Shrink Alastair Parvin 10/09/11 0.27
How to double the UK strategic road infrastructure in ten years... without spending an extra penny.
The next decade will be defined, politicians now tell us, as an 'age of austerity'. As many have countered, this is not an idea we should accept without question: since 2009, the word 'austerity' has taken on a new meaning, associated as it now is with a particular political orthodoxy which assumes that it is legitimate to make society as a whole pay 'in kind' to cover the cost of propping up of shrinking monetary economies. The politics of 'austerity' is the equivalent of a company which avoids bankruptcy only by making its employees work extra hours for no more money, or by turning off the air conditioning. It improves the numbers on the balance sheet, but only by shifting the real cost onto areas were it cannot be quantified or accounted for, and often in ways which will damage the long-term viability of the organisation. Our situation is often described as one in which 'profits are privatised and losses are socialised'.
Whatever the political controversies or historic causes, it nonetheless seems reasonable to assume that the next decade will be very strongly defined by, if not austerity, then certainly scarcity. Scarcity of resources, time, energy, housing and above all, public spending money.
THE PROGRESSIVE'S PARADOX
The paradox is that this event, whose causes seem to be so obviously external, happens to precisely co-incide with a decade in which a number of long-brewing crises will come to a head (many might justifiably argue that his is not a coincidence at all), and we will finally have to do something about them. Climate change is the most obvious example, but along with it comes house price inflation, escalating rail fares, rising food costs, peak oil, north / south inequality. In short, we've arrived at a period of time which requires massive, game-changing investment in infrastructure just at the moment at which most governments have run out of money.
Conventionally, the Keynesian fiscal stimulus is advocated by economists as the perfect response to this paradox – to use massive government investment during a recession to create employment and, in so doing, lay the foundations for the next economy. Today, 'green industry' is usually cited as the candidate for that stimulus. The problem is that very few governments currently have the political will or credit to seriously invest that kind of money in the face of mounting public debt (with the only possible exception being China).
To the political economist, this might be an intractable dichotomy: the variables are set, and the toolbox is bare. Applying a design lens however, reveals another, perhaps slightly more radical kind of innovation, which alters the variables in the equation.
As Rory Sutherland argued in his 2009 TED talk, we naturally tend to try to solve big, heavy problems by using big, heavy solutions, often to little or no effect. What if, instead, we were to think laterally, and change the rules – take both the need for financial austerity and the need for progressive investment – and say 'yes' to both?
SHRINK: 3.6m > 1.8m
Shrink is both an illustration, and a serious suggestion. It proposes a strategy to double the capacity of the UK's road infrastructure over 5 years, without spending anything more than the price of... several thousand miles of white paint.
What if the UK parliament were to pass a piece of legislation determining that over five years, lane widths in the UK were going to halve – from around 3.6m to 1.8m, and that by 2016, all new vehicles on sale in the UK (with some key exceptions) would conform to this gauge. The premise is not as outrageous as it might seem. We have long been aware that car design needs to shift towards a micro eco-car norm, if only based on the illogical tendency in car design towards selling larger and larger vehicles which are used with an average occupancy rate of only 1.58 people. Such a proposal recognises that we have a one-off opportunity to precipitate that change, and in the process to incidentally unleash huge extra capacity in the road network, for roughly no extra cost.
Almost overnight, an individual road would effectively double in width, without a single square metre of additional tarmac being laid beyond normal maintenance. But the legislation would also have a number of simultaneous effects beyond roads themselves. First, the gauge would also have an immediate impact on car parks and urban spaces. Car parks, particularly those at railway stations, would vastly increase in capacity, supporting a culture of short-range car use, long-range train use by providing cheap parking at railway stations. At the same time, parking capacity in city and town centres would multiply which, rather than being allowed to simply reduce parking costs, would be an opportunity to reclaim street space for pedestrians and create wide, exclusive cycle lanes. This discredits the myth that increasing capacity would necessarily encourage increased car use. In fact, more broadly, the centre-left's habitual stigmatisation of the car as necessarily 'bad' should itself be put under scrutiny. Our objection to the car should not be against the car itself, but against its impact both upon its environment (a function of the fuel it uses), and its tendency to be used as an excuse for poor urban design. It is equally possible for the city to accommodate the car without being shaped by it as it is for our living rooms to accommodate the television, without being designed around it.
Beneath the surface, shrink legislation would be an economic intervention as well as a technological one. In effect, it presents the global car manufacturers with a very clear choice. Either they would choose to respond to the new conditions, accelerating their micro eco-car programmes to meet the UK market earlier than planned, or they would decide that this specific UK market is just too small to be worth such effort. In the latter case, Shrink would create a 5 to 10 year constrained window, within which small companies pioneering micro eco-car prototypes (many of which are UK-based, such as Gordon Murray's T25 and T27) have the opportunity to radically grow to scale within the UK before taking on the global market. By that time, the rise of the urban middle classes in the far east might have generated a huge global market for such vehicles. In effect, Shrink legislation would act as a closet form of protectionism, temporarily sculpting out a market space which might well allow a global British car manufacturing industry to be revived once more. It privatises the cost of investment, but socialises the gains.
(TLV) TWO-LANE VEHICLES
There are, of course, myriad complications, and a number of practical exceptions which would need to be built into the Shrink rule. For one, goods haulage (which itself represents an effective but vastly inefficient transportation system which will find itself in need of radical redesign as oil prices rise) would need to be accommodated as a new class of 'two lane' vehicle. This class might also include (for a while at least) vehicles used by families, vans (particularly quick-hire 'streetvans', used for occasional journeys with lots of luggage) and vehicles preserved as historic artefacts. All of these exceptions would be subject to variable road tax conditions, making it not impossible – but certainly expensive – to completely ignore the Shrink should you wish to. Thus, it would not be illegal to drive a 2009 Aston Martin as a two-lane vehicle, but it would (until it had reached a certain age at least), be a luxury in tax terms, just as it is a luxury consumer commodity in the first place.
Whether absurd, opportunistic or inevitable, Shrink legislation might well represent one example of a different kind of government intervention, one led not by pure economics but by creative design thinking, one based neither on oppressive regulation, unaccountable spending nor laissez-faire privatisation. This is a kind of anticipatory, design-minded market choreography, which may have applications and implications far beyond the age-old problem of getting from A to B.
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