Small is Beautiful

I’ve never liked living in a city and they do seem to be getting worse, in that their livability is falling. Increasingly the way cities function makes less sense, yet generally people are still moving into them. I have lived in probably all the main types of ways of living in Britain: Rural idylls, Small towns, Commuter Towns / Suburbs and Large Cities. Choices about where to live now seem to be a conflict between where people want to live and where work demands that they live. Work has become more demanding so we need more leisure time to re-charge. The problem is that this whole system of living and working at distances is now unsustainable in that not only is it unpleasant and environmentally damaging but also unnecessary.

It seems to me that I and many other people are basically harking back to how things used to be. I still feel that the Brexit vote was largely an expression of frustration with life getting harder in Britain an a yearning for more sensible times. Yet that sensible structure is still available but it is surprising how economic forces are not supporting it, making the UK less and less productive and efficient. To me if society were to realise that small towns are not only my living preference but are the answer to the general problems faced in the UK and possibly globally too. The general problem is that we spend more and more  time and money simply travelling around on ever more congested transport systems to do everyday life, largely because we are able to do fewer functions in our localities. Centralisation is limiting choice and making every more time and money expensive.

Small towns have one of everything someone needs to be able to do what they want and need to do on a daily and weekly basis and be able to walk everywhere to do it. Then longer distance transport is optional, to do once or a couple of times each month: for desirable entertainment, shopping, business meetings or to visit friends or relatives. So a small town has one of everything, a supermarket supported by independent shops for food needs, a medical centre, a school, a sports centre, a pub and an arts centre (which doubles up by being a cinema, venue, nightclub and group meeting space), a work-space and somewhere for young people to get involved with useful projects. This is what all towns used to have and you rarely needed to leave them unless you wanted to.

However most small towns, suburban centres of cities and commuter towns have lost some or all of these facilities, which means travelling to access these services. So people end up travelling to work, travelling to do their shopping, driving the kids to school, driving to the cinema, driving to the gym (largely as they don’t have space to exercise at home), basically driving or catching public transport to do anything outside of the home. So really where your home is isn’t important anymore as you don’t live there by choice (except in the rural idyll). Which is basically living as if in the rural idyll, but instead with pollution, traffic noise, not having enough space to do more things at home and stress and more time to get to the nearest centre to do other functions as they are ever further away without the advantages of the rural idyll (like no internet and getting snowed in in the winter <sic>).

Generally people have been complicit in this. My generation has known that there is an awfully big world out there and been frustrated with how slowly things came to our towns and tradition is great but not if it’s the only thing. So what people did was look forward to going to places where a wider range of things was available and driving to them wasn’t all that horrible or time consuming and was simply a nice change to everyday life. This then took vital money away from the local suppliers to the big centralised chains, we ended up travelling more often,which led to the local services closure. These closures meant that you could no longer do as many daily life functions in the small towns.

I used to think it was just me being different. My local bookshop never had the book I wanted to read, so I had to order it and wait a few days or wait until our next trip to the big city and revel in being able to pick the something I wanted off the shelf, which really was a thrill! I rarely want a “Top 40” record or a latest “Bestseller”, I have oddly shaped feet and the local show shop would rarely have shoes that fitted me or offer zero choice in what kind of shoe to wear.  I became vegetarian at the age of 15 and needed ingredients not available in my town. we would have to wait months for the latest films to make it to our cinema with all the pops and crackles of film run though a projector too many times. People seem to want their urges satisfied now and are not prepared to wait.

I also used to think it was just us lot in deepest darkest Wales, in a very small town (2000 people) a good hour and a bit drive to anywhere significantly bigger,  that people in the bigger small towns at least had some choice, or even something other than going to the pub on Fridays nights to do and then we had to share the pub with all strands of society of every age group [which is very nice really, I really don’t get why people like to go to bars where everyone else is similar to themselves all the time, isn’t it just a little dull?]

Yet, it wasn’t just me, perhaps everyone pined for choice and getting things now, to not just have one option all the time. To be able to see the bands you wanted too and not put up with whomever happened to come our way. However that pining for choice often wasn’t seeking alternatives for other these people, it was seeking the trendy, the latest. Perhaps people didn’t want to put up with the ageing creaky seat of our cinema and they wanted a big hole to put over-priced popcorn in like they do in the U.S. of A we’d seen in the movies,  to be deafened by Dolby Surround Sound on an even bigger screen. Perhaps people wanted what them people in the big towns and cities were having, even when it the same things available in every big town and city with no quirky uniquenesses and not actually any better than what we had, but it was perceived as being better somehow. People maybe lost the appetite for putting up with a strange Eastern European arty film because that was all what was on that night and want to choose the film that everyone else seemed to be viewing at the time. To desire a centralised one size fits all of false choice of fifty shades of grey, when really having the choice of one of two bright colours is a much more enriching choice, say a Bollywood film or a Hollywood film.

However, perhaps this same reaching for standardisation and centralisation has affected the world of work too. Perhaps people are not happy working to serve a local community but rather be a small cog in something more global. Perhaps people don’t want to produce a service in much the same way as the service in the next down down the road, but reap the economies of scale, even if that means paying for the privilege and not actually being better off at all at the end of the day. This has meant that instead of playing a role in decision making in small business, to have a decision making role involves working in the big office in the big city.

The problem with going to work in the big city is that everyone else is also going to work in the big city now and the big city can’t cope with this. The big city quickly runs out of housing and its transport networks clog up with people travelling in and out allday. So the only livable bit of cities is the inner city, with it’s pollution, noise and teeny tiny homes. There have always been commuters, people who wanted to work in the big offices, but not live in the smaller city housing. Such commuters were generally wealthy and happy to spend time commuting in on a train. These though it’s the minimum wage people who commute in from ever further afield as minimum wage will not get you a city home. So everyone arrives to work already tired from an hour or so of stress, yet are expected to be more productive that someone after a bracing twenty minute work into the small town centre. At the moment I look forward to school holidays as then I can get to work in half the time as the roads aren’t as clogged up, so even getting to work is delayed because of people taking their children to school/ doing ordinary daily tasks.

Yet nothing is gained from all this time spent travelling while others travel in the opposite direction. we could all go back to small town living again and travel purely for leisure and it would be leisure on unclogged transport networks, or rather travel in comfort. Living in the suburbs and commuter towns now offers no advantages as the local cinemas in the suburban centres have closed so it’s into town to the overly priced multi-screen cinema showing the same film on different screens. It’s overly priced because it’s in the town centre, which now has to serve everyone, rather than just the inner city residents and it’s visitors. I remember when inner cities were cheap and grotty places to live, but thronged with young people who are the section of society that is exploring themselves and want to go to interesting nightclubs or see the latest bands every night of the week, because it’s was relatively cheap and a twenty minute walk and was rightly their playground. Now the wealthy live in the inner cities who don’t use these facilities and then have the temerity to complain about the noise from the nightclub they have just moved next to! So the nightclub is forced to close as it has less money than the people rich enough to afford city centre flats. They just use their wealth to be the minority that can walk to these facilities and in doing so force them to close. Instead of being poor ghettos, the inner cities have become rich ghettos.

It just seems bonkers to me. Why not go back to the small town system? We have the internet now, so you can order what you want and it arrives in a day or two, just like small town shops once did. You can order the exotic things you need the local shops won’t stock. You can work from home and hold meetings over the internet for the vast majority of office jobs. Even if you work in manufacturing, the costs of the buildings (the land) is much cheaper in a small town, it’s easier to expand, your overheads are much much less and even if you need experienced workers, they will be happy to move as the housing costs won’t be exorbitant and the town will have one of everything just like whenever they were before with merely a little bit of interesting cultural change. You can go the the cinema if you want a cinema experience, or stream a film at home if you want to watch that arty East European film. Lets make the places where we live liveable again! Small towns could be better than they were and we can transform city centres into accessible leisure playgrounds, wouldn’t that be nice!

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The Future of Commuting

Traditionally people lived and worked in the same community, where travel from home to work was a relatively simple short walk . However the phenomena of commuting, living at a distance from the place of work has a history and in Britain has fundamentally changed how our society works. Where is this trend headed?

In the early days of commuting, it was simply that the better off could afford to travel every day and desired to live in bigger nicer homes a little further out from the centre of town. Roads had spare capacity for this and public transport was built around the idea of allowing people to travel into a town from further afield. The consequence of this was that inner city areas lost their middle class populations, became where the poor lived and became areas with high crime and social problems. This led to more people desiring to escape such ghettos and live further out.

This led to differentiation in cost of living, housing costs raised at different rates, mainly housing as transport networks began to reach capacity and travel in became slower. This meant that housing near travel hubs, whether railway stations or major roads became more desirable and costs increased. Then only those near the top if income brackets lived in the desirable hubs, leaving others living where they not only had to travel into the town but also travel increasing distances to the commuting network of railway stations and major roads.

As the economy specialised, larger corporations replaced numbers of local smaller businesses as they could initially produce the same goods more efficiently.  Subsequently, more and more jobs became based in hub cities, as smaller towns lost their local providers. Which further increased pressure on housing around the hub cities.

Today, we have a situation where living costs have become so high in the hub cities, the commute to work longer and more expensive, that people desire to escape, to regain the hours lost every day in expensive unpleasant travel. Partly this is a consequence of the economy separating our working lives from our personal lives.

Those able to, in particular for senior staff, with the rise of broadband internet  has enabled people to work from home. The ability to access files and use communication tools such as Skype has meant that there is no actual requirement to be in the hub city itself, except for an occasional meeting to facilitate the need to sometimes meet people face to face. This means that increasingly people can live where they want to, rather than where work needs them to be.

Often the choice is to live in the countryside, but not work there. To live somewhere away from transport bottlenecks is desirable and this makes it easier to travel to places away from the hub office when work demands such visits.

The interesting thing about this is that the effect of commuting on housing has had a reverse effect on areas. Where once people headed to the major towns and cities for work, they now leave them for a better life. Where once the suburbs around the big cities were once seen as the most desirable places are increasingly becoming the least desirable places to live. Really there is no longer anything requiring big towns and cities anymore as long as broadband internet and long distance travel options remain. Indeed a more evenly distributed population removes bottlenecks from transport infrastructure.

Having lived in both big cities and in the country, I can confirm that life is just easier in the smaller places. Getting food and satisfying daily needs takes less time as travel times are much lower than for people in cities.

Of course there are people who actually like living in cities. These people now occupy the inner city suburbs and price the poorer folk out to the suburbs, which is the reverse of the case twenty years or so ago.

The consequence of this is that businesses only need a nominal hub office and hire meeting space when required, the centres of cities become solely entertainment/ cultural hubs, where those who have travelled long distances to the face to face meeting can enjoy an evening of culture before heading back home. Those attending the meeting will arrange to meet so that they can travel in outside travel bottleneck times, when the junior staff still suffer commuting in from the suburbs.

Companies in London and the South East of England are already experiencing recruitment problems; British natives are reluctant to take jobs there and suffer the reduction in living standards/ costs to live there. Furthermore people are leaving London specifically to raise their standard of living, which isn’t good for a city hoping to maintain a it’s status as a living city.

It would seem that the era of daily commuting is coming to an end. Hub cities will remain for cultural pursuits (personal) rather than business (work) pursuits. The medium size towns, which struggle at the moment, will further decline.

As these trends continue they will impact on the UK housing crisis. Essentially people moving out of expensive cost of living areas, find relatively cheap housing and push up local pricing to the point the local people can not afford the housing and are forced to move away, so young people don’t live where there are opportunities to start their careers or learn the skills to home. It’s not all bad news, it will help the local high street, the butchers and bakers we have left that have survived, will benefit from  all the people who now can take a quick break to pop out to the local shops, rather than forced to rely on the supermarkets!

The Lights that Blind

Often on this blog I’ve highlighted the importance of diversity, that we as humans are all different and we have differing needs, that one size fits all approaches never work. So, I wish to discuss a very disturbing recent development with cars, that has failed to respect diversity.

In recent times there has been a trend towards ever brighter lights on cars. I used to think that it was just a few modders not considering other motorists, but they seem to have become standard on many new cars. I am talking about Xenon and LED lighting.

The idea behind these lights is that they are more energy efficient (which is great) and enable the driver to see more with there headlights (which by itself is also a good thing). However such lights dazzle other road users. Technically this is illegal:

UK Highway Code Rule 114

  • use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders

However this rule is as far as I am aware never enforced and there is no upper brightness limit in law, so dazzle is defined as being subjective. So if I experience dazzle then technically a vehicle with these lights is illegal. Yet nothing is being done about this!

It’s all of the lights on a car thus fitted, which does cause problems:

Headlights

More powerful headlights allow the driver to see more and may decrease some accidents. There has always been the problem of headlights at night causing reduced visibility to on coming drivers and drivers have developed strategies to cope with this. However when the brightness is increased the danger of decreased visibility to other drivers is increased which may increase accidents. There is a balance to be achieved here. However there is no mechanism in place to ensure the safest balance is achieved.

Day Running Lights

What is the point of these, other than to dazzle other drivers? They offer the driver no increased clarity, merely decrease other drivers vision.

Rear Running Lights

These are essential at night so other drivers are can be aware of other active vehicles. However, dazzling the car behind doesn’t help anyone. Most rear running lights are not too bright until brakes are applied

Rear Brake Lights

Perform the vital role of signaling following drivers of braking, that the car is slowing down and that the driver may have spotted a hazard ahead. However id they are too bright, as many of them are now, they dazzle the following drivers, causing them to be able to see less, which has no advantages.

Stationary Brake Lights

When I learnt to drive, the importance of Handbrake – Neutral was drummed into me. This action switches off the rear brake lights, mainly for safety in a collision but also to stop dazzling the driver behind.

Now, sometimes, we are lazy and we hold our cars on the foot brake. This didn’t cause dazzle problems for most people as the lights were not overly bright and on older models of cars the lights were lower down on the car body, more importantly below eye height, so the light wasn’t directly in the centre of the field of vision. This is an increasing problem as most drivers where I live have dropped the Handbrake – Neutral action when stopped temporarily and more worryingly some modern cars which switch the engine off to save fuel when stationary keep the rear brake lights burning holes in following drivers retinas, well give us sun spots anyway. The problem with this is that the following drivers eyes adjust to the bright light, so for a while afterwards their vision is dimmed, which has safety consequences.

So how did we get to a point where new cars are not designed to be safe?

Part of the issue is that we are all different and have different light sensitivity. I raised this issue with friends and colleagues and most people don’t find these brighter lights dazzling or a problem, even though their vision is still dimmed. However I realised that I am not alone, there seems to be a significant minority of people who are more light sensitive, for whom brighter lights are more dangerous.

Remember we are all different and even see the world in different ways. For example, I didn’t realise quite how prevalent various forms of colour-blindness are. So the needs of the light sensitive should be taken into account when designing and regulating cars on the roads.

There doesn’t seem to be any action on this front. I wrote to the government and they are not even looking into this issue. The difficulty is that the car manufacturers lobby governments for minimal regulations, as surely the market will regulate for safety as it is what drivers want.

However, in this case, market forces don’t work. If your car dazzles others it doesn’t affect you as driver, all you see is your slight improvement in visibility, the negative effect is suffered by other road users. But other road users have zero influence on your choice of car and it’s lighting. Having a really bright car that is more noticed may mean that there is a decreased chance of other people running into you, however when all cars are overly bright this advantage is lost and everyone is left with overly bright cars and the roads are overall less safe places.

It is simply dangerous to not consider the needs of others, especially when no wider advantage makes up for the loss of a particular minority. Everyday I witness inconsiderate driving that may cut a few seconds off someones journey only to slow down everyone else. What is more disturbing is when these issues are built into the cars themselves.

There is a potential solution. Driving spectacles have been developed to reduce light glare. Basically they have a yellow tint which filters out the UV/ blue light spectrum which reduces headlight dazzle. I’ll have to check these out!

 

 

 

Boxes on Wheels

At the risk of being the instigator of the classic afeared conversation starter at a party:’What are you driving at the moment?’ This leading to a conversation about cars you are desperate to escape from. A lot of people are interested in cars and I don’t really get it, I am one of those people who view cars as a convenient and often necessary way of getting around. Really, the lines of traffic all going the same way just suggest to me that it would be simpler and more efficient having a comprehensive public transport network. However public transport in the UK at least is rubbish and the solution the world is heading towards is self-driving cars, which isn’t a terrible idea.

Cars have two big advantages, you can go where you are going quickly when you want to and you can choose a car to suit you as an individual. This choice of car has led to massive design efforts, marketing development and driven technological advancement, notably in fuel efficiency.

The thing is, with cars, like most other consumer products, makes me feel like an outsider, rarely do I feel that anything is marketed at me; I’m a white male , this shouldn’t be happening to me! What I require from a car is simply comfort, but I include in that having a semi-decent stereo. It just seems that there is huge amounts of development of unimportant features and comfort is only considered as an afterthought. I’ve about to move to a city again with a new job, so until I find a new place to live, I’m lumbered with up to four hours commuting every day. Anyway, on my car, one I’d picked for comfort, the windscreen wipers broke, so I left it at a local garage to fix and was given a courtesy car. The courtesy car was one of them superminis, just really uncomfortable for a tall chap like me. What I noticed was how much it drank petrol, due to a really low gear ratio. What this made me realise is that I have a preference for medium size cars. I have this preference because beign a rural person most of my journeys are over an hour long, the nine hour drive from Mid Wales to Fife in Scotland was a regular thing when I lived in Scotland. So perhaps this is why I value comfort, ease of driving over long distances and fuel efficiency. However I can see the point of a low gear ratio supermini, they are great for driving around cities: they are nippy (you can change lanes  and turn tight corners quickly and easily), the low gear ratio makes them really efficient  at sub 30mph driving and they are easy to park. Having a medium size car it’s always frustrating driving between 25 and 30mph, not quite fast enough for 4th gear but inefficient in a high revving 3rd gear. So, my courtesy car was great getting out of the city, but hopeless on the 45 to 60mph cross country drive.

I’m not a terrific driver but I do enjoy it, when I’m not stuck behind something (so I only have to worry about my own driving and not the person in front of me) it’s just nice to be able to have the excuse to listen to the radio for extended periods. I do like the idea of self-driving cars, but it will utterly change what we do on journeys and should radically change how cars are designed, once the need for humans to take over from the computer is eradicated. This worries me because, at the moment I can find a car that suits me and how I drive, simply because there is so much subtle diversity in makes and models of cars. However I fear that once the marketeers take over and a possible end to the owner-driver model (I imagine a system where most of us will effectively use driver-less taxis), that cars will become less comfortable and my needs will not be catered for. Us rural types have it bad enough in being ignored in most technological advances, we still don’t rely on 100% mobile phone signal coverage. Indeed rural people need cars to survive in a way town and city dwellers don’t; because urban dwellers have most needs near-by and public transport for medium to long distance journeys. Yet, as I have written in the past, even cities are getting harder to live in as shops become more spaced out, I even read somewhere that housing near supermarkets is more expensive.

It’s just the whole marketing of cars, still seems to be largely at men, about features and image, completely irrelevant things to me. However I have spent my life not being part of the market, always finding the things I like at the fringes, in the small independents. Actually, my new job is really strange, it’s the first time I’ve ever worked in a proper office and I sit in meetings discussing marketing campaigns, I have to rely on doing lots of statistics to discover what customers apparently want, rather than any innate ability to know what the majority of customers want. It’s such a different world as is the world of commuting by car. In the past I’ve always managed to find ways of either using public transport or even walk to work (that was so nice).