‘Gridlock Nation’ – a review

Kwasi Kwarteng is one of the bright young things of the Conservative Party. Back in 1995, he managed to win University Challenge ‘supposedly singlehandedly’ (Private Eye 1282) while a King’s Scholar at Trinity College Cambridge. Armed with a double first, he then proceeded to Harvard for a year, before completing a PhD back at Cambridge. After ‘dabbling’ in the City, he is now the MP for Spelthorne.

He has recently had two books published. One of these – Ghosts Of Empire – is in his academic field, economic history. The other – Gridlock Nation – is not, and I have to say, it shows. Because Gridlock Nation is a decidedly silly book – certainly for someone of Kwarteng’s apparent intelligence.

As might be obvious from its title, Gridlock Nation is an assessment of Britain’s acknowledged transport problems, which Kwarteng (along with his coauthor, Jonathan Dupont) attempt to set in some kind of historical context, before proposing solutions. The main thesis – and one that informs the kinds of answers that Dupont and Kwarteng reach for – is that planning is bad for transport, and that, by contrast, the market is good. In the 19th century (so their argument runs), Britain had no central planning at all, and yet led the world in transport innovation. By contrast, since 1945, Britain’s transport provision has gone from bad to worse, a period that began with ‘the Planners’ rising to prominence. Kwarteng and Dupont conclude, therefore, that we need to ‘free transport from the dead hand of the Planners.’

The dream of planning was that it would create a more integrated, efficient system. The reality is that it has slowed innovation, increased waste and caused umpteen unintended consequences… despite starting from often good intentions, planning has either failed to deliver or ironically made things far worse. (Pages 61-62)

Kwarteng and Dupont do not dismiss planning entirely, but they argue that as the models employed by planners are a mere guide to what might happen, and that planners are not omniscient, it is unwise to place as much weight on planning as we currently do. Returning to the 19th century again, they point out that ‘no Victorian transport modeller could see how the rise of the steam engine would transform the landscape of the country’; we should rely more, in other words, on letting the market drive solutions, and provide the spur to innovation.

It is innovation that is the second (and sillier) major theme that runs through the book – specifically, technological innovation, as the answer to our gridlock problems. Kwarteng and Dupont get quite excited about potential, and fantastical, new ways of getting about, and of mitigating against congestion. In much the same way that (excess) planning is blamed for transport failure, they manage to tie technological innovation, or the lack of it, to state control –

ever since the government took control of transport, the great paradigm changes [the railways, jet engines, et cetera] seem to have disappeared altogether. Is it a coincidence that the rise of planning and the end of the transport revolution coincided? (Pages 40-41)

In a subsequent passage, Kwarteng and Dupont revealingly let slip precisely what genre of technological innovations they think might solve all our problems, and which are currently being held back by the nebulous forces of state control and planning –

it is often necessity that produces great advances in technology as progress in science. While we may not be in a position to build a flying car, there is a vast range of possibilities that remain both within the reach of today’s science and are completely untried… It is at least possible that one reason the rate of progress in our transport industries is closer to that in health and education than computing is that the former remains centrally controlled, while the latter enjoys the freedom and entrepreneurialism of the market. Our transport systems have been fossilised in rigid government plans, their future expansion decided on the predicted demand thirty years in the future. The natural correlative of Stalinist-style planning is Stalinist-style lack of innovation. (Pages 41-42)

If it is, indeed, ‘Stalinist-style planning’ that is holding back the flying car, then I think I might be slightly more amenable to it than I would have been before reading this book. But while flying cars may be out of reach for the moment, there are plenty of other ‘solutions’ for Kwarteng and Dupont to get excited about. There is a discussion about the future of space travel on pages 202-4, during which I  had to glance at the front cover to remind myself that this is a book that purports to address gridlock, before a lengthy description of what the authors call ‘the big two’ – ‘self driven cars’, and ‘personal rapid transport’, the latter being things like this.

It is not clear to me that either of these two modes of transport will do much to address gridlock. The most that can be said for self-driven cars is that they would eliminate the kind of tailgating-induced traffic jams that are currently prevalent on our motorways -congestion, of course, would still exist. And the problem with ‘personal rapid transport’ -besides it being costly to implement – is that the transport modes it largely seeks to replace are already very efficient at shunting people from A to B in an urban environment – namely the underground, buses and trams, and the bicycle.

And this brings to me what I found most remarkable about this book. Extraordinarily, the humble bicycle is mentioned only twice, and even then in a rather strange passage that is not really about the bicycle at all, but about how technology will allow us to switch modes easily.

Futurists predict that we’ll be far more prepared to rent vehicles for short periods. Using an app on our smart phone, we’ll choose the vehicle we want: a large car to transport the whole family, a small one person transporter or even a bicycle on a sunny day. This all might seem far fetched, but then again we are already beginning to see the start of such systems: Zipcars, rentable by the hour through an iPhone app, or even of course the new system of Boris bikes (Page 217)

‘Even a bicycle’, indeed – and not just any bike, but a good old-fashioned, Boris bike, apparently the only type of bike that exists for the authors, for whom the idea that someone might actually already own a bike of their own is seemingly inconceivable. The only time someone might use a bike is when they rent one, ‘on a sunny day’. The bicycle as a solution to the ‘gridlock’ that forms the title of their book is just not on the Kwarteng and Dupont radar.

But plenty of other things are.

Many futurists are now designing a variety of smaller, lightweight vehicles – bigger than a bicycle, but smaller than a car – that can effectively transport one or two people across urban areas. Aside from being more environmentally friendly, these vehicles allow a much greater number of people to fit on the roads.

More than, I don’t know, two bicycles?

But onwards we go, through a litany of absurd transport solutions. ‘The smart city’ that redirects ‘computer controlled cars’ (p.217); the ‘straddling double decker bus‘ being developed in Shanghai (Oh yes indeed. On page 218 –  ‘to make best use of road space, cars can actually continue to drive under the straddling bus as it moves’); the Schweeb (‘a pedal powered monorail in which riders cycle in small glass pods along an overhead track’ p.219 – which sounds suspiciously like another Boris Johnson scheme. Who would have thought it) and finally space travel –

Aviation and automobiles also began as the expensive playthings of the rich, before technology improved and costs dropped enough to make them a practical option for mass transport. While suborbital flight by itself will never allow you to reach the moon, it does allow the possibility of much faster flight across the Earth’s surface… Within your lifetime, you too will be able to travel to New Mexico, board a strange looking plane and blast off into the Earth’s atmosphere. You’ll float in zero gravity and stare down at the fragile, blue face of our planet. That really is the future. (p.223)

Yes, but as a solution to gridlock?

You will notice that none of these ‘alternatives’ does anything to impede the use of the private motor vehicle. When Kwarteng and Dupont have their feet back on planet Earth, they are firmly convinced of the needs for more roads. Their prejudice is betrayed when they write that

Britain’s roads remain congested, while huge sums of money are being poured into the railways to get them into a workable state. (Page 42)

I am quite sure that huge sums of money have been ‘poured into’ Britain’s roads, as well as into the railways, but it is only the latter that seems to excercise Kwarteng and Dupont. Although not explicitly stated, this is the tired old canard that railways are ‘subsidised’, while we ‘invest’ in our roads. And believe you me, Kwarteng and Dupont want investment.

China has already constructed a motorway network ten times the size of the UK’s, and the UK has a shorter road length per person than any other major country. Spain, France and Germany each have motorway networks more than twice the size of the UK’s. (Page 76)

To be fair, Kwarteng and Dupont don’t just want more roads. They want more… everything. To maintain an efficient and advanced economy will require longer journeys –

The benefits of a locally sourced economy are often overstated. Transport is usually only a minority contribution to the energy cost of producing any particular good. It is far more efficient to grow wine in naturally temperate climates and ship it across the world than to try and artificially replace an environment here. (Page 68)

This is all very well, but not everything that is transported vast distances makes economic, let alone environmental, sense. If you make it easier to transport wine, you also makes it easier and cheaper to transport mineral water from Evian. But Kwarteng and Dupont persist –

As many totalitarian states have discovered, an obsession with a local economy and self sufficiency is as often the route to poverty as wealth. In a recent experiment, Kelly Cobb of Drexel University found that trying to source a cheap suit from materials within a 100-mile radius multiplied its cost by a factor of a hundred. We will need more transport and trade to support our growing wealth, not less. (p.69)

I’m not convinced that totalitarian states do have an obsession with a ‘local economy’ – on the contrary, I would have thought that collectivisation, on vast scales, characterises these regimes. I’m equally unconvinced that the problems involved in getting hold of one suit can be used to imply that all our goods should, will or must be transported ever greater distances. Economies of scale do, of course, make sense, but that should not be generalized into an argument that products should be sourced from further and further away.

At the same time, as you might have guessed, the authors believe that we should not try to force people out of their cars –

What would life without a car really be like? We’d all find it much more difficult to get around, having to spend more time waiting for buses or rushing to make the right connection. Mothers bringing up small children would find it much more difficult to leave their home and go shopping. We’d all live in small cramped houses, crowded together nearest the railway station to make sure we could easily commute. (p.160)

(Note again the failure to recognize the bicycle as an alternative to a car for these kinds of journeys.) Kwarteng and Dupont appreciate that the car can be a problem, both with regards to the environment, and congestion, but see its use as unavoidable, and also think that the problems involved with car journeys – pollution and traffic jams – will be sufficiently mitigated against by technological fixes of the kind described above.

This reluctance to suppress or modify, even slightly, transport consumers’ ‘natural’ choices – which as things stand will tend inevitably towards the private car – coupled with Kwarteng and Dupont’s already described enthusiasm for greater transport distances and provision, will likewise tend inevitably towards a demand for more roads, which in their world would be privately financed. Kwarteng and Dupont are thus enthusiastic supporters of road pricing –

Opening up the roads to private investors and creating a road pricing system are two sides of the same coin. Both measures take a system that has for too long been controlled by static government plans, and convert the road network into a far more dynamic entity, responding to the changing needs and requirements of customers. Ultimately, until such a market exists we will always face the threat of gridlock. (p.172)

The idea that government plans on road-building have been ‘static’ is a little odd, because the entire post-war history of state road-building – at least until the 1990s, if not until the present day – involved building or expanding roads precisely where the demand existed, indeed even where it hadn’t fully emerged. The only reason road-building has ceased to become ‘dynamic’ was through a combination of the growing public apathy towards, and distaste for, ever more roads, and an appreciation of the problem of induced demand. The idea that somehow switching the construction of roads to private contractors, with much greater freedom to lay down tarmac wherever they feel like it, is the solution to our transport problems is thus rather absurd.

Kwarteng and Dupont do not adequately address the ‘induced demand’ problem. The best they can do is to point out that ‘demand for using roads clearly isn’t infinite everywhere’, which is nothing more than a truism, and does not confront the reality of ever greater traffic flow on widened or new roads where demand, while not infinite, keeps up with supply. It also rather fails to account for the areas of our towns and cities that have had roads stripped out with no apparent ill effects – the examples that instantly come to mind are the dual carriageway built across Green Square in Bristol, now restored to a park, or the north side of Trafalgar Square, but I’m sure there are countless other roads that have been closed, or removed, and where the transport network has adapted seamlessly. Would these undeniable improvements to our urban areas have happened if private corporations were in control of our road network?

But then Kwarteng and his co-author appear to have been teleported back to the 1950s, a time when the notion that building roads would inevitably cause them to fill up would have appeared fantastical – stuck in a timewarp in which shiny, exciting new versions of the car will magically whisk us from A to B without causing any congestion or pollution; in which the bicycle – so old-fashioned, daddy-o! – is not even considered as a transport alternative, beyond being a leisure activity on a sunny day; and in which Jonny Jet Pack-style solutions to our transport problems are just around the corner. Relax!

Let’s hope he doesn’t get anywhere near the Department of Transport.

This entry was posted in Book review, Car dependence, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to ‘Gridlock Nation’ – a review

  1. Garry Lancaster says:

    Good post, but I think you probably mean Queen Square in Bristol.

  2. Rather than planes that are regulated like cars, what we need is cars that are regulated like planes…

    Black box recorders in all vehicles.
    Every serious accident treated as something that could, and should, have been avoided, not just “something that happens”.
    Regular medicals and testing for all drivers.
    Strict liability for all vehicles, and full corporate liability when vehicles are driven for profit.
    A culture of recording and reporting any safety lapses.
    End the artificial distinction between “careless” and “dangerous” driving. Careless IS dangerous when you’re controlling 2 tons of moving steel, regardless of speed.

    Kwarteng’s idea of market driven solutions isn’t completely loony though – provided that all positive and negative externalities are fully costed. Run the numbers the right way and you can potentially price a whole lot of unnecessary journeys off the roads, and release enormous amounts of capital for building good bike infrastructure. Enable venture capitalists to build networks of bike lanes, and pay them out of money saved from the NHS budget, that sort of thing. However, I’m guessing what he has in mind is more the sociopathic,Thatcherite “take the cash, externalize costs, and dump the sh*t on some other sucker” market, rather than a genuinely regulated, if-you-break-it-you-pay-for-it model.

    (Just think – if all the money currently inflating motor insurance premiums & going to No Win No Fee ambulance-chasers went instead to building infrastructure for modes of transport that are less likely to put you in the ambulance in the first place… in the mean time though, I’m happy to see premiums go sky-high – it’s good that drivers are being held accountable & made to pay for more of the damage they cause, even if the money isn’t ending up in places that mitigate said damage).

  3. There’s a type of bicycle that can take two people, it’s called a “tandem”🙂 Talking to our elderly neighbours, it seems that these were very popular and common fifty years ago. A tandem typically costs a tenth of the price of a car to buy, and running costs are also an order of magnitude smaller than running a car.

    We transport our children around on a U-plus-2 when the weather’s nice, and in a Kangaroo trike when it’s cold or wet. Both let us happily cruise past the traffic jams in Worthing, and both enable us to park for free right outside wherever it is we’re going to. Who on earth would want to drive a car for these journeys?

    As for transport policy, there seems to be a roughly-five-year cycle: new party comes into power, decides to build lots of new roads. About four years later they realise that building roads is very expensive and actually leads to more traffic. Policy changes to favour sustainable and public transport, then they lose the election. Repeat. Be sure to ignore what the rest of Europe is successfully doing.

  4. It is amazing that this chap puts his intellectual cart before any horse. With suitable planning, the need for travel and transport can be reduced and gridlock minimised. What am I missing? (I know, actually. More demand, more economic activity, spurious, wasteful ‘growth’ are all Tory idols that I will not worship…)

  5. Mr Oulton says:

    Superb post. Demonstrates the true barmy nature of UK transport policy. Expect some attention-grabbing ‘sexy’ new policies to be announced by DaFT soon.

    By the way, if planned transport is so bad, why is that the countries who planned their railway systems – as opposed to the UK – who now generally have the better systems?

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