Was That Peak Traffic?

orchid by the road in pembrokeshireAnd are roads never going to be as crowded again? Because up until coronavirus the roads were generally achieving¬† a new record level of traffic per year or pretty close to it (see the Dept for Transport stats). Although it’s easy to understand the hope that this might be so and traffic, and carbon emissions, return to 1970s levels, the UK mostly will, of course, get back in their cars as usual and drive like crazy again and I’m confident that although car miles will be a bit down in 2020, they’ll soon be back at record levels and the CO2 hurtling upwards.

At the moment the sea continues to be more audible – the whisper of breaking waves – than cars, barking dogs, car radios, planes overhead. It’s amazing, delightful, and along with the warm weather has got me, in my wetsuit, into the sea for quite a few 30 minute or so swims. Sadly I don’t suppose it’ll ever be this quiet and bike friendly for many a decade, if ever. Though globalised diseases remain an inevitable part of the future – as the asian hornet attempts to establish a foothold, and various plant diseases, xylella fastidiosa and many more, become familiar to gardeners. More than one eco pressure group has asked via email if coronavirus might just push us to realise what we are doing to ourselves and the planet, clinging to a hope, ah it’s the hope that gets you, that we may be brought to a lively consciousness of the consequences of our actions and so change. Frugality anyone? However, it seems so utterly evident that our temporary and enforced lockdown implies¬† nothing about a will to change the way we live. As a cyclist said to me while overtaking me on a hill, ‘enjoy it while it lasts’. And I am, it’s great! A silver lining to the viral cloud.

I cycled on the main A road out of Tenby, normally a tedious way of getting out of Tenby. Early purple orchids! It’s possible, Pembs being so hilly, to do 1000s of feet of climbing in a fairly short time. A thousand feet in one hour of cycling is one excellent way of staying fit, entirely on quiet, just now, lanes. There are far more other cyclists too, quite a few are evidently people who wouldn’t risk the usual traffic and most will surely stop as soon as ‘normality’ recurs. One reason why rural France remains such an icon of cycling heaven is that the traffic levels are so low compared to the UK even in normal times. But the bike in no way occupies the place in culture here that it does in France – as much as a daily transport as a racing dream. The UK’s success in the Tour de France has done pretty much nothing for utility cycling, and not much for general participation in cycling. It’s something you watch on TV. And with the government commitments to spend pretty much nothing on cycling infrastructure, no change can be expected. In case you feel sceptical that there been little real change in overall cycling levels, have a look at the Cycling UK stats, in particular the graph that shows cycling miles per year since 1949. It shows, rather sadly, that the cycling boom in the 70s and 80s (1984 seems to be the peak) was a lot greater than the current lacklustre slow and slight increases since the low of the mid 90s. It shows, also, a slight bump in 2014 when the Tour came to the UK, but it is not sustained and subsides into the very slight yearly increase that’s been the trend in recent years. Once you factor in population growth, the trend looks even more anaemic and we’re way down on the 80s even now…. I love the Tour de France but our success has not had a significant effect on mass participation in cycling. Sport cycling is, if anything, a disincentive to use your bike for utility tasks – a beautiful carbon bike used for groceries? The pathetically anaemic rise in cycling numbers in recent years is probably mostly due to the big difference that there is now compared with the 1980s – the heavy, fast and relentless traffic on so many roads. It’s more than a bit off putting.

I wonder if car tax should be related to just how many miles you do per year – assuming every mile stresses out some ecosystem, cyclist, pedestrian or local inhabitant whether petrol or electrically powered? Just like the very sensible suggestion that frequent flyers should be taxed on flights more heavily than someone that just flies once or twice a decade (perhaps to the USA or NZ to do a long bike tour….). It would be easy to band vehicle tax by annual mileage.

Have you seen (free to watch on youtube ) Michael Moore and Jeff Gibb’s fascinating documentary on the takeover of the green movement by the corporates? Great viewing. It’s not, of course, completely convincing or entirely accurate – solar and wind remain hugely better than coal or natural gas in terms of carbon footprint even when you take into account the large carbon footprint of manufacturing / installing these technologies. And, of course, corporates should be interested in surviving in a low carbon world so surely they should want to get involved in the solutions more than being part of the problem. But the valuable points are in particular, the excellent presentation of the absurdities of biomass and biofuels – such as pelleted wood as used by Drax, and subsidised by the taxpayer as ‘green’ energy – after shipping the wood chips across the Atlantic, and carting them around by truck on both sides the Atlantic, hmmm? Biofuels in a hungry world? Growing biofuels on land in the amazon taken by force from local communities? They further disturb the politically correct greens by the raising of the unmentionable topic of human population size. It is, of course, true that the huge growth in the world’s population is a contributor to climate change, unfortunately there’s no easy way to address it without raising all sorts of questions about liberty. The film doesn’t propose any way of addressing this, fair enough. And they then propose frugality – which is an excellent basis for ethics. Frugality because it’s not just climate change but a raft of crises that face us – the extinction of species, the plastics (they’re everywhere, etc) crisis, never mind just global warming. So frugality might answer all of them. It is, however, not a vote winner, and not good for the economy or wealth. In fact, saving the planet is evidently bad for our wealth. In fact we can’t afford not to wreck the planet, it’s far too expensive! Perhaps we can’t afford not to go extinct?

George Monbiot has a review of the film in The Guardian – his main criticism seems to be that this sort of critique of the green movement plays into the hands of the climate change deniers. On the contrary, the ability of the green movement to be self-critical seems more valuable than this ‘letting the side down’ approach.

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