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The future of transport: the highway to hell?

What future for transport in the 21st century?

‘There is no Plan B, which is why we will have to have a period of reflection.’ So said Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester’s city council, when Mancunians roundly rejected a new transport plan in 2008. The plan would have made £3billion of funding available for transport improvements, much of it borrowed against future revenue from a proposed rush-hour congestion charge. The voters of Manchester, it appeared, were in no mood to foot the bill for improvements through a tax on driving. Changing transport systems is rarely a straightforward process, given that they are complicated, and engineers are typically locked into an infrastructure designed for a previous age – not to mention the additional pressure today of public spending cuts. Proponents of the Manchester transport plan claimed the city has the slowest-moving traffic in England. In built-up areas, there is clearly a limit to how many extra roads can be built. Many agree that public transport services need to become more frequent, less crowded and more reliable. And that means spending money. While nobody likes paying higher fares or more tax, that may be just the kind of uncomfortable choice that needs to be made.

On top of concerns about congestion and worries about safety, changing cultural attitudes mean that for many mobility itself is no longer an unquestioned good: cars are frowned upon, aviation deemed too carbon intensive, trains too expensive, and space travel simply pointless. We are urged to consider alternatives: whether it is restricting car use in favour of cycling or reducing unnecessary journeys through stay-at-home tele-conferencing. Local government supports car pooling schemes and energy-efficient transport. The idea of environmental taxes to fund new infrastructure and penalise transport use has widespread support.

Should politicians be unashamed about arguing for the funding required to make travel easier if that is what the voters want? Or do they, and we all, have a responsibility to curb our enthusiasm for rapid transport: in the interests of both the environment and just slowing down the pace of life a little? The technology now exists to make what were once the dreams of science fiction a reality: jet-packs; hydrogen powered cars; Maglev public transport; and automated highways. Yet we have much more modest transport ambitions today, in which high-speed rail links come only slowly and at the expense of new runways. What future for transport in the 21st century?


Michelle Di Leo | talks
Yvonne Hübner | talks
Mr Austin Williams | talks
Keith McCabe | talks


Date and Time:

25 October 2010 at 5:45 pm


1 hour 30 minutes



Blackwell University Bookshop
The Precinct Centre
Oxford Road
M13 9RN

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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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