Mind your language!

Comment Features

The 13th Annual Road User Charging Conference takes place March 2-3, 2016, in Brussels. Conference chair, Keith Mortimer, calls for delegates to enjoy healthy debate at the event
Everybody who travels is an expert on transport. They are all policy makers, because every one of them follows a personal policy, with which politicians and practitioners will interfere at their peril.
The framing of a wider policy gets complicated, and the champions of untrammelled motoring freedom can be relied upon to offer a well-rehearsed and often effective rebuttal of any perceived overstepping by authority. The merits of any proposed action are then no longer the issue. The ability to communicate economic and social benefit is lost, trust is questioned and action is deferred.
Sound and Vision
This is after all the age of the thought-terminating cliché, where the reduction of argument to an easily memorised and well-worn phrase, designed to limit the exploration of complex problems, can readily lead to decisions based on unbalanced opinions. Well, que sera!
In the UK, the knee-jerk reactions of the popular press, fed by populist politicians, are manifested in an impressive array of empty phrases. An abundance of ͚law-abiding citizens͛, ͚hard-pressed motorists͛ and ͚hardworking taxpayers͛ are too often expected to share a breath-taking ignorance of key issues, or (more likely) a wilful, even cynical, denial of established facts. But that͛s ok because people don͛t always want to hear the answer, especially if maintaining individual habits conflicts with achieving the general good. Instead of discussing how public servants might seek ways to keep traffic moving, the story is almost invariably that ͚town hall bureaucrats want to charge us £1.34 a mile to drive our own cars͛. When we meet in Brussels, it may be instructive if we can compare linguistically-inspired experiences in each of our countries.
So the circus moves on. The World Health Organisation published research into air quality in 2,000 cities that was widely reported on January͛s front pages. Its stark warning was that poor air quality, aided by growth in motorisation, is killing millions and threatening to overwhelm health services worldwide. According to the UN, China suffers 1.4 million deaths per year from air pollution. Some London streets exceeded their total annual limits for emissions just a few
days into 2016. The Max Planck Institute in Germany reported that more people now die from air pollution than from malaria and HIV combined. From Leeds to Southampton, Barcelona to Zakopane, and Paris to Delhi, the problem is local and it is global.
But will all this publicity lead to a commensurate policy change? Will those hardworking families realise that just because the defenders of the status quo possess some neat phraseology, they are not necessarily describing the real world?
Under Pressure
Within a week of the WHO report, the lens of the news media had been refocused, following the sad demise of an international rock star. But if there is ͚a starman, waiting in the sky͛, the one thing clearly visible to him would be the global toxic haze. Rock stars and glamorous would-be politicians can trump the headlines any time. We would be heroes if transport sector practitioners could similarly enchant the press and the public with their solutions, at those times when the hand-in-hand challenges of congestion and pollution achieve their transient fame.
If intelligent transport systems have a role, it must be to help guarantee the sustainability of economic and environmental imperatives. Demand management policies are emerging in urban
environments, spurred by late realisation that a tipping point of damage has already been reached, and under some pressure from international institutions. This is not to say that road user charging is the answer to all of society͛s woes – but the alternative to the necessary debate is to enter a false comfort zone where policy making is short-circuited by evidence-free assertion.

At the same time, it is important that proponents of tolling, demand management and driver incentive schemes continue to employ precise language and sober argument. This may put them at a disadvantage if the opponents of a policy are free to misrepresent the issues. It is hard to be an optimist when watching our representatives nationally and internationally make slow progress in solving even more urgent problems.
The language of December͛s COP 21 UN Climate Change Conference reflected a high ambition to keep global temperature rise ͞below two degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.͟ Currently we have just passed the one degree mark. Has the language of Paris terminated the thought process, or does the expressed ambition match the reality of the need for extreme action? It is to
be hoped that future generations will be thankful for the results flowing from the historic agreement. But are the governments who signed it now ensuring that hard-pressed motorists and
voters appreciate their important roles in meeting this target? This is a rare opportunity to raise awareness – and there͛s plenty of evidence if governments would like to help their electors to take a better look.
Ashes To Ashes
Throughout the past four billion years the average life-span of evolving species on Earth has been between one and ten million years. None of our policies will actually make much difference to the planet, which is likely to continue to spin on its axis for another four billion years. Humans have been around for barely a million years, and in even a fraction of that time they could render their planet temporarily uninhabitable. About 30 per cent of species on Earth are on the toll road to oblivion within a hundred years. So the current inhabitants might disappear, and after a comparatively short time, geologically speaking, their successors might evolve and manage the
world for better or worse. However, it would be nice to believe that Homo sapiens, with all its advantages of intelligence, dexterity and technology could last a few million years longer than the dinosaurs.
So if we can͛t be as smart as we͛d like, can we at least avoid being stupid? At our coming conference it might be useful to compare the usage of thought-terminating language across countries and continents, and to discuss how best to counter disinformation and partial truths, which could help whole populations to stop wasting both their intelligence and the chances to make life better.
Let͛s have a great conference! And in our discussions let us avoid propagating our own clichés. Let͛s welcome original and positive thought, and let͛s look for new ways to develop an international
language which may be readily understood by all of those whose well-being might be affected by our actions.

Keith Mortimer is chairman of the ITS UK Road User Charging Interest Group and founder/director of Wyeval Consulting. He can be contacted on:keith@wyeval.com. This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Road User Charging.