The talk this week has been all about transport, and not without reason. A hoard of Olympic athletes and their entourage flew into Heathrow on Monday morning heading for the London 2012 Athletes' Village; the first Games lane opened, coinciding, inevitably, with an accident on the M4, slowing Heathrow traffic to a standstill. Transport experts have warned us about it. London commuters have worried about it. Now it is upon us, we can safely say it's not a surprise. We also know there's more to come. It doesn't take an expert to figure that the 109-mile Olympic Route Network (ORN) is reducing the transport capacity of the London road network while a deluge of media, officials and visitors are increasing the load. It's a recipe for disaster. The Olympic opening ceremony, on the 27th of July, coincides with one of the year's heaviest getaway weekends and transport chaos looks to be truly Olympian.
But the Olympic story is part of a larger one, that of our tottery transport infrastructure. New figures published by the Department for Transport show crowding on London commuter trains is getting worse, with barely space to open a book. Almost one in four London-bound morning trains are over official capacity, including standing space.
Number 10 just announced a £9.4 billion, yes billion, investment program to revamp the antiquated rail network. The cash will be going to upgrades such as the lengthening of platforms at London Waterloo station (£350m), and a new direct rail link to Heathrow for folk living in the West Country, the Thames Valley and Wales (£500m), so they have the chance to have some pennies left after making it to the airport. David Cameron is calling it "the biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian era", which is a cute way of saying it's a tad overdue. And let's not forget that there are two sides to the coin: rail commuters are still trying to digest the average 6% fare hike that has been imposed to help pay for the works. Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, has publicly asked why passengers should be footing the bill of a "fractured, inefficient industry".
So, if the trains don't work, we can just drive there, right? Yes. And no. Transport in single occupancy vehicles is a bad solution to a big problem. There are already a whopping 77 vehicles per km of road in the UK, more than in any other country in Europe except for Monaco. UK drivers waste an average of 32 hours per week in traffic. In the London commuter zone, 66 hours, and in Greater Manchester 45. Clearly, there are too many people sitting alone in traffic jams. So: nay to everybody jumping in his or her cars and hitting the road. What could work; however, is if every driver in the UK planned to share their road journeys with passengers going the same way. There are 38 million empty seats in commuter cars across the UK, everyday, that's unused transport capacity for more than half the country. If we fill up the cars on our roads, we will be well on the way to solving our transport problems.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and times are a-needy. The UK economy has returned to recession, after shrinking by 0.2% in the first three months of 2012. In 2010, transport accounted for £136 billion of consumer spending, the third biggest budget after housing and other: the economics of transport is an important national question. Transport Secretary Justine Greening confirms that transport plans are "absolutely key to securing our country's prosperity in the decades ahead."
Collectively, we can build a more economical and more social form of transport, breaking away from the existing paradigm of infrastructure strain, rising prices and inefficiency. Imagine a new network that creates its own capacity, organically; a bottom-up, self-organised community solution, where the necessary resources are already in place.
So, as the transport story plays out in the lead up to the Olympics, consider changing your frame of reference, and think outside of the proverbial box. Transport doesn't have to be about the fight for parking, the hours wasted alone in traffic or waiting for the overcrowded and unreliable train network to emerge from the 19th century. It could just be about matching your travel needs with another driver or passenger, and sharing the ride.
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