‘Are Trams Socialist?’ And Other Stories.

Not my title, though I love it. It’s a forthcoming book from Christian Wolmar, the transport policy expert who was speaking yesterday at a meeting to consider the future of transport.

Perhaps Wolmar’s central point was to observe that we do not have a transport policy.  Of course, there is a Minister with a brief for transport, but that scarcely amounts to a policy. Instead we have a patchwork of responses to transport pressures, with the loud voices of lobby groups often trumping a rational ordering of priorities.  But even a notional ‘rational ordering of priorities’ is a technocrat’s phrase to describe something that is deeply political, and at many levels.  ‘Are Trams Socialist?’ Whisper it, but they probably are.  (That’s my inference, by the way. Wolmar briefly plugged his book, but otherwise failed to expand on the provocative title.)

Even cars are socialist, insofar as a car is useless without roads, and all the state planning inherent in making the private motor car, and lorry, and bus a functional vehicle, rather than simply a piece of clever engineering with little purpose.  Visit any country with a barely competent state, even if it is rich, and what you’ll find is that people live in grand gated compounds set on streets of bare earth, on which only the most rugged of all terrain vehicles can run adequately.  Visitors to, say, Britain from such countries often marvel at the existence of proper roads, with rules that drivers mostly obey.  But such miracles of infrastructure have to be planned and paid for.

But a transport policy requires more than simply the maintenance of existing infrastructure, and its expansion or renewal as times change.

So what might a transport policy look like?  Wolmar asked us to think about transport needs and pressures today, and in twenty years time, and to consider those things which impact, directly or indirectly, on transport needs.  To help us along, he placed it all in the context of the history of transport.

This context matters.  The notion of a ‘transport policy’ is meaningless before the industrial revolution.  Complex urban societies need transport networks to move goods and people.  But transport is also cultural.  And cultures change.

One of Wolmar’s assumptions is that there are more or less objective pressures that will drive change.  These include technological innovation, and climate change.

But I’d suggest that cultural factors are at least as important.  Wolmar noted the declining interest in private cars amongst the young, but he didn’t offer a suggestion as to why that might be.

We are still living in an era of car culture in ‘the west’.  The private car was the prime symbol of the 20th Century – the American Century.  From Fordist production lines as the model for consumer capitalism, to the ‘dream’ of a sprawling home in the suburbs with a gleaming Cadillac in the garage, to the teenager driving on an open road listening to rock and roll on the radio, this was an aspirational lifestyle, and one which seemed open to all at a time of generally rising affluence.

There are plenty of people who still buy this, but in a Top Gear-ish, petrolhead kind of a way.  It’s an ‘FU individualism’ which is actually deeply conformist.  As Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘no man over thirty should be on a bus’.  Liverpool, not the former PM’s greatest fans, dubbed the bus, the ‘loser cruiser’.  These prejudices remain tenacious.

But at a time of insecure housing tenure and falling levels of home ownership, in which some people now sleep in their cars, perhaps the bus is no longer the ‘loser cruiser’ after all?  The car is losing its glamour.

I went to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s.  There were mobile phones around in those days, but they were the size of bricks, and I didn’t have one.  So what struck me about Hong Kong was that, as I expressed it at the time, “no one had a car, and everyone had a mobile phone”.  Why waste time driving through a traffic jam when you could sit on a bus or a tram and play a game on your PDA?  The glimpse of the future I saw then is now becoming a more general reality.

For life is changing, and above all, cities are changing.  I was born in the middle of Birmingham.  My childhood was marked by my family moving further out over time until we ended by on the edge of the city with a view of the fields and villages on the Worcestershire/Warwickshire boundary.  Those city limits are now a bleak edgeland where the marginal are warehoused.  And the redbrick terraces of the inner ‘villages’ are now often highly desirable, or else cheap and multicultural, with a load of hipster thrown into the mix.  People are choosing to live in greater densities, not just for reasons of cost, or ease of travel to work, but also because lively neighbourhoods have the facilities – cafes, restaurants, music, cinema – that widen life out beyond the four walls of the 20th Century suburban box.

These changes necessitate new approaches to transport. They demand mass transit systems, but also safe cycling and pedestrianisation.  They need plentiful public space.

Christian Wolmar rightly talked of using market mechanisms to ‘nudge’ people in the right direction, as with London’s congestion charge.  But as well as making car use expensive, cultural change can make cars ‘uncool’.  I think that’s happening, too.  Where cars were once seen as ‘liberating’, they can come to seem a burden, an expensive, depreciating, drain on the pocket.

Which brings us back to the socialism of trams.  Private car-land, the dormitory villages and commuter towns of the shires, are places where most lives are lived in limited private space.  You are on your own.  And they vote Tory (just look at an electoral map).  Cities – densely packed, diverse, culturally active may offer less domestic space inside the home, but they offer huge shared social space.  You are not on your own.  And they don’t vote Tory.

Is this why there’s no appetite in government for a transport policy?

3 thoughts on “‘Are Trams Socialist?’ And Other Stories.

  1. Thanks, Yasmin. Perceptive as ever – I just prefer trolley buses to trams! Shall we see you at a Compass/ Network event again?

    Best wishes. Roy

  2. The question “Are trams socialist (or any other political adjective)?” has no meaning. People take trams when they are there. Few people take trams because few tramways exist between A and B.

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