goes to Boston in Lincolnshire (45 miles) to buy a considerable quantity of wine at a good price, and arranges for its transport back to Ely; he sends to London (65 miles) for vestments and other items, which are delivered to him by road and water and carefully accounted for; he collects the king's taxes on the monastery's income and travels to Westminster on three separate occasions to argue that Ely is paying too much. Across Europe abbeys, colleges and individuals held property spread over wide areas, with which they had to keep in touch; judges made circuits of the countryside; merchants accompanied their goods across land and sea. People judged the success of their government by whether traffic could pass unmolested along the highways, and peaceful commerce take place where the roads met, under the market cross.
But of course, travel and transport were never easy. Roads degenerated, sometimes to the point of effective disappearance, in bad weather; law and order could not always be guaranteed; to be lost or benighted on a medieval or early modern road was no minor matter. Christian's experiences on the road to the Celestial City in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress would have been familiar to all his seventeenth-century readers, and their forebears: many a road was blocked by a Slough of Despond. The difficulty of land travel in most of Europe from the end of the Roman empire to the later eighteenth century was due both to technological and to political factors. Technologically, while techniques for building strong and enduring paved surfaces were known and could be used for short stretches of road, there was no widely applied technology for creating durably surfaced roads of any length. Secondly, there was a lack of the necessary political will and co-ordination required to bring about the creation of an improved road network, even had medieval and early modern governments been able to command the necessary resources. Authority for roads was always fragmented, splintered among thousands of jurisdictions from lords of the manor to abbeys to parish councils to army ordnance boards. There was no coherence; one jurisdiction would try to offload the responsibility for the upkeep of a road or bridge to the next one, and local taxpayers would complain of having to pay to maintain roads which benefited 'strangers' from other areas. One of the results was that a reasonable stretch of road might suddenly give way to a practically impassable collection of vaguely aligned ruts. The roads of Lombardy, for example, were described in the early eighteenth century as being reasonably good, but a sharp deterioration was noticeable immediately you passed out of Lombard territory to the south.
This state of affairs was by no means universal, however; during the seventeenth century Louis XIV's France saw the development of the best national road system since the end of the Roman Empire, with a system of post roads, under the centralized administration of the controller of ponts et chaussées, allowing the development of networks of public transport by diligence, stage coach and mail coach and the establishment of a national postal system without equal in Europe. The Netherlands were noted, then as now, for the quality of their transport infrastructure and public transport provision. An English traveller in the low countries in the 1770s singled out the roads of the country for praise, describing the road from Antwerp to Brussels as being 'paved in the middle like the best streets in London, and kept in better repair', while the road from Brussels to Ghent was 'a fine causeway ... broader than any street and well paved.' Along the canals and waterways ran the local water buses or trechschuits which worked a regular timetable between towns and villages on established routes, announcing their departure from each landing-stage by the ringing of a bell. 'Strangers' observed William Beckford in the late 1770s, 'are equally surprised and charmed by this way of travelling, as it is indeed far the most commodious, best regulated, and cheapest in Europe.'
Europe's universal highway was water, and a vast traffic has always been carried on along navigable rivers, canals, and coastal waters. Medieval shipping was extensive and sophisticated: the Channel, the North Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean were busy with craft of all shapes and sizes, and the great towns and cities of medieval and early modern Europe were, almost without exception, either inland or coastal ports: London, Norwich, Königsberg, Hamburg, Bruges, Bordeaux, Lisbon, Barcelona, Venice. By land, the nature of road travel led merchants to concentrate on trade in small and relatively valuable goods; by sea, bulk goods such as grain, salt, wine, wool, timber and stone could be transported great distances. Considerable investment, much more than was generally put into the provision and maintenance of roads, was devoted to improving the conditions of transport by water. One of the greatest civil engineering feats of the middle ages was the diversion of the river Frome at Bristol, enabling the inconvenient and tidal quays on the Avon to be by-passed. This work was carried out in the years 1239-47 at the vast cost of £5,000 (equivalent to roughly two thirds of the entire income the crown obtained each year at that time from English exports of wool); a writ of King Henry III survives in which he orders the men of Redcliffe in Bristol to take part in the construction of 'a certain trench in the marsh of St Augustine, that ships coming to our port of Bristol may be able to enter and leave more freely and without impediment.' Work on improving inland waterways went on almost without a break throughout the medieval and early modern period, with projects ranging from the provision of a new quay on the river Kennet for the monks of Reading Abbey in the early fourteenth century to the construction in the late seventeenth century of the Canal des Deux Mers across southern France from the Garonne to the Golfe du Lions, linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. This canal, 150 miles in length and rising 432 feet, cost 16 million livres, to be financed out of tolls, with one third of the initial cost coming from Louis XIV's treasury. All parties to the agreement got a good bargain, and the canal had great influence on the economy of southern France, the Mediterranean litoral, and, through the transformation it brought to the carriage of grain between the two seas, on the food supply of much of western Europe.
The arguments for using water transport rather than land for any goods of bulk remained as strong at the end of the eighteenth century as they had been at the end of the fourteenth. Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations:
A broad-wheeled waggon, attended by two men, and drawn by eight horses, in about six weeks' time carries and brings back between London and Edinburgh near four ton weight of goods. In about the same time a ship navigated by six or eight men, and sailing between the ports of London and Leith, frequently carries and brings back two hundred ton weight of goods. Six or eight men, therefore, by the help of water-carriage, can carry and bring back in the same time the same quantity of goods between London and Edinburgh, as fifty broad-wheeled waggons, attended by a hundred men, and drawn by four hundred horses.
'What goods' Smith goes on to ask, 'could bear the expense of land-carriage
between London and Calcutta?'; words which remind us again of the global
economy within which Europe has existed for the past four centuries or so, and
the place of transport within that economy.
The eighteenth century was a period of considerable development in transport infrastructure in Europe. To quote Adam Smith again, 'Good roads, canals and navigable rivers ... are ... the greatest of all improvements.' On land, Louis XIV's France was not the only country in which rapid development took place in roads and canals. In England the first turnpike trust was established in the later seventeenth century; tolls were raised on travellers and used, initially by local Justices of the Peace, and later by turnpike trusts, for the maintenance of the road. By the 1830s over 1,000 turnpike trusts were responsible for 25,000 miles of road in England and Wales. The quality of these roads was highly variable, but until the advances associated with John McAdam in the early nineteenth century there were no substantial developments in roadway technology, and, as Paul Langford notes in his volume of the New Oxford History of England, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783, 'The dilemma of the highway engineer, the new traffic generated by improvement designed to cater for existing excess demand, was already familiar.' Heavier traffic, and particularly a greater volume than ever before of wheeled traffic, destroyed road surfaces as fast as they could be maintained. Attempts were made to control the more damaging vehicles through regulating the width of wheels (narrow wheels being more damaging) and enforcing better distribution of loads, but in an age of a multiplicity of transport interests and. highway authorities little could be done to enforce common standards. However, contemporaries were in no doubt as to the value of turnpikes; speed of travel were slashed and regular, and reliable, coach services between towns and cities became viable for the first time, and the national system of Royal Mail coaches became possible. 'No Publick Edifice, Alms-House, Hospital, or Nobleman's Palace, can be of equal Value to the Country with this', declared the fourth edition of Daniel Defoe's Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain in 1742 of the turnpikes; and most contemporaries would have agreed.
The development of canals, of course, gained impetus in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but this was more a matter of continuing and accelerating an ongoing process than it was a revolutionary change. By 1760, the beginning of the canal age, the river Severn was navigable from the sea to Pool Quay near Welshpool, a distance of 140 miles. The boats used on navigable rivers could be of considerable size, up to 90 tons. A complex network of navigable waterways encompassed almost the whole of populated Europe by the mid eighteenth century; rivers such as the Thames, the Great Ouse, the Seine, the Danube, the Rhine and the Vistula were the true highways of Europe. The development of canals should be seen as the improvement and development of an existing system rather than a revolutionary change. Canals linked navigable rivers or were feeders for them, and continued the work which navigable waterways had always done, carrying bulky and non-time sensitive goods.
When the railways came freight did not simply desert the canals. Some companies lowered tolls and were able to compete effectively with the railways for a time; others were bought by railway companies and, generally, allowed to stagnate and decay. The first business to go to the railways was not the staple of canal business, coal, timber, grain, stone, but lighter traffic such as some manufactured goods, merchandise and parcels, but the heavier goods soon followed; and, of course, the railways transformed passenger transport. The true innovation of the railway was that both bulky, non-urgent traffic and light, high-value goods could be carried by the same transport mode. Furthermore, the railways created new traffic. Milk could never be carried for long distances by canal, and was never an important canal traffic, but rapidly became important for the railways. The railways brought a great transformation, social, political and cultural as well as economic. In 1837 Robert Peel observed that:
The steam engine and the railroad are not merely facilitating the transport of merchandise, they are not merely shortening the duration of journeys, or administering to the supply of material wants. They are speeding the intercourse between mind and mind - they are creating new demands for knowledge - they are fertilising the intellectual as well as the material waste.
If I was to single out one aspect of the railway as the most significant in
terms of its social and cultural transformative power, it would be speed.
'Many, if not most, of the distinctive phenomena that constitute "the
nineteenth century" are directly due to railway speed' observed one writer
on railways in 1889. The influence of 'railway speed' spread far beyond the
railways, to affect the whole of society. The perception that railways had
accelerated every aspect of life was as deep-rooted and as influential as the
connection made between railways and progress. For some, the two factors were
interconnected; railways could hardly have brought the benefits claimed for
them if they had not enabled people to do so much more in the time available.
For Henry Booth, the first manager of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the
railways had brought a revolution 'in our value of time! Our amended estimate
of the occupation of an hour, or a day, when generalized, affecting the
duration of life itself.' Samuel Smiles commented in 1862 that 'In no country
in the world is time worth more money than in England; and by saving time ...
the railway proved a great benefactor to men of industry in all classes.'
The railway was the dominant mode of land transport for something under a century. But, just as the railways did not - as is often thought - bring about the immediate obsolescence of the canals, so the railways did not mean an eclipse of road transport. The stage coaches disappeared, but the country carriers continued to flourish for many years, now serving the railway network as well as the towns and villages they had always served. In the cities, the coming of the railway, disgorging thousands of people and hundreds of tons of merchandise into passenger and goods terminals every day, produced a multiplication of traffic on the roads, causing congestion and pollution on a vast scale. The Victorians recognized this problem and sought to alleviate it with schemes such as this, proposed by the chairman of the London County Council in 1898:
To meet the traffic of London it was not so much additional railways, underground or overground ... that were wanted as wide arterial improvements of the streets themselves. Strictly urban railways only tended to add to the congestion from the point of view of both urban movement and suburban influx ... A scheme of new main thoroughfares of adequate width for present and future traffic should be laid down, and realised as soon as time and finance permitted ... In the case of the Strand, Fleet-street, and Piccadilly the only course was a systematic widening of all three thoroughfares, with a broad, diagonal street from Piccadilly circus, via Coventry-street, to join the widened Strand near Wellington-street.
Also included in this scheme was 'a route for bicycle traffic ... [a] new and spacious thoroughfare about 120 ft. wide', running from Bayswater Road to Broad Street in the City. Today, when everyone thinks bicycles are marvellous and the urban landscape is being cluttered with cycle lanes and other such facilities which cyclists don't use, preferring the pavement, it is salutary to recall what a nuisance the bicycle was when it first came on the scene. It added greatly to the congestion and danger, especially of urban traffic, and as the above quote makes clear traffic planners would do almost anything to get cyclists segregated from other traffic. In some towns, the cycle remained one of the most significant traffic problems well into the twentieth century. 'Bicycles came in hordes, like locusts, upon the university towns', observed the planner Thomas Sharp in Oxford Replanned, of 1947. 'The bicycle' he continues,
is not only one of the main components in any Oxford landscape: it is one of the main causes of traffic congestion ... On all the central streets the number of bicycles is only a little less than half the total number of vehicles ... the 24,000 two-wheeled vehicles that are propelled over Magdalen Bridge in a single day cannot be lightly dismissed as a number of mere bicycles. A few locusts are of little importance. A swarm is a plague.
And in Oxford, a plague they remain.
Let us pause for a moment and consider transport in the nineties. Congestion, pollution, inconvenience, calls for change, a sense of crisis. One form of power for road transport dominates. It pollutes the streets, causing major health scares; it is greedy for energy, provoking widespread concern about its contribution to a possible energy crisis; it is greedy for space in already congested city and town centres; it blocks up town and city streets, forming long, ugly, smelly columns of stationary vehicles along streets and inextricable tangles at junctions. Despite improvements, the road system cannot cope.
The mode of transport I am talking about here is of course the horse, and these are the 1890s, not the 1990s. The numbers of horses engaged in non-agricultural work in Britain more than trebled between 1811 and 1891; far from taking business away from horse-drawn transport, the railways had brought a vast amount of new business onto the roads, and the horse population grew accordingly. Now we see a horse-drawn brewery dray in London or a horse and carriage taking tourists around York and we think 'how nice', but one hundred years ago the horse was the focus of contemporary perceptions of transport crisis. A horse ate 1.4 tons of corn and 2.4 tons of hay per year, so the 1.3 million transport horses in use in Britain in 1891 consumed the equivalent of the entire national output of oats and over twothirds of the entire national output of hay every year. This fodder had to be produced and transported to the equine population, which was itself a major source of traffic. Horses had to be stabled in the hearts of towns and cities; and the waste products of living horses, and the bodies of dead ones, had to be disposed of. The streets of London in the last century were paved with horse dung, not gold, which was not only ugly and unpleasant but was a constant health hazard. My colleague in the History Department at York, professor Richard Bessel, has written 'An appreciation of the congestion and smells on Oxford Street, Broadway, the Champs Elysées or Unter den Linden one hundred years ago should dampen any attempt to romanticize city life before the roads were inundated by mechanical contraptions.' It is little wonder so much effort was put into finding ways of replacing actual with mechanical horsepower.
The story of land transport in the twentieth century is often caricatured as the triumph of road transport, and, although I would want to argue that road transport has always been important, and that in this area, as in others, continuity is as important historically as change, there is substance for this claim. The numbers of cars and commercial vehicles on the roads has steadily increased since early in the century, and that rate of increase has speeded up since the second world war. Looking purely at Great Britain, road traffic measured in billion vehicle kilometres has increased by a factor of nine since 1950, from 48.7 billion vehicle kilometres to 640 billion. During the same period freight carried on the railways, measured in billion tonne kilometres, declined more than 60%, and railway passenger traffic by 70%. However, it is important to realize that the rise in road transport and the expansion in the numbers and use of motor vehicles did not come out of nowhere; nor was it motivated by greed, short-sightedness, the manipulations of shadowy cartels in 'the motor industry' or 'the roads lobby'. The application of technical knowledge and mechanical skill to developing the motorized road vehicle was a continuation of the trait in human societies that had produced the sailing ship, the turnpike road, the bicycle and the railway: an effort to solve a particular set of problems. And motorized vehicles have solved problems, and very successfully. And of course they have brought new problems with them, which we must now attempt to solve, but we will not solve them by adopting entrenched road or anti-road, pro or anti-public transport positions.
I hope that my historical survey of transport has served to demonstrate that transport has always been recognised as of paramount importance for the wellbeing of the whole community, that a combination of collective and individual enterprise has always been needed to make transport systems work, and that developments in transport today represent continuity with the past. I hope I have also managed to bring over the idea that transport is not a purely utilitarian matter. It is also, as John Gummer pointed out in his lecture in 1994, an expression of freedom. Societies which have sought to limit freedom have always controlled travel and transport, the movement of people, goods, and ideas. Today the networks of transport we have around us and upon which we depend are expressions of a great modern freedom, the freedom of movement, a freedom which is spread more widely and has a greater influence than has ever been the case before. This freedom is not evenly spread; it is concentrated in (although far from restricted to) the more affluent parts of the globe and the wealthier strata of society. But it is a fact that more people than ever before can now move more freely, further, faster, and more easily than has ever been possible in the history of the world: The consequence of this freedom is prosperity, opportunity, a richness of life inconceivable to most of our ancestors, and we should think very carefully before limiting or restricting that freedom.
Yet today we do not associate transport with liberty, opportunity, and the workings of an active, healthy human community, but with congestion, pollution, declining public transport, failures of policy, a degraded environment. This is not a new perception, just as the problems themselves are not new, but in the last thirty years or so, the period of my own lifetime, it has risen to be a dominant perception. Perhaps Philip Larkin's 1972 poem Going is as good an articulation as any of the kind of perception I have in mind; the poem begins 'I thought it would last my time - / The sense that, beyond the town, / There would always be fields and farms', and ends:
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There'll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
This kind of apocalyptic gloom is deeply ingrained in our culture now.
Larkin himself recognized the paradox of the view he was articulating in that
same poem, when he wrote 'when the old part retreats / As the bleak high-risers
come / We can always escape in the car.' Larkin was writing at a time in which
crises, of population, the environment, energy, nationalism, the atomic bomb,
were ten a penny. This was an era which produced some of the most vigorous and
extreme of the 'transport crisis' diatribes, texts which I would argue have
shaped the culture in which we live today. For the American author James J.
Flink in 1975, 'the development of the energy crisis' and 'an impending major
depression' were 'the death knells of the automobile culture ... The automobile
culture and the values that sustain it are no longer tenable.' These words,
from Flink's The Car Culture, have been proved utterly false. So has the
claim by the British writer Alisdair Aird, in The Automotive Nightmare
(1972), that 'In the next two or three decades [cars] will virtually destroy
many towns and cities throughout the world. They will kill and maim millions.
Their place in the world economy will become too heavy to bear.' Again, this
has simply not happened, just as the earth has not run out of resources. Human
societies show an extraordinary resilience and inventiveness. The prophets of
doom in the 1970s, writing under the shadow of oil crisis, perceived energy
crises and population explosion, have been proved wrong, and I am confident
that the prophets of doom of our own time will be proved wrong as well.
So what of transport today? To quote John Gummer:
The roads are clogged; road-building challenges environmental priorities, aeroplanes and motor cars damage the atmosphere and increase pollution; the toll in human lives and accidents and the assault upon the marine environment of shipping disasters can no longer be ignored. We have for too long believed that it is so good a thing that we can travel so often, so fast, so easily, that we should not weigh in the balance the disadvantages.
A balanced assessment of advantages and disadvantages is one thing, but it
seems to me that we are now so habituated to seeing transport as a problem that
we are in danger of losing all sense of balance. For transport is today almost
invariably seen as a problem, even as a crisis, actual or impending; and
transport policy - proposed and actual - is increasingly conceived in coercive
terms: people will be forced out of their cars, cars will be forced out of
cities, goods will be forced out of trucks and into trains. The aims of such
policies are often sound and laudable, but we must beware of conceiving of
transport as a problem that must be solved through methods antagonistic to the
fundamental f reedoms which the phenomenon of transport expresses and serves.
This crisis and coercion model of transport rests on perceptions which, I would
argue, are fundamentally flawed. It is historically illiterate, failing to
understand the historical roots of current and future trends and the lessons of
past experience; it is sociologically and economically simplistic, failing to
grasp the interdependence between current patterns of transport usage and the
ways in which complex contemporary societies operate; it is elitist, failing to
comprehend that ordinary people are capable of making rational and intelligent
choices about transport modes and the organisation of their lives, and that
what planners, academics, theorists and activists tell them is good for them is
not necessarily so; and it reflects a view of society which is ultimately
fragmented and atomized.
Contemporary discussions of transport issues too often fragment people: into cardrivers, pedestrians, railway commuters, bus passengers. These are not different people. They are the same people at different times. People chose different transport modes according to what is appropriate for them and for the task in hand, and it is a choice most people are well equipped arid able enough to take. Very often their choice will be for the car, if they have one. It is convenient, private, comfortable, reliable, takes you and your luggage from where you want to start to where you want to finish. Public transport too can be a rational choice if it is an attractive option, but people cannot be coerced into using it if it is not appropriate for them.
As for congestion, well, congestion is part of transport, because it is part of life. It is not a new problem, as I hope I have made clear. It can be ameliorated, but it cannot be done away with. I have never understood why people are always quoting the claim that traffic in London in the 1990s moves no more quickly on average than traffic in London in the 1890s. Leaving aside the basic unprovability of this assertion, why would it be otherwise? London is an area into which a lot of life is focussed; there is, as there always has been, a great deal of traffic in a finite space; a lot of traffic management is needed, which means traffic lights, prioritized junctions, pedestrian crossings and so on, all of which slow traffic down; lots of decisions are required; a lot of stopping and starting. It is my guess that in any city above a certain size, given any mode of transport, the average speed of traffic will be more or less what it is in London now.
Congestion, furthermore, is not essentially a product of transport or traffic. It is a product of social activity. The Canadian urban planner Ken Greenberg, who is a leading figure in the New Urbanist planning school (a school of thought which favours reducing dependence on motor vehicles) has memorably said that 'Anywhere that doesn't have congestion, you probably don't want to be there.' If you are in a place where there are things going on, where lots of people live, work, and enjoy themselves, you are going to find congestion. Cities with highly developed public transport systems such as Portland (Oregon), Paris, Munich and Glasgow are as congested as those that do not. Congestion is a fact of life in cities. Too many people talk today as if it is the avoidable product of mistaken transport policies. Some of it may be, although this is hard to prove; but congestion as a phenomenon is as much an expression of collective human activity as obtaining food or reading a book.
This, I suspect, is not a popular view. Much transport planning over the past few years has been devoted to shutting traffic out of the very places which have given it existence: town and city centres. Pedestrianized streets have conquered the land. A visitor from another planet, or from another age, might be forgiven for wondering what we think streets are for: certainly not for traffic, that's for sure. Town after town has succumbed to a wave of heritage-styled bollards, decorative paving, flower beds, craft stalls and street entertainers. I do not, I hasten to add, think all pedestrianization is a bad thing: Kingston on Thames, Cambridge and York are examples of the benefits such policies can bring. The environment is cleaner, more visually attractive, safer (at least in terms of the dangers of road traffic), quieter, more relaxed. But there is too often an uncritical application of such policies to areas without a consideration of some of the consequences. It is now very difficult, for example, to get a bus to the centre of Reading; since pedestrianization the buses, which in Reading are excellent (having been successfully defended over the years by one of the best Labour councils in the country), are diverted down narrow and congested streets around the fringes of the town centre. And how, I wonder, is the contemporary desire to rescue the town centre and the high street from the depredations of the out of town shopping mall going to be fulfilled if the shops are inconveniently isolated by acres of patterned pedestrianized paving?
The rise of out of town shopping is another instance of the way in which many of the nostrums suggested for solving our 'transport problem' have no connection with the realities of life. As long ago as 1974, in a book called Social and Political Consequences of the Motor Car, professor D. V. Donnison (who was then director of the Centre for Environmental Studies in London) wrote, in an article called 'Urban policies and the motor car' that:
The friends and enemies of the motor car both tend to forget that the vehicles about which they dispute are an integral part of more complex, interlocking social systems. Policies for the motor car must be derived from a perceptive understanding of these systems and the directions in which they are evolving.
Donnison discusses a phenomenon called 'cultural urbanization', in which social and cultural developments are producing 'a single, continuous urban system'. This does not necessarily mean that the country is being swallowed up by buildings, although that might be associated with this process. It does mean that the services associated with urban centres are becoming diffused across the country and are increasingly widely available. This is a development based on technological developments in transport and communication. People, Donnison goes on,
travel farther and more often, to work, to shop, to school, and for recreation. Their movements form an increasingly complex, criss-crossing pattern with less dominant centrifocal flows ... The newness of the technologies which have made all this possible should not blind us to the familiarity of the basic needs and life-styles involved. For generations we have been accustomed to social segregation and to specialization in work, recreation and personal contacts - in the big city. That is what made cities big. Soon people will be able to secure the same opportunities almost anywhere. It is the 'cultural urbanization' of the whole country that we are witnessing. The process is still gaining momentum and will go much further - because people Iike it.
This, it seems to me, is absolutely spot-on. The trends which Donnison
identified in 1974 are still with us now, and are more important than ever.
What does this mean in real terms? It means doing the weekly shopping at one
large shop, and carrying the purchases home in the car ('how', Donnison asked
in 1974, 'do you walk home with a month's supply of frozen foods?' And how do
you take them home on the bus?), because you can park for free, everything is
in the one place, and it is comfortable and straightforward, even if not always
exactly enjoyable. Supermarkets thrive because they provide what people want;
not necessarily in terms of price, because generally speaking they are not
cheaper, but in terms of convenience. In a world in which everyone seems to be
getting busier all the time, that is important. It means people in rural areas
using their cars to visit, not just the nearer large towns, but the nearest and
most comprehensive out of town developments. Too many theorists about
transport, particularly anti-car theorists, live in towns and do not appreciate
the value of this. The car is an enabler; it is not a luxury for many people,
but an essential if they are to live full and fulfilling lives. There is a book
called Critical Mass: Transport, Environment and Society in the Twenty-first
Century by John Whitelegg of Liverpool John Moores University. In this book
the car is referred to as 'a deviant technology.' This is nonsense. There is a
continuity in transport technology, as in all others; the motor car, like the
lorry, is just one particularly successful answer to a particular set of
problems. It will be around until something better comes along. As it is, motor
vehicle technology is improving all the time, with beneficial consequences for
society and for the environment. Since the mid 1960s, car emissions have been
reduced by around 95%. Carbon-monoxide levels and nitrogen-oxide levels
continue to fall. The improving technology of the motor car has had far more
impact on improving the environment than any efforts to increase the role of
So what of the future? The car cannot be wished away. I think we will see a slow but steady rejection of some of the more extreme and irrational anti-car policies which thrive at the moment. Some presently pedestrianized roads will be returned to traffic. Bike lanes which currently reduce road space for vehicles will be removed. Road tolling in urban areas will not take off (motorway tolls are another issue, and I can see them being successfully applied, as they currently are in France). A realistic level of parking will be provided again in towns and cities; one of the most potent causes of congestion is insufficient parking. In 1947 Thomas Sharp urged the exact opposite of what is now favoured: he recommended that in Oxford the provision of sufficient parking space should be a condition of any permission to build any large public or commercial buildings. He argued for adequate provision of underground and multi-storey car parks:
It is time that a revolution was made at pavement-level. This does not mean we must victimize the motorist by refusing him the use of his car, or, what is worse, so restricting it that it ceases to give its proper service. What it does mean is that we must provide the greatest modern utility with opportunities which permit it to fulfil its mission one hundred percent without, however, breaking up the other activities of the social scene.
This will again become orthodoxy, because it is a realistic and balanced
approach. Streets choked with cars are one consequence of insufficient car
parking; people will go where they can park, and that often means out of town
retail and leisure facilities.
We cannot plan away the car, nor should we seek to do so; but we can plan around it. We can plan public transport around it, rather than placing the two in binary opposition to one another. So what is the role of public transport? I would argue that we must accept the non-commerciality of much transport in the narrow sense of the bottom line, while simultaneously accepting its vital role in a wider sense. It is no good, for example, talking about new training opportunities for the young, or for single parents, if they cannot physically get to them. There is an essential role for integrated, rationally-planned public transport. The issue of ownership is I think secondary; I have no dogmatic attachment either to public or to private. It is the issue of operation which matters to the travelling public, and what the public wants is reliability, integration, and information. These can be provided by the appropriate regulatory regime in almost any privatized, semi-privatized or franchised operation. What they cannot be provided in is a fragmented and dis-integrated system pulled apart in the name of the nebulous benefits of competition and choice, which is what we have had for the past twenty years or so.
There can be little doubt that the recent regime of deregulation, privatisation and fragmentation has been bad for the transport industry and bad for the transport user. Public transport requires planning and integration, both of which were anathema to the Conservative governments of 1979-97; it requires strategic vision; it requires the acceptance of public responsibility for transport provision which is in the public interest; it is a field in which monopoly can be beneficial, and competition is generally irrelevant at best, and is often actually damaging. The consequences of the Conservatives' inability to understand these facts, for the bus industry and for the railways, have been thoroughly damaging. I would like to make what is now a very unfashionable appeal for publicly funded (not necessarily publicly owned, as I have said) and centrally organized public transport systems. We used to have such systems, in London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, in ali our rnajor towns and cities. The buses bore the coats of arms of their towns and uniform liveries; they operated integrated networks of planned routes. They were not merely a transport system; they were an expression of the city as a civic community, rather than as a meaningless agglomeration of individuals, or an arena for the ruthless play of so-called 'market forces'. Those who served the Conservative governments of the last two decades utterly failed to grasp this. Ministers who in their dealings with Europe waxed lyrical about the symbols of nationhood showed themselves utterly ignorant of the value of the symbols of community closer to home, from the Post Office to the cottage hospital, the county regiment to the local bus.
We were told. in the 1980s and 90s, that choice was to be the guiding principle of transport provision. Well, for public transport users choice doesn't matter. Reliability matters. A good level of service matters. Integration matters. Information matters. When I was living in a village just outside Oxford ten years ago, I had the choice of two competing bus services into the city. What did this choice, for which the deregulation of bus transport in the mid1980s was entirely responsible, mean to me? It meant that in the busy times of morning and evening there were large numbers of minibuses running within a few minutes of each other clogging up Botley Road, and for the rest of the day there was a half-hourly service which involved buses from the two companies - assuming both arrived - turning up at the stop at the same time; it involved waiting for twenty minutes or half an a hour for a bus, to be told when I got on board that my return ticket was for the other company and wasn't valid, and being faced with the choice of paying again for a journey I had already paid for or getting off and waiting, who knew how long, for the right variety of bus to turn up. It also meant the staff who operated these services being forced to take pay cuts and work longer hours. As a passenger, the concepts of choice and competition were meaningless to me. What mattered to me was getting where I wanted to go, doing what I wanted to do, and coming back again afterwards.
The privatization and deregulation idea has run into the sand; it is an exhausted political language. The clock cannot be turned back through outright re-nationalization, but through effective regulation and investment in appropriate technological solutions to transport needs the most significant failings of the current scene can be remedied - and there are some signs that this is happening.
New technological systems have much to offer in terms of improving public transport. Light rail systems are currently experiencing a renaissance as a form of urban transit (they have little relevance to rural transport needs) both in this country and abroad. A number of schemes have been very successful: Manchester is the foremost example. But others have not proved to be the solution to local transport needs. There are other, less expensive, less disruptive (but less glamorous) solutions that can be employed. The workhorse of urban and rural passenger transport is the motor bus. A real difference can be made to the public transport experience offered by a town or city if its buses are effectively managed. If there are good evening and weekend services; if services are reliable; if information is available; if buses and other facilities are clean, well-maintained, properly lit at night; if there are central focal points for services; if connections with other transport modes are carefully thought through; if pushchairs, wheelchairs, and the whole week's shopping can be carried on the buses; if there is an effective park and ride service; if bus priority measures enable services to run smoothly. Ideally I want to find, when I reach a bus stop, the bus I want already there and waiting for me. In the absence of this happy but regrettably rare state of affairs, I want to find effective shelter from the wind, lighting if it is dark and something civilized to sit on; information about the services which operate from that stop; ideally, a display telling me where the next bus is and when it is likely to arrive (an inexpensive and straightforward technology which could be provided on every bus route in the country for less than the cost of Sheffield's troubled supertram system). When I get on the bus I want to be able to buy a ticket which will get me to my destination, whatever different transport modes and operators I will have to use to get there.
But this situation requires something that has been absent for many years from thinking about transport in Britain: an acceptance of the value of planning, co-ordination, a measure of central control, and the provision of services by society for the benefit of society as a whole. One hundred years of public-sector public transport in Britain produced national rail and road passenger transport networks and the nearest thing to comprehensive local bus and rail networks in towns, cities, and the countryside that we are ever likely to get; it gave us the Glasgow Underground, the Tyne & Wear Metro, the excellent bus services of medium-sized towns such as Reading, the integrated networks of large cities such as Manchester, the great achievement that was London Transport. Twenty years or so of privatization and deregulation has given us Stagecoach on the buses, and a railway sector that is so busy shovelling the blame for poor services from one desk to another that the priorities of the travelling public are entirely forgotten.
The needs of the user have to be paramount in transport planning and policy. The essence of transport, whether of goods or people is not the movement of vehicles: it is access, and access means - even in this age of the internet - physical movement. The car is an essential part of that; along with buses, trucks, railways, aircraft, ships, bicycles, it is one of the more recent expressions of the age-old desire for the enrichment of life through the ease of movement. Through a sensible, balanced, historically-informed understanding of transport in which each mode is given its proper role in the overall scheme of things, we can continue to further the fulfilment of that desire, while keeping the inevitable costs, environmental and otherwise, under control.
This lecture is reprinted in an abridged form in the RSA Journal,
vol.CXLVI, no. 5488 (April 1999).
© Ralph Harrington 1998. Except for bona fide individual or academic purposes, this lecture may not be reprinted in whole or in part, or stored, or transmitted by any means, including electronic, without the prior written consent of the author. All commercial use, reproduction or transmission of this lecture is strictly prohibited.
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