Taking an axe to Yggdrasil


Yggdrasil, as any student of Norse mythology will know, is the ‘world tree’ – a huge ash, the branches of which cover the whole world.

It is said to be the throne of Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, and a dragon curls around its trunk.

Apart from being brought up on Tolkien, I’m not sure whether I now have sufficient head-space to understand Norse mythology. But over the weekend, I dreamed I wrote a blog with the title you see at the top, so that’s what I am doing…

When I woke up, I realised exactly what it would be about. I spent Saturday afternoon being driven around south London to take my eldest to university.

Then I found myself on my old stamping ground of Crystal Palace, which has clearly become both posher and more crowded than it ever was in the 30-odd years when I lived there.

I also drove along Croxted Road, between Brockwell Park in the north to the foot of Gipsy Hill, where the streets run down from Upper Norwood via the Southwark and Lambeth sections.

I saw so many posters on stake boards outside the homes of people in Croxted Road, especially as it approached West Dulwich, which demanded that the road closures should stop, so that the traffic would not be decanted down their road.

Now I don’t live there any more, so I have no idea how bad the traffic is.

On the other hand, you only have to read the Sunday Telegraph to know of the campaign, encouraged by elements in the Conservative party, to make the freedom to drive wherever and whenever you want an election issue next year.

I have a friend who has been been active supporting London mayor Sadiq Khan in his implementation of the Boris-inspired ULEZ, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, and he is horrified by the vitriol that has been encouraged over the issue.

I know of at least one environmentalist who has received death threats over it.

I also gather that mayors around the world are watching Khan with interest, and especially next May, to see whether he can hold on electorally – in which case they can summon the nerve to start the road-pricing measures that the world’s cities need so urgently. And if he doesn’t, they won’t.

What is difficult is that all these traffic-calming measures are based on a new theory which was articulated by Professor Martin Mogridge of University College, London.

Mogridge was a transport economist.  He was originally a physicist who wore long hair and leather trousers, and a cultivated and exotic air. His interests included science fiction and Victorian eroticism, and just before his untimely death in 1999 at the age of only 59, he began studying Hebrew.

Over the previous three decades, while the major cities of the world enthusiastically demolished their slums and built massive urban highways, transport experts had been puzzling over the phenomenon of how new roads – even widened roads – seemed to increase traffic.

Economists had noticed that, if there is more road space, then people find it worthwhile to pay to use their cars, if they had one. Then public transport attracts fewer paying passengers and the fares go up or services reduce, and even more people go by car. 

Even in the 1930s, they had noticed that new roads released what they called ‘suppressed demand’. Worse, then the traffic goes faster and the buses find it more difficult to negotiate traffic streams or cross big highways. It all combined together to create what was called the Downs-Thomson Paradox, described like this:

“If the decision to use public or private transport is left to the free choice of the individual commuter, an equilibrium will be reached in which the overall attractiveness of the two systems is about equal, because if one is faster, cheaper and more agreeable than the other there will be a shift of passengers to it, rendering it more crowded while the other becomes less so, until a position is reached where no-one on either system thinks there is any advantage in changing to the other… Hence we derive one of the golden rules of urban transport: the quality of peak-hour travel by car tends to equal that of public transport.”

That was a vital clue: the speed of road transport and public transport are linked, and the journey times door to door for both are often very similar. Mogridge realised that, in London, everything depended on the speed of the underground system, which is why the traffic in London has stayed at a pretty average speed since 1900 (about 4 mph). 

So if you build more roads, people go back to their cars because it is then quicker than going by underground – until the point when the speed is so slow that underground travel is faster. Then they leave their cars behind and go by tube.

The solution to speeding up the traffic is therefore to speed up the main public transport infrastructure. What’s more, said Mogridge, this works even if you take space away from cars to make room for public transport. It was the thinking that led to plans like Crossrail – the new high speed underground line across London – as well as on Zurich’s successful strategy to reduce car use based on better pedestrian access and investment in trams. 

By the end of his life, Mogridge reckoned that traffic speed could be doubled just by reducing space for cars, though it remains difficult for public officials – at least in the UK – to act on this new law of traffic management (Read more in my book The New Economics).

This is how he explained it in 1997, just before he died…

The reason for this lies in the interaction between private and public transport, or rather between individual and collective transport. An important policy conclusion follows: a necessary condition for increasing journey speeds in towns (for both car users and collective transport users) is to improve the quality of collective transport. Sample calculations suggest that the average direct journey speed in central London may be more than doubled by such a policy.”

Now the trouble with new ideas that they can sometimes appear to fly in the face of what the ‘plain man’ calls common sense. Especially if they are never talked about in public.

It takes a long time before they can be accepted widely as fact. And the Conservative party has never wavered in their commitment to letting everyone drive wherever they want and letting road-building rip.

What applies to London also applies to the trunk road system. I was staggered that David Cameron as prime minister announced road-building plans which flew in the face of this knowledge. In fact, £15bn worth, about which he claimed:

“This will be nothing less than a roads revolution – one which will lead to quicker journey times, more jobs, and businesses boosted right across the country.”

If Mogridge was right, and I think he was, the very last thing this would do is boost journey times.  It was a staggering waste of money and it seemed at the very least unproven that it would boost business. Except of course the business of road-building.  

Every one of those extra lanes, built at such enormous expense, would attract the road traffic to fill them again and I felt despairing of the establishment’s ability to learn anything very much – and their amazing ability to keep plugging away with our money at the futile and hopeless.

It almost makes you yearn for austerity.  

The trouble is that Cameron was leading a group of people who John Stuart Mill once described in the Commons as the “stupid party”.

That is why they have failed to make a proper impact on either traffic levels or smog . I believe that their determination to excite this kind of atavisitic yearning for the unrestricted freedom of the road.

If everyone is free to drive anywhere any time, it will inevitably mean more traffic, worse air quality and roads everywhere.

It will, in short, be like taking an axe – or a chainsaw or pneumatic drill – to the world-tree Yggdrasil.

Certainly, far too many other trees will get the chop.

Ironically, I can imagine a situation in only a decade or so’s time, when driving on a length of road will generate electricity. Some of  this will go to the car; some of it will go to the grid.

Yet I don’t see why the residents of Croxted Road should not share in the profits selling their part of that energy for themselves.

In those circumstances, why should they be so concerned about the traffic getting diverted past their homes?

Then perhaps we can stop cutting down the world-tree.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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