The Bridge (Danish: Broen; Swedish: Bron; Scottish: Broken).
As the public teeters on the edge of overcrowded station platforms across Fife, the full scale of our catastrophic over-reliance on the car is revealed. Carmeggedon is not just about 3,500 people deaths per year from air pollution, or cities brought to a dismal daily gridlock, it’s about an addiction to a way of life, and an inability to innovate away from disaster. As Amber Rudd represents you at COP21 in Paris, and Hurricane Desmond sweeps through your life as the media averts it’s eyes to the (join the ******* dots folks) reality of climate change, Scotland’s public transport system is laid bare.
As the economy of the Eastern seaboard feels the crunch, the jokes are flying in, and the Blame Game is fully under-way. Some – in a spectacular bout of ‘whitabootery’ – blamed the Greens for ridiculing the need for a second bridge. Actually they insisted that the remaining bridge have proper investment in maintenance. Some blamed the Scottish Government for privatising the maintenance, handing the contract from the Forth Estuary Transport Authority to Amey LG Ltd last year. Others look to blame Transport Scotland. Today some have brought up the cancellation of the toll system as the real root of the problem. The call comes as an answer to Angela Haggerty’s rhetorical question: “Is there nothing that can’t be turned into a bad social media story for the SNP?” Answer: no.
But we should really be blaming ourselves for our habitual obsessive reliance on the car. Even as the news unfolded about the crisis people were tweeting: ‘I’m going to drive never mind how congested it is’. To which you can only smile and wish them luck in their journey though life. It’s a sort of thrawn cult of motor madness. An auto immune deficiency, if you like. A few years ago when we witnessed a huge snowfall and the M8 was closed, I remember wall-to-wall media coverage of the motorway with thick snow and ice and trails of trapped and abandoned cars shown on every news channel and feed. Yet webcam footage showed drivers blithely driving through the blizzard onto the motorway to join the chaos like particularly thick lemmings ensconced behind the wheel. Our response at the time? Sack the Transport Minister!
The Car as a Defeat Device
Is Vorsprung durch Technik the most ironic slogan of all time?
As New Scientist reported on the Volkswagen scandal in September the German car giants are unlikely to be alone in their emissions fraud:
“Volkswagen’s admission on 22 September that many of its cars tricked their way through routine tailpipe emission tests could throw light on why many European countries have failed to meet targets for reducing pollution from airborne nitrogen oxides (NOx). Failure to meet targets potentially means premature deaths and additional disease – the UK government estimated in a consultation document issued earlier this month that nitrogen dioxide emissions account for up to 23,500 premature deaths in the UK, mainly through heart and lung disease. VW rigged the tests by fitting its cars with a “defeat device”, a component designed to recognise when the emissions test is under way and to distort the real-world performance of the engine so that the emissions fall within the limit. Investigation by New Scientist suggest that while no other manufacturers of diesel vehicles will have gone as far as VW to cheat their way through the tests, there may be many that legally deploy unrealistic conditions during testing to artificially reduce strain on the engine, and with it the emissions produced.”
As a metaphor for our collapsing institutions, structures and systems, and as a symbol of our denial and fantasy about the changes required to shift to a low-carbon society, few can better the blind panic and confusion as the Forth Bridge closes down.
Single Track Road
The bridge closure is not just a problem for Fife, it’s a problem for our society. It’s a wake-up call about the almost comical lack of resilience in our way of getting about. The economy of large parts of Eastern Scotland are reliant on a single road. Our response? Build another single road next to it. It’s not exactly thinking outside the box is it?
Where, you might ask is the political leadership to innovate and diversify transport options? If the Edinburgh tram fiasco showed our inability to organise and coordinate a public transport strategy, it impacted too on the Forth transport system. Word is that the plan originally would have meant a ferry and hovercraft across the river to connect with the tram at Granton and whisking people up Leith Walk and into town. This was – allegedly – stymied because Forth Ports Authority own the harbour. Once again, profiteering and private interest trumps the public good. With people huckled out of the Edinburgh housing market, and a rip-off unregulated rental market, the commuter trains from Fife are mobbed with people unable to afford to live in the capital. Where, even with the new second bridge plans are the real innovations and commitment to long-term solutions? Where are the enforced car-sharing, large-scale affordable public transport investments, encouragements to cyclists and low-carbon rail and ferry choices? They are nowhere to be seen. We are trapped in a debate about transport which is confined to a sort of binary uselessness defined often as a choice between: Heathrow or Gatwick?
Large parts of our economy is reliant on shifting goods and people across a river. A river with one crossing. A crossing now closed.
If the Scottish Government, and Fife and Lothian Councils are culpable for a listless unimaginative approach to transport and a complete lack of innovation over decades, so too is the UK govt, whose environmental record as we stagger about Paris looking for answers is woeful. We are tied to a state with a perilous track record on the environment. As George Monbiot records:
“The UK is now the only G7 nation substantially to increase its subsidies for fossil fuels: this year, George Osborne granted a further £1.7bn of tax breaks for extracting oil and gas from the North Sea. Cameron has imposed, through the Infrastructure Act 2015, a legal obligation on the government to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas. As it also has a legal obligation (through the Climate Change Act 2008) to minimise the burning of oil and gas, this creates something of a quandary. But no one in the government appears to care. Cameron has, in effect, shut down the development of onshore windfarms and large-scale solar power, and now wants businesses to invest in gas instead. The only way in which more gas burning could be reconciled with our climate change commitments is to capture and bury the carbon dioxide it produces. But seven days after the government announced its dash for gas, it dumped its carbon capture and storage competition, ensuring that its contradictions are now impossible to resolve. It has cut the funding for energy efficiency in homes by 80%. It is selling its Green Investment Bank. It has cut the incentives to buy less polluting cars. It wants to build new roads and runways. Only with a reversal of these policies, and the vastly expensive closure of the plants Cameron now seeks to commission, could Britain meet its climate targets.”
Hans Rosenfeldt’s brilliant drama The Bridge stems from the discovery of a body on the Øresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. It’s a statement of Scandic confidence in drama and engineering. Here we can’t connect Dalmeny to North Queensferry.
We should have multiple crossings of the Forth, which could diversify the stream of people and goods and bring economic benefits to ports and harbours, be they Granton, Burntisland, Rosyth, Kirkcaldy, Portobello, Cockenzie or Leith. We should have a housing policy that allows people to have access to affordable homes and not just a way of funnelling cash into the accounts of private landlords but allows people to live in the capital city. We should have a truly ‘enterprising’ economy that doesn’t obsess about presenteeism. What are all these people travelling to do? What are they actually doing?
We should have a transport system that invests in public transport alternatives and incentives people to shift by making it more attractive and convenient to get out of the car. But we’d need to invest in that ourselves, financially and emotionally to make that happen, and not just point the finger at others.