WHEN it comes to Britain's multifarious transport problems, technological advancement is both culprit and potential saviour. It was technology that brought us the car, but it is making amends with high fuel-efficiency cars, the electric Smart car, and, of course, unleaded petrol.
However, simply making cars cleaner is not enough; there are also too many of them. A densely populated country such as Britain is blighted by congestion, and along with off-road vehicles, gridlocks tend to offset the efficiency savings offered by modern engines.
As traffic grows inexorably, governmental efforts become increasingly exasperated and desultory. The 'carrot' of improved public transport has not materialised--at least not to an adequate degree--while the 'stick' of disincentives devised to discourage car use have not been persuasive enough. John Prescott said in 1997, somewhat boldly, that if 'there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car' then he would have failed. A year later, the National Centre for Social Research found that just under half of the motorists questioned said that initiatives designed to price people out of the cars, such as halving bus fares and introducing congestion charges in city centres, would make no difference to whether, and how frequently, they would use their vehicles.
A pioneering website established in 1997 by a student at Bristol University is making such levies more effective. Ali Clabburn set up Liftshare.com in the inaugural year of the New Labour government after using a car-sharing scheme in Germany. The website offers users a way of cutting travel costs without having to reduce the number of car journeys undertaken. With car-sharing, the inconveniences associated with rail and bus travel are largely negated, yet, the spiralling costs of motoring are shared with others.
The potential of car-sharing is best realised in tackling the high costs and journey times associated with commuting. The rush hour is characterised by low vehicle occupancy (an average of about one person per car), rigid journey times and high vehicle density in specific areas, in particular, town centres. Though these factors cause congestion, they also make car-sharing a viable way of alleviating it: at peak times there is substantial spare seating capacity and a considerable number of people working in the same area with similar journey requirements. Such prevalent homogeneity, however, is being diluted by the increasing popularity in the office world of flexible working times and the increasing demands placed on employees to work overtime. Though this means more staggered straffic patterns, and therefore, to some degree, less congestion, it does not reduce total traffic volume like car-sharing. If the latter were embraced, then congestion would ease, and therefore, journey times would diminish, while the crippling costs of city centre parking would be made palatable. A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say.
The spiralling--and indeed proliferating--costs to the motorist are following the same trajectory as student costs. Studentcarshare.com is a Liftshare spin-off that offers to spread the burden for these persecuted groups. Students are among the chief beneficiaries from the original website's section on festival transport. This is an area where Liftshare is an invaluable tool, as festivals are invariably held in the remotest of locations, with a transport infrastructure designed to accommodate a fraction of the people that descend on the area during the festival period.
The company, however, has loftier ambitions than simply saving money for motorists. Social exclusion in rural areas poorly served by public transport is tackled through another website, villagecarshare.com. The website points out that 'for some parts of rural England, just 50 per cent of people live within 13 minutes walk of an hourly daytime bus …