David Cameron announced recently his intention to use private cash to solve a supposedly urgent need to build more roads.
I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but it seems a little to me like solving the wrong problem the wrong way.
Certainly change is needed, but by acting in a different way the Government could help solve the problem from the other end – by removing demand on our nation’s roads by enabling people to move around less.
The Government’s other major infrastructure project involves highways of a different sort – information superhighways (for those under 20, that’s what the internet was known as in the 90s) – and strangely, improvements with this kind of highway could help ease congestion on the other.
Investing in broadband speeds and coverage is one thing (and welcomed) but as with all these infrastructure projects (roads, internet, HS2 rail) you get the impression the emphasis is well and truly on helping the businesses – the employers – and not the employees. It is a Tory Government, after all.
Lets look at the problem, though. Congestion. What causes it and why?
The fact that rush hour exists suggests that the bulk of congestion at peak times is from people getting to and from work, especially in large towns and cities. Yes, some of that is already non commuting traffic – trucks, deliveries etc… – but the impact of the jobbing commuter on traffic can be seen by how quiet (and usable and enjoyable) roads become during school holidays. Clearly these journeys are ‘non-critical’ if they can be stopped for 2 weeks during the summer.
This is where the Government can help lessen the number of cars on the road – by encouraging employers to make work-from-home easier. Obviously this doesn’t work for everyone, but how many basic office jobs could really not be fulfilled in the same way from home?
Even when at work, the majority of my meetings these days are by telephone or video conference. The majority of interactions I have are by phone or email. Yes, I do need to see people in person from time to time – nothing beats a personal meeting to really get things done, but in my current Marketing role, probably one day a week would be enough for this. For me and many like me, the option to work some of my working week from home would be advantageous – especially as my weekly commute costs me over £50 in petrol alone!
Let’s also look at other forms of ‘optional’ congestion. Moving goods around in trucks and vans can’t be solved by the internet, yet (though 3D printer tech is coming soon) so who else is on the road in between rush hour? Businessmen, sales men, rushing from meeting to meeting. Can’t you use Skype more? Using video links would be especially favourable for businesses in hard to get to rural areas and the UK’s extremities, such as the north of Scotland, East Anglia and the cornish peninsula, and here again the Government has shown positive action in trying to get more rural areas connected. But what about going a step further and giving away free or subsidised webinar packages to small and rural businesses? What would the cost be to the Government of a couple of cameras and mikes, and some subsidised high-speed internet?
The UK has adopted internet shopping in a big way in the last few years, and broadband traffic predicted to double year on year in the UK in upcoming years (http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/news/broadband/3344355/broadband-internet-traffic-will-double-year-on-year/), but has business – and the Government – really grasped the impact, the beneficial impact, this could have on society? They, like so many others, are still so locked in to the 20th century notion that the more fuel you burn, the more work you’re doing, and the more benefit you are having on the economy and society. Too many cars? Make more room so we can have more cars! Well, how about clear ‘optional’ journeys off the road so that roads, and motorways in particular, are used solely by vehicles that do make the nation tick – trucks and vans.
And before you mention that the Government is naturally hamstrung by being behoven to big business, well, which is the ‘big’ business we would rather encourage them to take money from – oil companies that are killing the planet and driving us towards a Mad Max future (exaggerating for rhetorical effect, obviously) or telecommuncations companies, who allows us to do what comes natural to all humans – communicate?
Let’s have some vision, Cameron, that goes beyond straightforward economic policies from the 1950s and tries to look forward to the post-industrial internet age we will all be living in by the time this recession ends.