20 April 2007

Killing our citizens: no videos, no debate

More than 100 people were killed violently yesterday in the US. More than 100 people are being killed today, and more than 100 will be killed tomorrow.

There will be no blaring headlines, no anguished hand-wringing, no serious debate about the costs and benefits of controlling the causes of these deaths by violence. That’s for one simple reason: they were the result of road accidents. On average 119 people die every day on American roads. Worldwide, road deaths are estimated to be 1.17 million per annum, with over 10 million crippled or injured.

What is it about road transport that makes us irrational? An infantile wish for high speeds? The erotic symbolism of entering an enclosed body and moving it along? I don’t know, but figures show that even in the US car ownership is about 50 per cent, which means that at any one time much less than half the world’s population has access to a car. But cities today are designed not for human beings, nor even for public transport, but for cars and their drivers. Our physical and social environment is being sacrificed for the car: well it looks that way. The irrationality of it all is more striking in developing countries, where the vast majority of people see very little return from the massive investment in road transport being undertaken by their governments. Their children are killed or injured, their air is poisoned, their climate is being altered irreversibly, their communities destroyed – for what? I know; it’s not just for the sake of the wealthiest fraction of their population who can sit in air-conditioned comfort while they scoot around the cities. There are benefits for all from a complex market economy.

My concern is that most people have little real say in how their economy develops. The construction industry – and not just in the developing world – is a byword for corruption. My previous blog was about the subsidies implicit in allowing people to park their cars in a public space. But there are other perverse subsidies that benefit road transport: those that encourage oil extraction and consumption (thankfully these are coming down in most countries). There is very heavy bias, more generally, in favour of the large and global as against the small and local. (Scroll down this page for the excellent publication Small is beautiful, big is subsidised.)

Social Policy Bonds would re-orientate policy. Transport is a means to various ends, not an end in itself. People should choose the social and environmental outcomes they want to achieve with public funds. Politicians whose interests are largely dictated by corporate lobbyists, get away with road-building programmes because politics today is about image, spin, gesture and deceit. Political debate centres on arcane discussion about legal niceties, and institutional funding and structures. Give people access to policymaking, by centring the debate on outcomes, and public participation would be much higher.

To be sure, some of us might choose a transport system that is based on privately-run chunks of metal zipping around killing more people more than any number of gun massacres, that devastates our physical and social environment, and that requires the transfer of large amounts of funding to unstable and repressive regimes several thousand miles away. But let us make such choices explicitly, and with our eyes open.

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