Hypermobility

 

by John Adams

 

(appeared in Prospect, London, March 2000)

 

Politicians in all industrial countries struggle to apply technical fixes to the problems caused by increasing physical mobility. But even if we devise non-polluting congestion-free modes of transport and all work from home we will still pay a very high price for mobility, says John Adams...

 

Mobility is liberating and empowering. But you can have too much of a good thing. The growth in the numbers of people exercising their freedom and power is fouling the planet and its arteries.

 

Prodigious technological efforts are being made to solve the problems of congestion and pollution caused by increased motorised mobility. Let us suppose for a moment that they succeed. Imagine that scientists invent something close to a pollution-free perpetual motion engine. Imagine further, that they succeed in developing the ultimate, intelligent transport system a computerised traffic control system which will hugely increase the capacity of existing roads, rails and airports. Finally, imagine a world in which computers are universally affordable and access to the internet is too cheap to meter; pollution-free virtual mobility is vigorously promoted as an important part of the solution to the problems caused by too much physical mobility.

At present, the lion's share of time, money and regulatory energies applied to the pursuit of solutions to the problems caused by motorised travel is being spent on such "technical fixes." If successful, there will be further large increases in physical mobility. Cleaner and more efficient engines will weaken existing constraints on the growth of travel either by making it cheaper, or by removing environmental reasons for restricting it. Intelligent highway systems promise to reduce greatly the time cost of travel by eliminating much of the time now lost to congestion. And virtual mobility, while capable of substituting for many physical journeys, is more likely to serve as a net stimulus to travel: by freeing tele-workers from the daily commute, it liberates them to join the exodus to the suburbs, where most journeys to shop, to school, to doctor, to library, to post office and to friends are longer and, mostly, infeasible by public transport.

In 1950, the average Briton travelled about 5 miles a day. Now it is about 28 miles a day, and forecast to double by 2025. Growth trends for virtual mobility correlate strongly with the trends for physical mobility, but their growth rates are much higher. Transport and communications provide the means by which everyone connects with everyone else. But the transformation in the speed and reach of these means is having profound social consequences.

A constraint on behaviour which technology cannot remove is the number of hours in a day. As we spread ourselves ever wider, we must spread ourselves thinner. If we spend more time interacting with people at a distance, we must spend less time with those closer to home. If we have contact with more people, we must devote less attention to each one. In small-scale pedestrian societies hypomobile societies everyone knows everyone. In hypermobile societies, old-fashioned geographical communities are replaced by aspatial communities of interest we spend more time, physically, among strangers. The advantages of mobility are heavily advertised; the disadvantages of hypermobility receive much less attention. Many of the unwelcome characteristics of the hypermobile society can readily be imagined by extrapolating existing trends.

Society will be more dispersed. The process of suburban sprawl will accelerate. Societies whose members move at high speed over great distances consume more space. It is the long-distance journeys, by road and air, which are experiencing the fastest growth rates. Walking and cycling the local, democratic and environmentally benign modes of travel are in steep decline. Even with pollution-free perpetual-motion engines there will be unwelcome environmental consequences. More of the country will need to be paved to provide parking places; the extra roads required will scar cherished landscapes and subdivide still further the habitats of endangered species; room will have to be found for new and larger airports; those parts of the world valued for their remote tranquillity will be further encroached on.

Society will be more polarised. The increase in the mobility of the average Briton conceals a growing gap between the mobility-rich and the mobility have-nots. All those too young, or too old, or otherwise disqualified from driving will get left behind, along with those too poor to afford cars and plane tickets. They will become second-class citizens dependent for their mobility on the withered remains of public transport or the good will of car owners. And as the world runs away from them to the suburbs, most journeys will become too long to make by foot or cycle. Despite a ten-fold increase in the world's car population since 1950 (to about 500m), the number of people who do not own cars has more than doubled (to about 5.5 billion, thanks to population growth). And despite the much more rapid increase in air travel over this period, the number of people in the world who have never flown has also increased.

The world will be more dangerous for those not in cars. There will be more metal (or carbon fibre) in motion. The fact that there are now about one third as many children killed every year in road accidents as in 1922, when there was hardly any traffic and a 20mph speed limit, does not mean that the roads are now three times safer for children to play in; they have become so dangerous that children are not allowed out any more. The retreat of pedestrians and cyclists will continue. As traffic increases, fewer people try to cross the street one of the reasons why fewer people know their neighbours on the other side of the street.

Children's freedoms will be further curtailed by parental fears, and the social catalyst of children playing in the street will disappear. In Britain, as recently as 1971, 80 per cent of 7 and 8 year olds went to school on their own, unaccompanied by an adult. Now almost none do so; the government issues guidance to parents warning that it is irresponsible to allow children under the age of 12 out of the house unaccompanied. Children seldom experience mixing independently with their peers and learning to cope without adult supervision an experience essential to the process of socialisation.

People will become fatter and less fit. Children with parental chauffeurs no longer acquire the habit of walking or cycling to school, friends, or other activities. As functional walking and cycling disappear, we will have less exercise built into daily routines although this is a trend which appears to be partially offset by the growing numbers of people who drive to health clubs to run on treadmills.

The world will be less culturally varied. The McCulture will be further advanced. Tom Wolfe captures the phenomenon in his novel, A Man in Full: "The only way you could tell you were leaving one community and entering another was when the franchises started repeating and you spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy's, another Costco, another Home Depot." Tourism is the world's fastest growing industry. Travel writers urge their readers to rush to spoil the last unspoiled areas on earth before others beat them to it. The moving pavement which speeds tourists past the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London is just one example of the triumph of Fordist efficiency which characterises mass tourism.

The world will be more anonymous and less convivial. Fewer people will know their neighbours. Gated communities and Neighbourhood Watch attempts to recreate what used to happen naturally are symptomatic of the new anomie. Even when they live in close physical proximity to each other, the mobile wealthy and the immobile poor live in different worlds. The poor, by their lack of mobility, are confined to prisons with invisible walls. They are continually tempted and taunted as prisoners confined to cells with real walls are not by the freedom and conspicuous consumption of the affluent. The wealthy can be seen and heard flying overhead, driving along motorways through the ghettos, appearing on television, enjoying privileges which remain out of reach. To the wealthy, the poor are often invisible; the wealthy tend to see the world at a lower resolution because of the height and speed at which they travel.

Society will be more crime-ridden. The strained relations between haves and have-nots will generate more fear of crime. As with danger on the roads, this is not reliably captured by statistics. Homes become better defended with stronger doors, locks and alarm systems. People, especially women, retreat from the streets and no longer use public transport because they feel threatened; growing numbers of motorists travel with their doors locked. Policing becomes more intrusive, making greater use of CCTV surveillance and computer databases. The old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat who knew his neighbourhood is being replaced by clever cameras which can read number plates and recognise faces. High-tech policing, feared by civil libertarians, is an inescapable cost of hypermobility. The alternative is ineffectual policing. If criminals avail themselves of modern means of mobility physical and electronic and the police do not keep pace, the latter will become impotent.

Society will be less democratic. Individuals will have less influence over the decisions which govern their lives. As we spread ourselves ever wider and thinner in our social and economic activities, the geographical scope of political authority must expand in order to keep up with the growing size of the problems which require governing. Political power migrates up the hierarchy from local authorities to Whitehall and Westminster, and increasingly to Brussels and unaccountable institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. On neither side of the Seattle confrontations between the WTO and disparate groups of protesters could be found institutions which were democratically accountable Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are not democracies. Trust in these unaccountable institutions diminishes as their "facts" become increasingly difficult to distinguish from spin. (In the sub-genre of science fiction devoted to futures in which distance has been conquered, there is not a single example of a democracy.)

 

The trends creating the world described above are meeting no effective resistance. On the contrary, they are being encouraged by governments everywhere. In Britain airport planning continues to be based on the predict-and-provide principle and further huge growth is predicted. Airport planners everywhere reassure each other of the growth potential of their industry by noting that most people in the world have never flown. The idea that this growth might be constrained by their failure to provide sufficient airport capacity is to them unthinkable.

The government has abandoned its pretence that it wishes to reduce the nation's dependence on the car. Gus Macdonald, the new transport minister, is now openly in favour of increasing it: "If cars become more affordable and more people want to own them, that is not a problem." He places himself firmly in the technical-fix camp: "Cleaner engines are the way forward." John Redwood, former transport spokesman for the Conservative party, not to be outdone in the pursuit of the motorist's vote, urged the construction of more roads to bypass "environmentally sensitive towns, villages or beauty spots." He forgot the lesson painfully learned by his Tory predecessors: that there is a severe shortage of insensitive areas through which to build them.

What would be the main feature of a policy which sought to increase dependence on the car? It would encourage people to move out of town and spread themselves about at densities too low to be serviced by public transport. Under the previous government this policy met with impressive success; a 1999 study by the Town and Country Planning Association reports the loss of 500,000 urban jobs and an increase of 1.7m low-density jobs between 1981 and 1996.

A policy which sought to reduce dependence on the car would seek to restrict traffic in the areas where its growth is fastest which means, not in congested urban areas, where it has already stopped, but in the suburbs and beyond. Private sector consultants now offer advice on relocation away from city centres. This free-enterprise equivalent to the old Location of Offices Bureau is a proper market response to the additional centrifugal incentives now being devised by the Labour government in the form of urban road pricing and workplace parking charges.

John Prescott, Britain's deputy prime minister, insists that he is not anti-car and has two Jags to prove it. He, like his transport minister, is happy for more people to own cars, but from time to time he does express the wish that they would leave them in the garage more of the time. He should perhaps replace his road-building programme with a garage-building programme; new car sales in Britain in 1999 are estimated at 2.2m parked end to end, they would form a queue over 8,000 miles long.

When people acquire cars they look for somewhere to drive them and park them increasingly difficult in Britain's cities. If the nation's car population continues to increase (government forecasters predict that it will grow substantially), the urban exodus will continue and dependence on the car will increase. Britain can afford alternatives to the car. There is no shortage of money. The average new car costs £12,500, making the total queue worth £27.5 billion. In the past five years more than 10m new cars have been sold. The political challenge is to divert the vast streams of private money available for transport into more socially and environmentally benign channels.

The final policy which exacerbates the problem is the government's enthusiastic promotion of the internet. The idea that this will help to solve the transport problem, by obviating the need for much physical travel, rests on decoupling the trends of virtual and physical mobility for which there is no precedent. Historically the growth trends of both kinds of mobility have correlated strongly; the most physically mobile societies are the heaviest users of all forms of telecommunications.

Advocates of telecommunications as part of the solution to transport problems argue that telecommunications will revive human-scale communities by permitting more people to work from home, spend more time close to home, and get to know their neighbours better. Perhaps. But this presumes that people will be content to lead a shrinking part of their lives in the real world which they will experience directly and a growing part of their lives in virtual communities which they will experience electronically. It presumes that people will not want to meet and shake hands with the new friends they meet on the internet; that they will not seek first-hand experience of the different cultures they experience vicariously (electronically); and that they will not wish to have real coffee breaks with their colleagues. It presumes much for which there is as yet little evidence.

Let me offer a piece of discouraging evidence, albeit anecdotal, from an encounter at Vancouver airport while waiting for a flight. I got chatting to the fellow next to me. He was waiting to fly to Toronto for a game of bridge with someone from Toronto, someone from Scotland and someone from San Francisco. They had met and played bridge on the internet; now they needed a real game.

In "Who Killed Civic America?" Robert Putnam (Prospect, March 1996) documents the decline of civic engagement in American life and concludes, after considering various alternatives, that the chief culprit is television. He observes that "the electronic revolution in communications technology was the first big technological advance in centuries which would have a profoundly decentralising and fragmenting effect on society and culture." Curiously, his list of potential culprits does not include the car and the airplane, and the decentralising and fragmenting influence for which they have been responsible. A more convincing diagnosis would share the blame more equitably between the revolutions in transport and communications.

Throughout history, most people in most places have led pedestrian lives. Their settlement patterns and travel have therefore been tightly constrained. Such vehicular transport as existed was powered by humans, animals or the wind. The rich had more mobility than the poor, but no one had very much. Stories of flying carpets, seven-league boots, winged chariots and the like attested to a desire for more mobility, but in technologically unimaginative ages people were resigned to such marvels remaining the prerogative of the gods. Indeed, the legend of Icarus suggests that the idea of mere mortals attaining such means of travel was an impious one.

At a time roughly coinciding with the beginning of the industrial revolution in England, there began a period of remarkable reductions in the cost of transport and even more remarkable increases in its speed and comfort and in the numbers of people who made use of it. The achievements of the gods have been surpassed. Concorde can fly faster than Apollo's flaming chariot, and advances in telecommunications have created a capacity for exchanging information which far exceeds anything ever attributed to Mercury. The transport and communications history of this period is almost invariably told as a story of progress following in the train of technological advance. Any problems associated with this progress have been seen as "side effects" to be remedied by yet more technology. Hypomobility was bad. More mobility is good. Hypermobility? Might it be possible to have too much of this good thing? This question has not been seriously considered by historians of transport, nor by planners and politicians concerned with its future. Simply by raising the question you run the risk of being labelled an enemy of freedom and choice.

This risk can be reduced if you ask the question differently. The "transport problem" can be usefully captured by conducting three opinion polls, each asking a different question. The first question is frequently asked. Would you like a car, unlimited air miles, and Bill Gates's level of access to all the electronic modes of travel? With minor variations this simple question is routinely asked by opinion pollsters. Worldwide, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. This is the implicit opinion poll which sets the political agenda for transport planning almost everywhere. In responding to it, people imagine the world as it is now, but with themselves gaining access to the greater range of opportunities that the wealthy enjoy. Most politicians believe that it would be political suicide to resist such aspirations. It would be manifestly unfair, politicians often add, for those who already enjoy a high level of mobility to pull the ladder up behind them.

But there is a second question, which is never asked. Would you like to live in the sort of world which would result if everyone's wish were granted? Help with the answer might be given by rephrasing the question: would you like to live in a dangerous, ugly, bleak, crime-ridden, alienated, anonymous, undemocratic, socially polarised, fume-filled greenhouse? The "fume-filled greenhouse" is optional; I strongly suspect that technological improvements will not keep up with traffic growth, and that the physical environment will deteriorate as mobility levels rise; but confining the question to the social consequences of hypermobility should be sufficient to elicit the answer no. This opinion poll asks, in effect: do you want the consequences of business as usual? As these consequences become better and more widely understood, increasing numbers of people are clear that they would not want them. But the political response has been disappointing. The best that even progressive Denmark or the Netherlands has achieved so far is a response which slows the rate of growth in road traffic in urban areas, does little to slow the growth of traffic in the suburbs and rural areas, and does almost nothing to stop the rapid increase in air travel.

Britain's new transport minister describes the continued growth of traffic as "inevitable" cheerfully ignoring the fact that those on the bottom rungs of this ladder are being pushed deeper into social exclusion. The political difficulty seems to be that the problem, when posed in the form of opinion poll two, implies the need for a grim, grey, virtuous self-denial in order to save the planet. This is not a platform on which many politicians want to campaign.

But there is a third, more cheerful, question the inverse of the second question. Would you like to live in a cleaner, safer, healthier, friendlier, more beautiful, more democratic, sustainable world in which you know your neighbours and it is safe for your children to play in the street? If these rewards could be assembled in a convincing and affordable package, most people could be expected to vote for them especially if the consequences spelled out in opinion poll two were seen as the alternative.

For most people, the possibility of realising the aspirations encapsulated in the first opinion poll is vanishing. But so long as its pursuit continues to be the principal objective of transport planners and policy makers, the bleak scenario set out in the second question becomes more likely. However, contrary to the assertion of Britain's transport minister, the rising tide of traffic is not inevitable. The traffic tide is not an irresistible force of nature like the oceanic tide. It is the consequence of myriads of human decisions large and small of decisions by governments, about taxes and subsidies, about land use planning, about road and airport building, and of individual responses to these decisions. It is driven by a deeply-rooted, reality-denying, linear view of progress.

The first question is equivalent to asking a glutton if he would like unlimited quantities of his favourite foods and drinks. The answer is predictable. The second question confronts the glutton with the consequences of unconstrained indulgence. There are expensive, high-tech solutions to some of these consequences liposuction, Olestra (the non-fat fat that slips straight through) and bypass surgery. But eating less and walking or cycling to work are likely to be more effective, save money, and produce a greater sense of well-being and self-worth.

Achieving the society encapsulated in opinion poll three, which appears impossible to most politicians, is in principle quite straightforward. It requires a reordering of priorities. Instead of continuing to sacrifice the physical and social environment for more mobility, it requires cherishing the local and foregoing some of the benefits of mobility to protect and enhance what we value in nature and our relations with friends and neighbours. To question the benefits of hypermobility is not to deny freedom and choice. It is to ask people what it is that they really, really want, and to confront them with the fact that their choices have consequences beyond the primary objects of their desires.

 

John Adams is professor of geography at University College London.