Thinking Outside the Metal Box

Think outside the box

Given the speed of radio waves, one would have to be living beyond the edge of the solar system not to know that Volkswagen have been caught selling diesel cars that are designed to circumvent emissions regulations, and which as a consequence are vastly more polluting than the published figures would suggest. Lord Drayson, the former Labour science minister, has recently taken this opportunity to suggest that since diesel cars are "killing people" as a result of their emissions (an estimated 29,000 people die each year in the UK as a result of air pollution), we should have a scrappage scheme for diesel cars.

It requires a huge amount of energy to build a car, the corollary of which is that a lot of carbon dioxide and other undesirable emissions are produced in the process. So if you are going to build a car in the first place, it makes sense to use it until the end of its economic life, unless of course it can be replaced with a car that is massively better in terms of its cradle-to-grave emissions. Such a car doesn't exist. Lord Drayson suggests hybrid and petrol cars, but these have problems of their own. Both types of vehicle require the same energy intensive manufacture as traditional cars. Hybrid cars are more efficient than conventional cars, but they still burn significant quantities of fossil fuel, with all the associated unwanted consequences. Electric cars use electricity from the grid, but the UK grid is already operating at close to its maximum capacity. So the high and low tension networks would have to be substantially upgraded if everyone switched to electric cars, and new power stations built. Most power is currently generated using natural gas and coal, the burning of which contributes to climate change. The current government favours nuclear as the "sustainable" option, but doesn't have a viable plan for dealing with the waste for at least the next ten thousand years. And since electric cars are very expensive and have limited range (the former going up and the latter going down when you take into account battery degradation), they're not very effective at doing what conventional cars are best used for.

Genuine mileage
This thirteen year-old car has such a low mileage because its owner opts to cycle as many journeys as possible. Consequently the lifetime emissions from it are significantly reduced compared to an average mileage car.

There is a very simple and effective way to considerably reduce the emissions from any car, and that is to use it less. So rather than spending money on scrapping cars (with the intention of replacing them with more cars), why not spend money on giving people a sustainable alternative? Typically a high percentage of urban journeys are cyclable; if they weren't continental European countries would not be seeing urban cycling modal shares of 20-60%. Cycling creates almost no emissions above what we produce simply by being alive, does not create a nuclear waste problem, and makes use of a mature, affordable technology. So it would be far better to spend money on addressing people's fear of cycling in motor traffic by building cycling infrastructure, and that is exactly what the Dutch and other European countries have done. Of course a purely human powered vehicle does have limitations, but modern electronics means that an electrically assisted cycle is now very much a practical vehicle, and one which doesn't require vast amounts of electrical energy to be generated and distributed. E-bike sales are booming in countries with cycling infrastructureIn continental countries with cycling infrastructure, the e-bike market is growing rapidly, with e-bikes being purchased both by individuals and by major companies (such as the German postal service, Deutsche Post, who operate in the UK as DHL). This is yet another business opportunity that cannot be taken in UK because our government is fighting against the necessary switch to genuinely sustainable technologies that is taking place in other European countries.

Returning to the subject of radio waves, the problem of school parking was recently discussed on the BBC Radio 4 programme You and Yours. The school concerned was in Quinton, and a woman interviewed for the program said she couldn't walk because she had to get there from Northfield, so therefore she had to drive the journey. In terms of distance and terrain this distance is easily cyclable (I speak from personal experience), but given that the main route between the two suburbs is a racetrack dual carriageway, and has no quiet alternative (I am familiar with the route it suggests), of course she drives rather than considering cycling.

Meanwhile, a school in Stirling is getting pupils to run around a specially built circuit outside the school's playground, because most children from 1998 had a higher level of fitness than the very fittest of children in 2015. They call it the Daily Mile. It's good that the children are getting this exercise, but sad to see that the bike shed is largely unused. Family cycling in the NetherlandsContinental children gain both fitness and personal mobility from cycling, including cycling to school. In rural areas Dutch children cycle ten or twenty kilometres to get to school, and then the same distance back. The scene in the photo left is commonplace in continental towns and cities that have built reasonable quality infrastructure for cycling. Is it really so difficult to see that this is much better than parents driving their children to school in an SUV, and then resorting to fists to resolve who gets to park closest to the school gate whilst their children get ever more dangerously unfit?

The constituency Member of Parliament for Quinton is Gisela Stuart. Her suggestion for dealing with the problem was fining the parents engaged in the battle for a parking space outside their child's school. Why reach for the stick of fining people for using the form of transport we encourage (private motor cars), when one can use a carrot instead? Why not instead build infrastructure that enables and encourages walking and cycling, whilst simultaneously discouraging car usage for short journeys? When I contacted her about this, she said "I am German by birth, I lived in Groningen - I know all the rational arguments [for cycling] ....and get very frustrated here". It's great that Ms Stuart has this view, but why didn't she use her knowledge and take the opportunity to promote cycling in the city that is supposed to be having a cycling revolution?

I share Gisela Stuart's frustration, but unless our politicians show leadership and take every opportunity to both think outside the metal box and express what they know, we're not going to make very much progress towards a better environment in which to live.

What Can You Do?

Cycling, and by implication cycling infrastructure, is not a panacea, but it does address many of the problems this country faces. So when you see public figures thinking inside the metal box, don't hesitate to contact them to put the case for thinking outside the metal box. For public figures, being contacted by members of the public comes with the job, so don't think you shouldn't be contacting them. If they dismiss your arguments, keep in mind the words with which Alan Freeman used to close every radio show, "Never let anyone put you down", and fight back. This website should provide you with plenty of ammunition, as will the websites to which we link. Be assured that you are advocating sound engineering that has been tried and tested just the other side of the North Sea, not a fanciful ideal. Additionally, it's easy for anyone to confirm what we say, because the Netherlands is a fellow member of the European Union and is no further from Birmingham than is Edinburgh. And whilst the Netherlands represents best practice, other European countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Belgium, all have better cycling infrastructure than the UK.