From the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
It now sounds massively out of date, but Jules Verne’s 1872 novel Around the World in Eighty Days pointed to the increased speed of travel, as the result of the expansion of railways and the opening of the Suez Canal. For transport is not just a way of travelling from one place to another, and technological developments in means of transport have both reflected and contributed to the rise of global capitalism. For centuries relatively few people travelled far outside their local areas, though there were exceptions (soldiers, sailors, explorers, merchants, slaves). But travel is now a part of people’s lives, from the daily commute into work to the annual holiday, and also an essential part of how capitalism operates, including travel for business meetings, movement of raw materials and finished goods and also of armed forces to protect the interests of rulers. At the same time, transport raises various issues, the efficiency, reliability and safety of travel, and its environmental impact all being crucial.
State-owned British railway services were sold off from 1995 onwards, though in many cases the new ‘private’ franchises are part-owned by other governments, such as the French and German. These companies receive massive subsidies, and sometimes have to walk away from contracts that are still not profitable enough. Even the Conservative government has had to take back two failing rail franchises, Northern and East Coast. There is a plethora of companies and tickets, and woe betide you if by mistake you get on a service run by the ‘wrong’ company so that your ticket is not valid for it. Delays and cancellations have become so commonplace that they are no longer a surprise. TransPennine Express had to cancel some services as they had apparently not realised that drivers would have to be trained to run their new trains. At least things are not as bad as South Africa, where passengers travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town were recently left stranded for over a day. Of course, neither state- nor privately-owned rail systems, or some mix of the two, are really run in the interests of passengers, because transport is run to make a profit rather than to meet people’s needs.
Bus services, especially in rural areas, have also suffered from cut-backs and the concerns of profit. Though half of low-income households have no car and so are reliant on public transport, it is difficult to run buses at a profit in many areas. While some routes have been subsidised, austerity has led to reductions in subsidies, resulting, for instance, in plenty of places – especially outside big cities – having unaffordable fares and effectively no bus services of an evening. So many people are isolated, and, while it is all very well for pensioners who have free bus travel, it is no use if there are no buses to catch.
Earlier this year the Centre for Cities think-tank issued a report Cities Outlook 2020, which included a chapter on poor air quality in cities. Transport is not the only cause of air pollution, and some pollution is blown in from outside cities (including across the English Channel). Nevertheless, transport, especially road transport, is the main source of nitrogen dioxide pollution, though it has a less central role in pollution from fine particulate matter. The Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) prepared by the Met Office is based on five pollutants; it varies greatly from one area to another. In 2018, DAQI was at a level likely to affect those with pre-existing health issues on 62 days in Bournemouth, but only seven days in Belfast and Edinburgh. In London nearly 40 per cent of monitored roads were on average above the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide. And poor air quality is a killer: fine particulate matter is estimated to have caused 14,400 deaths of those aged 25 or older in UK cities in 2017. Living near a busy road can increase the chance of a hospital admission for a stroke, and stunt lung growth in children.
And it is not just air pollution, but also the impact that transport can have on carbon dioxide emissions and hence climate change. Air travel is responsible for just 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, but is expected to increase massively by mid-century, and there are other damaging emissions as well, such as particulates and water vapour. Ryanair were recently refused permission to advertise themselves as a ‘low CO2 emissions airline’, on the grounds that no airline could be. Flying is energy-intensive, and a very small number of people who fly a lot produce very high levels of CO2. Even a return flight from London to Edinburgh will produce more CO2 than the carbon footprint for a whole year of the average person in Uganda. Just two or three return flights can more than offset a person’s attempt to minimise their carbon footprint (such as being a vegan and having a reusable coffee cup). Sustainable fuels, such as biofuels, remain very much in development. A frequent flyer levy is sometimes proposed, but may have little overall effect as air travel increases.
Road transport can produce carbon emissions too. The government has announced a plan to ban the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars by 2032, but it is not clear that they have any concrete ideas on how to ensure there is enough electric or hydrogen charging infrastructure available by that date.
Let’s look at some realistic ways in which a socialist world could address these problems, without in any way predicting how things will be. We might suggest that in socialism there will be far less long-distance travel for work purposes. After all, most ‘business trips’ nowadays are for purposes of marketing and profit-making, and there are plenty of journeys for governmental or diplomatic reasons. Already video conferencing is beginning to take the place of some face-to-face meetings. We cannot say anything definite about commuting to work: maybe there will be fewer big cities, or people will live closer to where they work and so need less commuting. Nor can we comment on the transport of raw materials. There might certainly be less air travel, as people elect to travel by more leisurely means in order to enjoy the journey. New car-sharing trends are starting to emerge even today, and it is likely that there will be far fewer private cars in socialism, with the emphasis on public transport instead. But whatever happens, transport policies will address issues of safety, the environment and meeting people’s needs, not of profit-making.