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A Journey Is Not Just A Means To An End

Posted by Thundery wintry showers, 17 April 2012 · 464 views

recreation cars buses transport tourism
In many walks of life, a journey doesn’t just have to be a means to an end- it can also be about incorporating enjoyment along the way. We see this in sports (referenced in my previous blog) where many fans like to be entertained with end-to-end football matches that end 4-3, in preference to the mechanical grinding out of 1-0 wins.

We’ve all heard about the major downsides of cars, but they’ve also given society many benefits. The thing is, though, the main advantages of cars are social and recreational, not the simple “getting from A to B”. For example, the freedom to travel where you want, when you want, and increased ability for “spontaneous” type journeys, and for some of us, increased scope to actually derive pleasure from the journey- we aren’t just getting from A to B, we’re also incorporating enjoyment en route to B. This also benefits the tourism and leisure industries (due to more frequent leisure trips) and adds to the car industry, e.g. the market for “sports suspensions” as seen on the likes of the Ford Focus Zetec. There are, as with many recreational freedoms, a minority who drive recklessly with disregard for other road users, but that's what road traffic rules are supposed to be for, to criminalise and punish those who take unacceptably large risks.

The problem with cars is rather that as a society we’ve become too dependent on them. Far too many of us feel we “have” to drive, particularly for business-related trips. What we really need is to reduce our reliance on the car, to make it more feasible for people to use alternative forms of transport for their business-related journeys, to give people an alternative, while allowing those who enjoy driving to continue to do so. The private car can serve as an excellent recreational tool to help assist with spontaneous and leisure trips, but should not be an absolute neccessity for getting around.

But that’s not what we’re seeing- instead we’re seeing a blanket policy of reducing speed limits and putting speed bumps everywhere, and timing traffic lights to cause maximum disruption, all with the aim of taking the glamour out of driving and instilling into society that driving should be purely about getting from A to B. The main underlying reasons for this are the philosophy that it is unacceptable to enjoy ourselves unless the associated risks are literally zero (on the basis "business and safety are essential but enjoyment is not") and also our culture of legislating for idiots- the same as why many people condemn the enjoyment of extreme weather, or want to see spiralling restrictions on things like fireworks, alcohol and horse racing. I despise this philosophy, especially when I see it being used to erode our freedoms via small, almost imperceptible measures.

Now to address some misconceptions. Traffic restrictions only improve overall local quality of life significantly if they are selective (i.e. keeping traffic out of certain areas, like city centres and communal “home zones”), and only improve traffic flows in certain circumstances (e.g. part-time restrictions on busy routes at peak times). They should be applied selectively where appropriate, but not “wholesale”. It will not improve overall quality of life if we end up with towns crammed full of traffic doing 15-20mph, and cars restricted to 30-40mph around country lanes (consider slower bus journeys and cyclists being inconvenienced by speed bumps for example). It may well be safer, but let's look at it this way: many campaigners realise that it is worth benefitting the social and recreational aspects of walking and cycling even if it means a small increase in risk. Why not road transport too? I think that inconsistency stems, again, from the agenda of taking the glamour out of driving.

Reducing speed limits does not make it harder to drive recklessly for fun; it makes it harder to enjoy driving while keeping within the speed limit (which is part of the idea; the further we go down this route, the easier it is to convince people that we need to outlaw enjoyment of driving to curb speeding- we really need to be vigilant in watching out for this sort of manipulation of public opinion).

Reducing speed limits probably won't address the "people are always impatient and in a rush" problem; if anything longer journey times, and ever-decreasing ability to enjoy driving, may well make some people more impatient. If we make the general public slow down but maintain a high level of "in for a penny, in for a pound" type speeding then we will continue to see plenty of deaths regardless of how low the speed limits are. Hence many councils prefer to put loads of speed bumps down to legislate for this reckless minority, but this falls into the following trap: "a few idiots abuse A so we restrict A, then they move over to abusing B so we restrict B" and so on. Most people would never accept policies putting speed bumps on 100 roads, but fail to watch out for the "put humps on 1 road and slowly rinse and repeat for the other 99 roads" way of achieving the same result (there is a moral there about accepting the slow, almost imperceptible, erosion of our freedoms).

The main problem with speed is inappropriate speed for the conditions, and “targeted” policies aiming to address this directly, plus a more graduated, training-oriented system for new drivers, will probably save a fair number of lives. What I would prefer to see is relatively lenient but strictly enforced speed restrictions, and greater enforcement of the “driving at inappropriate speed for the conditions” law. That's why I used to suggest more generous tolerances, but now that we've achieved relatively high compliance rates with existing speed limits, it may well be better to keep enforcing speed limits strictly but raise some of them. As long as we enforce the limits strictly and apply "driving too fast/slow for conditions" more often, I doubt that accidents will increase significantly if we raise the motorway speed limit to 80mph, raise some suburban routes from 30mph to 40mph, raise some 20mph zones (other than in designated traffic-restricted areas such as "home zones") back to 30mph, and raise some of the 40mph country lanes to 50mph.

Regarding the rising cost of petrol, if it was combined with policies aiming to make our society less reliant on cars and petrol (particularly for business purposes), I would be in favour of it, as it is one tool that will certainly help push us towards more sustainable energy use. However, since we're doing very little of those, we're all suffering- it's mainly recreational trips and the tourist/leisure industries that are suffering, but businesses are also being hit by the fuel prices which they then transfer down to the customer. Ultimately, New Labour's emphasis on investing in "taking the glamour out of driving" has resulted in minimal investment in making us less dependent on petrol as a nation.

Ultimately it is important to recognise that a journey is not just a means of getting from A to B, and that the ability to incorporate enjoyment en route does add a lot to people's overall quality of life, and I think you can say the same of life as a whole.

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