Podium: Risks of living with hyper-mobility

John Adams From an inaugural lecture on risk management by the professor of geography at London University
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The Independent Culture
MY PROFESSION for a long time now has had two main preoccupations - transport and risk - and tonight I will attempt to make some connections between them.

Transport comes first. The forecasts of traffic growth are mind-boggling. In 1950, the average Briton travelled about five miles a day. It is now about 27 miles a day, and forecast to rise by 2025 to over 60 miles a day. The recent Transport White Paper proclaimed policy to reduce the rate of growth.

Put another way, given present problems of congestion, pollution and declining public transport, the new policy aspires, it seems to me, to ensure that things will get worse more slowly. Most of the time, money and effort currently being spent on transport are devoted to the development of the pollution-free perpetual motion engine - or as close to it as the laws of physics and chemistry permit. Let us be optimistic and assume that science and technology will succeed in this goal - let us assume that engines become hugely cleaner and more efficient. What is likely to happen if the realisation of these forecasts is assisted by technological developments that make flying and driving cleaner, but also cheaper? Certain problems, it seems to me, will remain:

More polarisation - as some become more mobile, the majority are being left in the dust. In 1950 there were about 2.5 billion people in the world who did not own cars. Now there are more than 5 billion. More sprawl - the Government's car ownership forecasts cannot materialise unless more people move to the suburbs. The on-street car park in most cities is already full. More anonymity - in high mobility societies fewer people know their geographical neighbours, there is a limit to the number of people you can know, and if you know more at a distance you will know fewer closer to home.

Less child-friendliness - as the world fills with more strangers and more traffic, restrictions on children's freedom will increase. In 1971, 80 per cent of seven- and eight-year-old children got to school on their own, unaccompanied by an adult. Now it is closer to zero. The two main reasons that parents give for denying their children the freedom that they enjoyed as children are fear of traffic and fear of strangers.

More danger - for those not in cars.

Fatter and less fit people - with less exercise built into daily routines.

And less democracy - as the majority have less influence over, and diminished trust in the institutions that govern their lives. I conclude with a rather gloomy speculation. I think we are heading into trouble. As I suggested near the beginning of this lecture, increased mobility - hyper mobility - is undermining our trust in the institutions that govern our lives. It is doing this by expanding the scale of the problems that must be confronted.

Environmental problems, economic problems, political problems, and military problems are all being transformed by the process known as globalisation. Science and technology have produced undoubted benefits, but they are also creating risks on an unprecedented scale. If the scale of institutions does not expand in step with the scale of the problems that they are responsible for governing, these institutions will become impotent.

But this growth of scale diminishes the significance of the individual - sociologists refer to this process of social fragmentation as individuation. A friend of mine will be standing in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament. His constituency extends from Carlisle to Liverpool and contains over 4 million voters. I find it difficult to imagine that his constituents will feel their individual votes to be of great significance.

As hyper-mobility increases the scale of government, it diminishes the significance of the local. It diminishes the interest of the voter. It generates apathy, which is a relative of fatalism.

A few years ago I received an invitation - to speak to a conference of science fiction writers about transport planning. I asserted - to those more familiar with the literature than I, and hoping to be contradicted - that nowhere in the genre of science fiction dedicated to speculating about futures in which distance had been conquered by science and technology could one find a plausible example of a working democracy.

I was not contradicted. The form of government in all such futures - from Brave New World and 1984 to Star Wars and Blade Runner - is tyrannical hierarchy.