Races Against Time – Chapter 3

Nearly 40 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I was preparing to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in a ‘safe’ conservative seat, I published 6 essays in a booklet entitled ‘Races Against Time’. The sad truth is that much of what I was warning about at that time, when ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a term, is still crying out for action.  I still stand by the words written in my thirties but am desperately disappointed that so little has changed in spite of the millions of good people, including my grand children, who have expressed the urgency to act.  

Let’s act now – or it really will be too late.

  1. The Power of Plutonium: Written 3 years before the Chernobyl disaster.
  2. Burning It Up: Addressing scandalous energy inequality and waste.
  3. Transport of Delight: Domination of the car and loss of our rail network.
  4. Economy & Equity: Conservation, population, food, and the Third World.
  5. Raping the Benefits: Global control of the commodity markets. 
  6. Breach of the Peace: Russia and the existential threat of nuclear war.


“If you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” (Gandhi).

Liberals know what it is like to be in a minority, but we persist in the belief that one day, whether it be at the coming election or the next, we will succeed in breaking through those barriers that stand in our way. My overwhelming conviction is that governments have pulled and lured the population in the wrong direction for so long that their massive deceit has become institutionalised. The politicians have made the course and we are all supposed to run around it. We have a choice of pursuing the blinkered race or stopping to think where we are racing to and what for.

In this series of six essays, for they are no more than that, I try to give emphasis to some of the matters that concern me most. They are not the standard economic and social issues that dominate our politics, but they have a fundamental effect on our lives, on our welfare and work, and on our continued existence. I give priority to those areas that I see as a threat to our existence and hope to alert as many people as possible. I ask that these chapters are read with an open mind and that it is seen as a document of hope and not despair – hope that if we all do a little we can win these races against time.

“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Those were Bristol M.P. Edmund Burke’s words 200 years ago and this pamphlet is my small contribution to that sentiment.

George Ferguson

Bristol 1st May 1983

Transport of Delight

17% of our primary energy is consumed by moving people and goods around. 

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. He puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles – less than 5mph!” Ivan Illich Energy and Equity. We have zoned our cities so that we have to travel to survive and rural supplies and services have declined so that travelling to towns has become a necessity. Government transport policy has encouraged increased use of the private car and a consequent depletion of public transport. This is exemplified in the planning of our newest city, Milton Keynes. An increasing reliance on the private car hits those least able to cope: the old, the disabled and the poor. America should be a warning.

It is undoubtedly true that the biggest single contributor to the lowering of the quality of our towns is the motor car. Our streets have been taken away from our children by parents terrified of the consequences of allowing them to cycle on busy roads. In fact only a third of the population is in a position to choose to use a car and the rest are dependent on walking, cycling or public transport. So why has the car achieved this dominance? The decision makers have cars. In fact the planners and politicians have cars, in many cases are paid allowances for them, have free parking in the centre of cities adjacent to their work. They are, with few exceptions, cushioned from the problems of the majority. So am I.

In the UK we travel more than 30 times as far per day as the average Chinese, and nearly 10 times as far as the average Indian. Is this behaviour necessary or addictive? Is it sustainable or doomed? The 1973 energy crisis seems to have done little to stem the trend. Petrol consumption by all UK transport has increased by almost a third at a time when all other uses have declined by a third in the last ten years.

Car ownership has undoubtedly increased the individual freedom of owners in many ways and any restrictions on ownership would be necessarily selective and probably elitist. However, restrictions on use are inevitable. We should be building safer cars that last, that consume less fuel and emit less poison. We are persuaded into buying cars with engines that are several times as large as is really necessary and cars that are thrown after a few years. This is the equivalent of throwing away the energy used to drive that car 75,000 miles. If the Maestro or Metro had diesel engines used in the VW Golf, they would be 50% more economic in petrol consumption, the exhaust fumes would be free of lead and the engines would last twice as long. There is no good reason why we should not do twice as well as that!

A Nottingham Councillor first questioned his city’s urban road programme when he realised that the new road was projected to go straight through his local pub. He realised where his priorities lay. Until that moment he had accepted that more roads were the only solution to the traffic jams. It was Buchanan who said that, “If you dig a ditch it fills up with water”. The natural disincentive to unbridled use of the car is congestion. As cuts hit public transport, congestion increases, along with pollution and accidents, and a reduction in the efficiency of industry and commerce. The costs of the subsidy of public transport have to be weighed against the costs to society of a failure to supply that transport at an attractive price.

We have robbed ourselves of much of the pleasure of our cities. We have allowed beautiful buildings to become little more than traffic islands and made the pedestrian walk further for the convenience of the car. We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and have left undone those things which we ought to have done!

When local decisions are taken by local communities, with a true cross section of representatives of all types of transport users, including pedestrians, then maybe we will achieve results that are more likely to benefit us all. The road lobby in this country from the AA to the freight organisations is the toughest and most successful of the many lobbies that seek to influence our politicians. It has huge resources and has heavily influenced major studies on which government decisions have been made. It has bullied weak Transport Ministers into accepting heavier weights for lorries to the detriment of us all, it has tricked them with figures and succeeded with the masterly ‘con’ of fiddling with axle weights. 40 tons travelling at speed is 40 tons travelling at speed on however many wheels and does more destruction to buildings and the environment than 20 or 30 tons travelling at speed. The trend towards bigger lorries has not resulted in fewer lorries.

The road lobby even penetrated the Serpel Committee that was set up “to secure improved financial results in an efficiently run railway in Great Britain over the next 20 years”. There has long been a recognition of the need to run a “social railway”. The Serpel Report told the Government what they wanted to hear, but did it so badly that the Transport Minister was embarrassed into having to appear to reject it. Much of it was written with the apparent assumption that the railways had had their day. Little or no account was taken of the environmental, safety and social benefits and a case was made to cut the network to one sixth of its present size for BR to become profitable. This would isolate the whole of Scotland north of Glasgow, the whole of Wales except for the London line from Cardiff and the whole of the South West beyond Bristol and Bournemouth, and make a nonsense of regional policy. The few remaining lines would all radiate from London. The head of the Prime Minister’s Think Tank has proposed the concreting over of our railways to form narrow intercity motorways. These suggestions make some economic sense if conventional accounting methods are used without an assessment of the wider benefits. The railways cost a fortune to maintain, some £1,000 million per year, but this is one third of the level of the subsidy to the French railways and one half of that to the efficient German Railway. We have inherited an invaluable national network with a longer life and for less maintenance problems than the motorways.

The level of subsidy must be judged against that for a private car, which, taking into account the cost of accidents, policing, roads, medical costs, propping up the motor industry, air pollution (80-90% of all air pollution in urban areas), tax concessions and congestion, receives something in the order of ten times the subsidy of British Rail. Road freight is similarly subsidised and consumes four or five times as much as rail freight. We owe it to ourselves to give British Rail more enthusiastic support, to modernise its ailing machinery, to transfer more freight from the roads and to guarantee its future for its millions of passengers. Once lost it is never retrieved. It will always need guarding from those who are prepared to sacrifice it for the mistaken belief that it will have some subsidy, or those who stand to gain from its demise.

Future policy should reduce the need for many journeys, a need that has been increased by a trend towards larger more centralized industry, by working towards greater self sufficiency in communities. We used to build with local materials with delightful results. We now transport materials from hundreds of miles with less successful results. Is that journey really necessary, or does it bring delight?

Transport should never be treated in isolation. We should plan to reduce forced mobility, and to reduce the waste and unnecessary burden on the economy while concentrating on satisfying the real demands. We can do this by providing employment, recreation and shopping near homes and making safe pedestrian and cycle routes between these facilities. Smaller firms, with all their potential benefits of responding more to the communities’ needs and providing a real possibility of worker participation, are one of the keys to a reduction in transport needs.

Yet again the question should not be restricted to how we solve these problems, the only question that so many politicians ever ask, but why do we have them?

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