Maybe local transport policies should be anti-pandemic?

I was recently asked for my views on a sustainable transport policy for Hereford.

Having said, “I will write something for you” I spent a day doing endless mental “what-ifs” and each time concluded that the future environmental sustainability of Hereford, will be dependent on reducing highway traffic volumes.  Not just in Hereford but throughout the county.  And everywhere else.

How to do it?

It used to be said that boosting public transport provision would reduce car use.  But we failed to grasp that this has to be complemented by reductions in road capacities.  Otherwise, any capacity created, by shifting some car journeys to public transport, will be taken up by other car journeys, sometimes in new patterns of travel.  Worse still, in Herefordshire, creating spare road space in Hereford will make the north-south route through the city (A49) more attractive for long-distance traffic, as an alternative to slower motorway travel.

But, what if Covid-19 leads to reductions in (1) the size of the economy, (2) prosperity (3) population, and (4) consequent reductions in travel and traffic congestion?

The temptation will then be to continue accommodating, and implicitly planning for, traffic growth. Moreover, long-established conventional growth-based benefit/cost analysis will “prove” this should be the way forward!

But, we must not assume that the past is our best guide to the future.  We should ignore what conventional economic analysis tells us. The future will be quite different.

We should think “outside the box”.  We must use our imagination.  We must think about what would be sustainable in a future in which pandemics will be part of a new norm.

This must now be brought into our thinking, about the future of our urban and rural areas.

If we assume that the immediate need is to prepare for future pandemics then, for the time being, we must put to one side our thinking about environmental sustainability.

But maybe there is no need for this?  Minimising the threat of pandemics and seeking environmental sustainability, both require the suppression of travel.

Highway and public transport systems designed to enable travel to city centres and supermarkets are not a good idea.  They increase our chance of spreading and getting COVID-19

I can imagine a land-use/transport strategy that would replace the present city-centre oriented economy and associated radial highway and public transport systems.

This reminds me of a piece I wrote here in 2018 about clusters.

Clusters of home-based local economies would reduce the need to travel.

They would be based on local shopping centres, villages and self-defined communities.  With mini-bus services on 20mph lanes for local travel and deliveries.  And separate paths for cycles and pedestrians.

And, if there are none, new village shops, cafes and pubs on plots which are legally protected from conversion to housing.

[If only this had been seen to be essential when development control laws were introduced in 1947. So many village shops and pubs would have been saved from conversion into houses.]

Cluster boundaries could come about as happenstances, according to the views of local people – a kind of informal planning processes.  Sometimes overlapping or within each other.  Whatever suits the locality. Prompted by awareness of the idea and discussion on social media and local email newsgroups.

Road capacities between the clusters would be limited, with speed limits to discourage car travel.

Within each of the clusters, areas would become established where all kinds of businesses would develop.  Providing local employment and related services, such as meeting rooms and cafés for home-workers.

The kinds of businesses in each cluster would be a result of happenstance development.  In the way that the village of Studley (referred to in my previous piece) happened to become preoccupied with making needles in the 19th and 20th centuries.  An evolutionary process taking generations of family growth.

Aiming to minimise car use within the clusters and discretionary travel outside. To limit the spread of pandemics.

A kind of sustainability more important than the environmental kind. Quickly replacing the old ways with a new norm.

I have seen the future – it is CLUSTERS

The world is full of clusters.  They have been around since the beginning of time.  They can be seen from both top-down and bottom-up.  From the bottom-up you may belong to a cluster, from the top-down clusters may be seen as an implicit part of economic and cultural development.  Whether you expect a future of no-growth or not, clusters will be part of the future.

Clusters of people and organisations are to be found in academic organisation, computer software, housing development, cybernetics, economic development, city planning, and so on.

Clusters may be generated and developed from the top down by public and private investment or “naturally” from the grass-roots by individuals coming together.  An interesting example of the former, not far from where I live, is the Malvern Cyber Security Cluster which consists of more than 80 cybersecurity businesses.  Why Malvern?  It was established as a centre of cybernetic businesses in 1942 when Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that telecommunications research should move to this rarely bombed region.

In this piece, probably mainly of interest to those who are aware of the UK town and country planning system, I will focus on the potential for clusters of people and businesses to develop in neighbourhoods, from the grass-roots. I expect this will come to be seen as an important way of planning the use of land when the likelihood of no more growth in prosperity becomes widely accepted.

Clusters that develop naturally bring together like-minded individuals and organisations, with common aims and values, which come together for mutual benefit.  It is a togetherness that is seen by those involved as an explicit co-operative process of personal and business development.  It is a kind of development those involved expect to be sustainable. A kind of sustainability that complements ecological sustainability.

In my lifetime I have known some local clusters.  I will pick out three.

My childhood was spent in Studley, Warwickshire. Said at one time to be the largest village in England.  Where all kinds of needles used to be made.  The first needle makers moved to Studley in the 17th century.  They were families who learnt to make a living by joining an emerging cluster of cottage industry businesses with a common business interest. Known collectively as “needle ticklers”, they included drillers, eyers, headers, pointers, straighteners, polishers and other specialisms.  The number of needle families proliferated and then mechanisation, using water-powered mills at first, led to mergers and take-overs.

Eventually, there were just a few large businesses in factories, one of which, in the 1960s, was said to be the largest needle factory in the world. However, bigness led to a lack of competitiveness and to demise, and in 2007 the last needles were made in Studley. The co-operative business culture of the cluster had evaporated.

In Hay-on-Wye (population 1,500), there are over 20 books shops.  A cluster started by the self-proclaimed King Richard Cœur de Livre in 1977 to counter the declining fortune of the market town of Hay (population 1500).  This cluster of booksellers “saved” Hay, which now gets over 500,000  visitors a year. Now perhaps in decline with antique shops taking over.

Clusters emerge as happenstances.  In my area, a redundant local authority village school was purchased and developed as a Steiner Academy, which in turn led to the coming together of a cluster of families with a shared interest in Steiner education.

In recent years, the emergence and development of clusters have not been recognised by the top-down land use planning system.  This is particularly noticeable, sadly, with family clusters, where development control policies have, in effect, stopped families from building homes nearby for their children and aged parents.  Thus exacerbating the housing and social care crises.

I believe that clusters will become increasingly important in a no-growth world, in which people and businesses with shared values come to see co-operating with like-minded people to be more worthwhile than going it alone. Moreover, because they are newcomers they are likely to be innovative and creative.

The development of clusters, in response to declining wealth with new kinds of markets emerging, implies a fundamental re-think of how our lives will be organised. Maybe this is already happening but not yet seen as such.

A decline in disposable incomes will force family lifestyles to become more co-operative.  Families will prefer to stay together, to support each other, rather than dispersing and losing contact, as has happened during the last 50 years or so.  Sustainability through togetherness will be more important than chasing a career.

Existing businesses may relocate close to where their employees live, thus minimising employee travel costs, reflecting the reduction in disposable income available for travel. Business plans can be expected to include building houses to rent to their employees.  As happened in my childhood when homeownership was beyond the means of the majority.

With no-growth, domestic car ownership will decline and human energy (walking and cycling) will be the way to enable travel within the clusters, to visit relatives and go about your businesses.

The Institute for the Future website shows how clusters have become a fundamental aspect of thinking about the future.

Tim Morgan has provided a convincing scenario of how the future will be in a no-growth economy.  He makes the point that “true sustainability is going to require profound structural changes, including radical reform of patterns of habitation, work and leisure.”  This sounds like clusters to me.

I don’t believe that any government would have electoral support for fundamental structural changes.  But that shouldn’t be necessary if the way forward were to be seen to be based on self-generating clusters. A process of organic development that is already happening, albeit frustrated by top-down intervention.

Changes in land use development control laws will be needed to enable self-generating clusters to develop.  Those with vested interests in “business as usual” will resist change.

Clusters would also make local housing more affordable and help to deal with the social problems of an ageing population.

Urban dispersal would be part of the evolution of population patterns based on clusters. In ways that cannot be predicted but must be allowed to happen unhindered.  Markets in land suitable physically for building houses will emerge and evolve in unexpected ways, as part of the development of clusters.

In a world of uncertainty about the future, detailed top-down land use planning will come to be seen to be self-defeating.  Much better to enable things to develop naturally, powered by creative individuals co-operating with each other to find sustainable futures for themselves and their families.  IN CLUSTERS.