Why I can’t wait for the 2030s

There’s a very simple reason why the next decade will be the best ever for travel

Jedburgh: a vision of the future? Credit: VisitScotland

Last week, I was in Jedburgh, a small Scottish market town just north of the English border. I drove slowly along the A68 throughway in the shadow of the Medieval abbey. Slowly, because Jedburgh is one of 80 towns in the Scottish Borders to have introduced an 20mph speed limit as opposed to the 30mph that’s normal in other British urban areas. 

It’s a trial, introduced last August and due to expire in December. 

I think they’ll keep the new limit and it ought to be extended to the rest of the country.

Creeping along at that pace, the feeling dawned on me that my car – all cars – had been downgraded, knocked off their perch. No longer was this town designed around our needs: we had to fit in with the town.

It also struck me how quiet Jedburgh was. That was also a glimpse into the near future.

On the radio there was a BBC report about electric cars. It’s now widely accepted that we are about to reach an inflexion point where electric vehicles become not only more practical but also cheaper than petrol-powered ones. The head of Volvo reckoned sales of electric cars would overtake the traditional variety as early as 2025.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that come the 2030s, the gas-guzzlers we drive now will be an increasing rarity on our roads. I know I currently own my last ever one.

And that led me to think what an extraordinary change that will bring to our travelling lives. 

For all of my lifetime, cars have ruled: not just the mega-cities, but in every village in the developed and, increasingly, the developing world too.

In the 2030s, the hum and roar of traffic will no longer be the constant background to our lives. The fumes will disappear. You’ll see clear skies, not just in Beijing and New Delhi, but in Paris (where the traffic pollution is terrible in summer) and Los Angeles too. 

I also see a much better future for the cities of south-east Asia, where the two-stroke motorbike has brought mobility and greater prosperity to millions of people – at a grievous cost to anyone unfortunate enough to have to walk in those cities. As we are all too prone to do, we travel writers disguise the truth of these places with adjectives like ‘vibrant’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘bustling’. Future generations will see through us. They are a teeming, noxious, chaotic mess. 

Most of us suffer from what the writer C S Lewis called chronological snobbery: we patronise and laugh at the past, resent or fear the future and think we're living in just about the best time there has ever been and ever will be.

Well, here’s a prediction. If you have small children now, I bet one day they will look at you wonderingly and say, how could you have lived in those days? How could you cope with all that noise, that danger, that foul air being pumped out by those disgusting machines? Today, we look back to those pictures of London’s pea-souper fogs or think back to the interior of any pub before the smoking ban, and we think, God, I’m glad we're not living in those days. Well, thanks to the ubiquity of the internal combustion engine over the past century, we have been, and are still living, in unthinkable days. But those days, finally, are numbered.

How could anyone BREATHE, Grandad?

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St Ives and New York: united by an historic mistake

The St Ives Bay Line: not a view shared by Dr Beeching

I’m also not long back from Cornwall, where I was writing about the forthcoming G7 summit in The Daily Mail and The Independent

In St Ives, the speed limit is 10mph. This has nothing to do with the government, local or national: it’s as fast as you can go in the narrow, hilly, 18th century streets of that fine beachside town. Pedestrians and cars move along at the same pace and neither looks very happy with the other.

In the railway station car park there is an interesting sign about the St Ives Bay Line – and why there is no actual station. There’s just a platform. That’s because it was demolished in 1971 as a direct result of the notorious Beeching Report of 1963 which savaged the UK’s rail network. The Bay Line escaped – just – but the station didn’t. It was demolished to make way for – you've got it, a bigger car park.  

Over in New York at the same time the urban planner Robert Moses was proposing an expressway that would have run directly through SoHo and Greenwich Village. That, too, was narrowly defeated, not least by the incredible efforts of the journalist/activist Jane Jacobs

New York, meet LA: the Moses plan for Lower Manhattan

It is easy to demonise Dr Beeching and Mr Moses now (rather easier in the case of the imperious Moses than the modest Beeching, a civil servant only doing the bidding of his political masters). But both men were responding to the facts as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. Car ownership had grown exponentially and would continue to do so; the railways were finished as the transport of choice for people and freight; so we had better design our town and cities around the automobile. 

There will still be plenty of electric cars around. Countries like the UK will continue to ignore their own green promises by building miles and miles of new and upgraded highways. But as I saw in Jedburgh, cars, and the people who drive them (or who don’t drive them) had better get used to their new status as second class citizens. 

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The end of a family love affair

Lychgate Lane cemetery: not the most peaceful place to rest

There’s a memorial plaque for my father and two older brothers on Lychgate Lane, a country lane near our home village of Burbage. The cemetery is orderly, shaded, calm – but not quiet. A few hundred metres away, there’s the M69, a motorway opened in 1977 to link Leicester and Coventry and the motorway network beyond. 

I used to resent  the constant traffic noise when I visited to spend a meditative time thinking about my dad and brothers. Then I remembered: they loved their cars. They’d find 20mph speed limits inexplicable, electric vehicles weird. In the place where I grew up, cars and roads and routes were the major and constant conversation theme. It’s not wrong that the cemetery inhabits the same aural space as a motorway. 

Ours is a place, dead in the centre of England, where it’s easy to get to other places. All along the A5 and the M1, there are giant storage hubs for online retailers and supermarkets. The provide lots of other jobs now the old-fashioned sort are gone. Cars and trucks and livelihoods are still enmeshed. 

But I’ll still treasure the day when I can take my flowers down Lychgate Lane and the M69 is not even a hum.

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Future cities

Paris now…and next?

I recently wrote another piece for The Independent about the various blueprints – some real, some crazy, but all interesting – for the future of the world’s major cities.

Again, when my name gets chiselled alongside the others in Lychgate Lane, I hope to have seen at least some of these visions of green and – always – carless oases come to be.

Songs that take you places

Cumulonimbus Dream. from Bird Ambience by Masayoshi Fujita

This album was recommended by the excellent Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in The Financial Times. I was reading about it on one of those blessed English early summer mornings when the cumulonimbus clouds beyond the French windows were reaching their fluffiest, dreamiest heights.

Fujita fuses two of the great traditions – that perhaps doesn’t sound like the right word – in electronica: the German and the Japanese. It could so easily drift into spa-treatment anonymity, but you’re always aware of an enquiring, restless intelligence behind the ambience. And that cover: therapy against a chaotic, noisy world in its own right. 

The full MARKLANDS playlist is here.

Envy Corner

Richard Holmes

My particular interest among travel writers at present is authors who follow in the footsteps of other authors.

It’s such a delight to have come across this little work by the biographer Richard Holmes. Holmes really is the biographer –  not many works hold a candle to Shelley: the Pursuit. I also love his Age of Wonder, a book which made me completely rethink the relationship between art and science, romance and empiricism. Sidetracks, I guess, is a minor road off his main corpus. But it’s a delight as he tracks Robert Louis Stevenson (and his donkey) through the Massif Centrale, Wordsworth in Paris and Shelly and his mates through Italy. Holmes wears his formidable learning light in his backpack. You get to see a place through two lenses: his, and the writers he loves, yet there's never any competing for your attention. Those great writers get the travelling companion they deserve.

Holmes: reading the world

Let’s end with… Stephen Petranek on the strangeness of cars

Within a decade, the internal combustion engine automobile is likely to look exactly like what it is - a machine that converts gasoline into much more heat than forward motion, a bizarre antiquity.