Archive for the ‘Big Society’ Category

Is the Big Society the solution to our transport needs?

March 12, 2011

Philip Blond, the Big Society poster boy, has published a blog about an attractive sounding ideal, the Transport Retail Model.

Firstly you would see marketing techniques and IT used to get more information about people’s lifestyles.

Secondly you would see integrated transport services, perhaps provided by a single ‘mobility manager’ with the remit to meet city or community requirements.

Thirdly, you would at last see more subtlety in transport policy and practice. Instead of blunt instruments like charging for use of infrastructure (like roads) that have been accepted as free for decades there could be continuous dynamic ‘nudging’ of behaviour using small scale sticks and incentives.

Sexy as this marketing fluff is, no amount of sophistry can change the fact that there are essentially two ways to change people’s behaviour with regard to transport:

1. Persuade people that the choices about transport they currently make, based on the conditions of their travel environment, are wrong.

2. Change those conditions.

The cycle-blogging community has robustly rejected the first. And as Cycalogical notes, the Department for Transport itself has admitted that “soft measures” do not have a long-term success rate.

Deflated: Soft measures don't work

The proponents of the Transport Retail Model are aware of this. They need to find a Big Society approach to improving how people get around. For my international readers, what this means is that it needs to be:

1. Cheap

2. Shiny

And lo, the Transport Retail Model is born. Once we get past the management meshugas [pdf] (attractive as a seamless, end-user focused, zero-wait state solution sounds), we realise what this actually boils down to is this:

1. A bunch of cool phone apps.

2. Extending where you can use your Oyster card

3. Wrapping up some leisure centre discounts or other promotional offers with (2), based on your behaviour.

But how does that help us with this:

Now, don’t get me wrong, incentives are important. But is my mother likely to consider cycling rather than driving the 3 miles to work around the Highgate Triangle (above) because she gets 20% off cinema tickets? No – and given the focus on car-clubs, parking info and road toll payment systems, I’m not convinced the architects of this model actually want her to.

Approaches like these are just another instance of trying to fix a powercut by releasing a new type of candle. Nudge all you like, you won’t “meet potentially conflicting objectives such as growing out of recession while meeting carbon reduction targets” without dealing with the root of the problem: infrastructure.

This is a problem that the Big Society alone cannot solve.