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This blog post also appears on the Battle of Ideas blog on the Independent’s website. I will be speaking about mobility about the Battle of Ideas in London on Saturday 30 October. I hope to see some of you there.

Further, faster, cheaper, better – ever since the invention of the wheel, human progress can be measured by increases in the speed, affordability and ease of mobility. Before railways, cities clustered along coastlines and navigable rivers that facilitated transport and trade. Cars have given us more freedom to go where we want when we want, a wider choice of jobs to which we can commute and a bigger range of shops we can reach. Planes have opened up the mind-broadening delights of foreign travel, the enriching opportunities of global business and now the possibility of international commuting. And in the age of Ryanair and the £1,000 Tata Nano car, mobility has been democratised: what was once a privilege of the rich few is increasingly accessible to nearly everyone in rich countries and many people in poorer places too. It offers liberation from the tyranny of geography, whereby where you were born determines what you can achieve. What’s not to like?

Plenty, apparently. Start with hostility to change, season with environmentalism (both ideological and affected), add a smattering of protectionism and xenophobia, throw on a big dollop of austerity (both fashionable and state-imposed) and you have a toxic backlash against modern mobility. Thus Conservatives, who once championed driving and flying, now want to curb these forms of transport. Boris Johnson wants to turn the clock back to 1904, when 20 per cent of trips in London were made by bike. David Cameron took his summer holiday in the UK and urges others to do likewise. The Lib-Con government has axed plans for a third runway at Heathrow and won’t allow London’s other overcrowded airports to expand either. Its plans for eventually linking London and the North by fast trains could yet be halted by ‘nimbyist’ protesters and their Conservative MPs. And in this era of swingeing budget cuts, investment in transport looks set to be slashed.

Don’t expect much opposition from Labour and others on the left. Whereas Harold Wilson was all for harnessing the white heat of technology, Ed Miliband is more likely to fret about its carbon footprint. Anti-poverty campaigners decry the fact that people in China, India and other poorer countries aspire to the lifestyles that Westerners enjoy – how dare the Chinese want to drive or see the world! Hardline green George Monbiot even opposes high-speed rail, waxing lyrical about Britain’s dismally slow trains. Go slow, stay put, limit yourself to local – the eco-romantic vision of the good life would appear to be ditching the global village for a medieval one.

Don’t get me wrong: environmental costs are real. Plane noise, car pollution and traffic jams all harm people’s quality of life – and climate change could do so in future. But since mobility is hugely beneficial, the sensible way forward is not to limit it but to minimise its costs. So let’s build new runways and also develop quieter planes fuelled by algae. Let people drive where they please in new cars powered by cleaner engines or electric batteries. Cycle if you want to, but also invest in faster trains, extra Tube lines, more buses and new bridges, flyovers and tunnels to whisk people around. We don’t have to choose between growth and greenery: let’s develop new technologies and tap the limitless energy of the sun, the wind and the atom instead.

Posted 08 Oct 2010 in Blog

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