21: Personal carbon allowances

In the past few years, the scientific community has achieved a near-consensus that our energy profligate lifestyles are contributing to a process that threatens future life on earth. As Robin Stott describes [1] the Global Commons Institute has put forward the only realistic framework to prevent this. Based on principles of precaution and equity, the policy of contraction and convergence is already commanding impressive national and international support [2]. Continue reading

20: An annual household budget for financial preparedness

Each year on behalf of the ruling Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer lays out for Parliament’s consideration his proposed budget for the coming year. The budget is based on a careful analysis of anticipated income from various revenue streams. This income then forms the basis his allocation to the Departments of State which, together with the lobbying of outside interests, have in the preceding months been presenting their case for a larger share of the total than they had received in the past. The Chancellor also takes a longer-term view of the country’s economic prospects, thereby allowing him a wider latitude in this process. He can borrow to fund desirable policies which cannot be immediately afforded in anticipation of more revenue from tax, for instance from higher levels of employment in the future. Or he can pay off part of the country’s national debt that has accumulated from previous years’ borrowings. Essentially, however, his task is to ‘balance the books’ – so that expenditure does not exceed income. Continue reading

19: As if there’s no tomorrow

Prospects are grim if only lip-service is paid to our overriding responsibility to act as current stewards of the planet and to seek to ensure that the quality of life of the generations succeeding us is enhanced rather than diminished as a result of what we do. Continue reading

18: Re-appraising political decisions with the benefit of hindsight

Central and local government reach decisions, for instance on planning matters following public inquiries, which in due course of time may be seen to have been ill-advised and therefore to vindicate opponents who had presented counter arguments. Insofar as there is any subsequent analysis of such an outcome, the politicians involved are usually treated as if they had simply been misguided or mistaken in their judgement rather than having deliberately ignored the public interest for baser reasons such as short-term electoral advantage. It is commonplace to view a regrettable decision as the consequence of an inevitably imperfect process. In effect, it is written off as a lost cause with nothing to learn to make such errors less likely to occur in future. At best, aggrieved opponents may have the minor satisfaction of being able to say at a later date “we told you so”. Continue reading

17: Rail subsidy – an environmental good?

In spite of the relatively high price of petroleum for cars and the economies of carrying large numbers of people on a train, car travel is in general much cheaper than rail travel. This fact is widely viewed as scandalous when considered against successive governments’ objectives of reducing the environmental impacts of car (and lorry) traffic and of reducing the need for more road building to cater for the continuing growth in demand for transport. Continue reading

16: Take up cycling

Overcome your initial fears and take up cycling. It is a unique way of keeping fit and healthy, feeling good, and getting about conveniently on far more of your journeys than you realise. Statistics show that, on average, for every ‘life year’ lost in cyclists’ fatalities on the roads, about 20 life years are gained from cyclists’ improved health leading to their greater longevity. Continue reading

15: The positioning of vehicle exhausts

A review of successive governments’ policies directly or indirectly affecting the attractions of walking as a means of transport would be likely to conclude that there must have been a malign and ingenious spirit masterminding a strategy to make it an unpleasant and unsafe way of getting about in daily life. Continue reading

14: In reverse alphabetical order

The month of the year in which we are born can result in up to an extra 11 months of education in primary school, thereby providing undue advantage to those whose birthdays fall in the calendar year after rather than before August. Given the considerable difficulties, if not impossibility, of adjusting the school intake or evaluation of schoolchildren’s progress to reflect this, we have no choice but to accept the unfairness of the situation in the same way that we have to accept immutable genetic attributes affecting our height or intellectual capabilities. Continue reading

13: Ten myths about cycling

  1. Cycling, like walking, only caters for short journeys
    In any equivalent time spent walking, cycling gives access to over 15 times the area, that is the number of potential destinations that can be reached. Currently, 40% of all journeys are less than 2 miles long and two thirds less than 5 miles (a distance within which about three-quarters of cyclists’ journeys are made— that is about half an hour’s cycle ride and taking the bike on the train can often be a convenient option for some of the longer journeys.
  2. Cycling can mainly only meet fit young people’s travel needs.
    Most people can cycle but are discouraged from doing so by the perceived danger: in the Netherlands, 1 in 4 of the journeys of women pensioners is made by cycle! In any case, no one is arguing that everyone should make all their journeys by cycle.
  3. Cycling is often unsuitable because of rain or cold.
    The risk of rain on a typical journey of 10 minutes is only about 1 in 100. And the exercise entailed in cycling raises body and skin temperature so that cyclists feel cold only on those very rare occasions when the temperature is very low.
  4. Cycling is not a realistic means of travel because of the effort involved in riding up hills.
    Most of Cambridge is flat, nearly all bikes have gears, and hills don’t only go up! In any case, cyclists are not glued to their saddle — they can dismount and push their bikes on those rare occasions when it is too tiring. In practice, this rarely happens.
  5. Cycling entails so much physical effort that a shower is needed at the end of the journey.
    This is a common view of those who don’t cycle. It is not the experience of those who do cycle. Even where showers are available, few feel the need to have one.
  6. Cycling damages health owing to having to breathe polluted air from vehicle exhausts.
    This is a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: doctors strongly recommend regular exercise, and cycling is one of the best ways as it can be tied into the daily routine. Studies have shown that adults who do so are as fit as those ten years younger. It has been shown too that, as far as pollution is concerned, vehicle occupants are at significantly greater risk: in contrast to cyclists, they have to inhale fumes from the vehicle exhausts just in front of them at traffic lights.
  7. Cycling is slower than public transport.
    The National Travel Survey shows that, on a door-to-door comparison over the same route, most journeys in urban areas can be made more quickly by cycle than public transport. In fact, cycling has generally proved faster than the car on timed journeys in urban areas.
  8. Cycling is not as cost-effective an investment of public as public transport.
    Nonsense! In fact, 10,000 metres (10 kilometres) of safe cycle routes can be built at the same cost as that required for just 1 metre of London’s Jubilee Line extension!
  9. Cycling is dangerous.
    It is drivers who are ‘dangerous’: over 80% of cyclists are killed as a result of being hit by a car or lorry. In any case, when cycling, only one fatality occurs on average every 30 million kms, and one serious injury every 1.7 million kms. With the creation of more cycle networks, that low risk will be reduced. On the other hand, my BMA study showed the risk of not cycling to be far higher owing to lack of regular exercise leading to death from heart disease (annual deaths from heart disease 130 thousand, that is about 1000 times the number of cycle fatalities).
  10. Cycling entails wearing a safety helmet to avoid risk of head injury.
    Of cyclists’ serious head injuries, 85% result from collision with a vehicle: cycle helmets cannot be designed to afford sufficient protection in these circumstances. Few Dutch or Danish cyclists wear one, but their injury rate is far lower than in the UK because far more cycle routes are provided and drivers there are more careful as there are more cyclists on the streets.

This Musing was drawn from the keynote paper Cycling at the top of the policy agenda given at the ‘Making Cycling Viable’ Symposium, Wellington, New Zealand, 14-15 July 2000.

12: Jack of all advice – a role for retired people

What is the most important lesson we can learn from looking back over the last two millennia that we can apply in the early part of the new one? Could it be that although every country in the world is seeking to promote economic growth, it is both unsustainable and fundamentally flawed as a concept – for which reason we must adopt that level of resource-dependent lifestyle that is compatible with the planet’s capacity to support all its population roughly sharing that level? Or could the lesson be that, when the chips are down, self-interest is a far more potent motivator than altruism? After all, we seem prepared to forego very little of what we see as hard-earned improvements in our quality of life even when it is becoming apparent that that may lead to ecological disaster. Indeed, we seem to avoid enquiring or caring about what is going on lest it affect our dedication to pursuing hedonistic practices. Continue reading