Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unfair, unsafe and unwise - a major crisis abuilding for sustainable transport in Britain

Dear British Friends and Colleagues,

Forgive me if I am being naïve, but based on what I am reading and hearing it strikes me that there is a major crisis abuilding for sustainable transport in Britain in the months immediately ahead -- as a result of the coalition government withdrawing funding from a lot of mainly small and local (since they really have to be small and usually local and focused if they are to succeed) sustainable transport initiatives This strikes me as a caring if distant observer as unfair, unsafe and unwise.

Yes, these are hard times for Britain and yes, the available public moneys need to be spent wisely and well. But in this context I am at a loss to understand why great gobs of hard earned taxpayer earnings are being set aside for massive investments in motorways and high speed rail projects, none of which pass even the most elementary performance test of these hard times.  While at the same time threatening the existence of a large number of infinitely smaller projects and less costly programs which are in place and already doing their part.

It needs to be understood that the social and environmental cost of abandoning a program that is in place, working pretty well and making an important contribution, such as is the case with literally hundreds of these for the most part quite modest high impact programs that are now being directly threatened, is very high.  Sustainable transport and sustainable cities are not the results of pouring more concrete, welding more steel or using taxpayer's hard-earned money to fund a handful of new mega projects that may not pass either the environment, or the equity, or even the most basic economic tests.

Sustainable development is a massive political and management challenge that few have mastered. The key to sustainability is the ability to coordinate and synergize a very large numbers of most often very small initiatives.  Citizens and actions, many in number, personally engaged,  and always close to people.  All but invisible to anyone looking in from outside.  In a world in a hurry, this complex management task makes for a lot more complication and skill to manage and execute than deciding to do one or a couple of big projects (with big bucks and big interests all too often right behind them).  But the art of governance is precisely to be able to deal with these complex challenges at many levels and of many parts.

And then there is the matter of continuity, the essential bedrock of sustainability. Sure, you can if the whim takes you shut down any operation in a single day, send the people who are its soul home to try to figure out what they can do next with all their preciously won experience, and the nation is a loser. After decades of observation and work experience at the leading edge in this sector, I and my colleagues have learned at least one thing – and that is that consistency and continuity are vital for sustainable transport and sustainable cities, and sustainable lives.

So I ask you this: what if anything can I, or better yet World Streets and our network of international collaborators, do to gently bring these choices before the widest possible public in Britain and abroad, so that your government can be brought to reason on this before it is too late? My hope is that as an independent international collaborative of high repute and with literally thousands of professional contacts working in the field in countries all over the world, some attention may be paid to our views on this important topic. (You can see just below the map showing the origins of World Streets last eighty readers just below. To which I might add that a steady 20% of our readers are British.)

When my forbears sailed with empty pockets from England and Scotland in the early 18th century to make their life in America, they would I am sure have not approved of their distant grandson just sitting on his hands when he could at least try to be of help at a hard time for what is after all our historic native land. In France we even have a law which decrees that "non-assistance à personne en danger" -- the failure to come to the help of a person in danger -- is a crime punishable by the law. And so it should be.

So please, if you do have an idea contact me and let me know how I or World Streets or some combination of us might be able to help in getting greater attention in the media and the public before it is too late.

Kind regards,

Eric Britton

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