Friday, February 4, 2011

To road or not to road - that is..

Thursday 3rd, February: No, the heading was not a typo, I did not mean "ride", although there are times when that is a good question as well (and generally the answer should be to ride!). What caught my eye was the report in the Cambridge News: "Warning of A14 'standstill' without action on upgrade". Along with this item were also reports on "A14 blocked after car hits barrier" and "Death toll doubles on county roads".


I suppose I'd better put my cards on the table, I am not a great fan of just building new roads. It seems to me that we will see a decline in oil (for petrol) production in the not too distant future. There is a concept known as Peak Oil when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reach and after which it will go into terminal decline. According to the Wikipedia article optimistic estimations are that this will occur by 2020 and some models indicate that this point was passed in 2006. The challenge is that this issue is both highly emotionally charged and has huge economic and political consequences. A quick look at the UKERC (UK Energy Research Centre) website has a report (ISBN 1-903144-0-35) suggesting that there is a significant risk of Peak Oil before 2020 and that even an optimistic figure for Peak Oil would be only 2030.

There are many ifs and buts, such as how much of an "oilfield" is economically recoverable and whether new technologies and finds will significantly change the picture. However it is clear that the world is becoming more desperate in its search for oil - with the Arctic being opened up and deeper mine being drilled under the oceans - as demonstrated by the Deepwater oil disaster.

So what does this all have to do with the A14 - well rather than conventional thinking we need to explore new ways of "communicating", which is after all what roads do. It seems to me that in my cycle travels around the UK there are clear progressions from one form of transport to another. We started on foot, moving to horses and the rivers. Here in the Fens the Lodes were an important series of man-made waterways that apparently date from Roman times that provided by navigation between the villages and drainage of the surrounding fenland. The waterways were superseded by the railways which were then superseded by the roads. (Some of these routes have since reverted to cycle routes - Cycling from Hull to Cambridge - Day 1 Lincoln to Boston.)

So the question is what comes next in terms of a "transport revolution". It seems that we generally have to make choices about the cost of living and where jobs are to be found and how to get from our homes to our places of work. Here in the Cambridge area a reasonable percentage choose to commute into London by train to work. This balances the equation of quality of life as affected by time away from home, cost of living, cost of transport and ability to make money. The balance is not fixed and depending upon personal and family circumstances can and will change. For others the balance is about say commuting between St Ives and Cambridge to work.

The trouble is commuting rarely gets better. I used to commute to London twice a week, it was not pleasant, I would often stay late just to avoid the peak train times where late-comers found themselves standing on the journey home in packed carriages. At one stage I also used to find myself driving around the M25 on a regular basis - it was just awful. The trouble is that, as happened with the M25 new or improved roads can often act to draw more traffic in. Indeed more trains between London and Cambridge will probably help in the short-term but will almost inevitably draw more people to commute.

Now back to the A14, there are broadly two main types of traffic, haulage and commuters. I can't help feeling that as fuel prices inevitably go up then the railways should be absorbing the haulage, at least on strategic routes and as for commuters, a reasonable percentage don't need to physically be there. I accept that there are some roles than need a physical presence. At the moment there are no remote control builders or plumbers say. However we are on the verge of a new communication wave which can reduce the need to travel - the Broadband wave. At the moment there are limitations, most people think Internet rather than Broadband. However As part of my work I want to stay "socially" connected - which means better video connections, I don't want to lose the water-cooler moments, although I generalise them beyond TV. I feel there they provide serendipitous moments to discuss issues and fix problems.

Enough rambling for now - it is windy and my back twinges a bit at the moment so no cycling.

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