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Theological Reflections on Transport Policy

People in the West tend to presume that to have a car is their prerogative. John Rogerson looks at the costs that no-one is covering and that will be passed on to the following generations.

By Professor John Rogerson
There is no such thing as theological reflection in the abstract; all such reflection is situated in a particular time and place and depends upon particular assumptions. I therefore make no apology for beginning this article with an account of where I am coming from, and what the theological assumptions are that I make.

My childhood and teenage years were traffic-free, in the sense that the war-time and post-war London in which I grew up did not have private motoring. The streets in which we played were free of parked vehicles and the tradesmen that did their regular rounds -the milkmen, the greengrocers and the man who had an astonishing collection of salt, vinegar and paraffin - all used horses to pull their carts. We needed road safety for the main roads, of course. If we wanted to get anywhere we walked, cycled, or used public transport. When we went camping with the Boy Scouts - a frequent occurrence as soon as the war ended - we loaded our fathers' kit bags (we could not afford rucksacks) on to a trek cart which we pushed to the nearest railway station and heaved into the guard's van. At the far end we would often have to push the cart several miles from the nearest station to the camp site.

This state of affairs lasted to the late 1940s or early 1950s, by which time the mass production of cars for private use began to change many things irrevocably. For example, the narrow streets of the garage-less council estate where I had grown up became filled with parked cars, and children had scarcely room to play in the streets, quite apart from the greatly increased danger to them from the traffic. When we went to Scout camp we hired a lorry to take us all the way from the Scout HQ to the camp site. Private car ownership, like television, began to be the norm rather than the exception.

These opening paragraphs are not meant to be an exercise in nostalgia - a hankering after a lost world. They are meant to underline what I stated in the opening paragraph, that there is no such thing as abstract reflection. My childhood and teenage years were lived in a world largely free of private motoring, and that fact has undoubtedly shaped my current attitude to cars. I have never possessed one and cannot drive, and although I am willing to accept lifts locally - more out of not wishing to offend people who genuinely wish to help - I do not travel by car, and I regard cars as very undesirable things in principle. All this will not doubt seem astonishing to people who have known nothing but streets clogged with parked cars, and who take for granted the convenience - and for some groups, the safety - of a private car. But then, that is their particular situatedness.

What of our particular theological assumptions? As an Old Testament scholar I take the view, as expressed in the narrative structure of Genesis 1-9, that the world described in Genesis 1 is not the world of our experience. The world of Genesis is a vegetarian world, in which the animals and humans are vegetarian (cp. Gen 1: 29-30). The world of our experience does not appear until after the flood, when the mandate to the first humans is renewed, but allowing the eating of meat so long as it does not contain blood (Gen 9: 3-4). The vegetarian world, including the vegetarian animals, reappears in passages such as Isaiah 65:17-25, where the creation of a new heaven and a new earth is spoken of.

Of course, this biblical language has to be translated into categories that we can use today. Thus, I do not believe that there was once a creation in which all animals were vegetarians, and nor do I believe that there will be a physical vegetarian creation some time in the future. Instead, I take the narrative of Genesis 1-9 and passages such as Isaiah 65:17-25 to be saying that the world of our experience, including nature, is not what the Creator intended or intends it to be. How this paradox is to be resolved cannot be discussed here, except to say that the writers of the Old Testament advocated what I call "structures of grace", in which the graciousness and liberating power of God were to be expressed in practical arrangements which affected humans in their relation to each other and to the world of nature. The need to develop "structures of grace" was driven by response to a narrative, the narrative of God's freeing of the Hebrews from slavery. The clearest example of this narrative at work enjoining "structures of grace" is in Exodus 23:9-12 which begins with a reference to the freeing from slavery and then enjoins gracious treatment for fields, fruit trees, domestic animals used in farming, and slaves. Again, this needs translation - most readers of this article will not possess fields, fruit trees or oxen, let alone slaves! But the main principle remains: a narrative enjoins the hearers to create "structures of grace" that reflect and actualise the values inherent in the narrative. This is what I shall try to do in reflecting theologically upon transport policy.

In addition to an approach, theologically, via narrative-driven "structures of grace", I am committed, philosophically, to discourse ethics as expounded by Jurgen Habermas. However, I shall not expound discourse ethics at this point, but rather illustrate their use with regard to transport in the course of the discussion.
Private mass motoring ... was seen as an expression of individual freedom. Just as there is no theological reflection without assumptions, so there can be no theological reflection without data. Fortunately for the purposes of this article, a study of the politics of transport policy (or, more accurately, the lack or failure of policy) in West Germany from 1949-1994 has just appeared. The title, incidentally, is ironic, since it is a paradox of what was once a slogan expressing the connection between private transport and individual freedom. The slogan was "Freie Fahrt fur freie Burger" (freedom of travel for free citizens); the title of the book is 'Freier Stau fur freie Burger" (free tailbacks for free citizens).

A consideration of German as opposed to British transport policy has the following advantages. Germany has a much larger railway system than Britain, as well as canals and waterways which can be used by seagoing vessels. Further, whereas Britain is at the end of the line, so to speak, Germany is in the centre of Europe and is thus a transit area. Another factor is German unification, which has brought into play a country (the former German Democratic Republic) which, in 1989, still transported over 70% of its freight by rail. This had raised the question of whether this balance should be seen as an opportunity, or whether what the former East Germany needs is a massive road-building programme to bring it into line with West Germany.

In the immediate post-war years, West Germany inherited from the Hitler regime of 1933-1945 a transport system that forbade the long-distance transport of freight by road. This balance was initially maintained, but was in fact undermined by the production of private cars. Private mass motoring was encouraged for several reasons. First, it was seen as an expression of individual freedom -an important concept following the restrictions of freedom under the Nazis and the fact that in eastern Europe including East Germany there were Communist governments. Second, the production of cars was a sign of growing material prosperity and proof of the success of the market economy. Indeed, the market economy needed the mobility of individuals that private transport made possible. Third, there was a desire to imitate the USA, as West Germany sought to create a new identity in the post-war Western world. In 1952 the number of cars in West Germany (920,000) overtook the pre-war figure; in 1980 the number had reached 25 million.

The 1960s saw the mobilisation of powerful lobbies in favour of the building of roads and the development of road haulage. Not only was there no corresponding rail lobby; it was self-evident that road haulage had the great advantage over rail freight of greater flexibility in being able to deliver from door to door. The compulsory development of rail/road container systems was too expensive and smacked of the centralised economics of the Communist countries. Thus, although the West German government tried to ensure, by taxation, that competition between road and rail freight haulage was fair, the railways consistently lost ground to the roads. Whereas in 1960 38% of freight was carried by rail as opposed by 17% by road, a report in Neues Deutschland for 21 August 1995 put the present figures for freights at 18% for rail, 16% for canals and waterways, and 61% for roads. Inevitably, the expansion of private motoring and road haulage entailed vast road-building programmes. Thus, from 1961-1970 inter-city roads, excluding motorways, increased by 25,000 kilometres.

One of the astonishing things about Klenke's book is how little space he devotes to road accidents. He notes that the death toll of over 19,000 in 1970 caused concern, but is much more interested in the rise of 'green' opposition to Germany's traffic problems. The adverse effects of pollution upon the forests of West Germany were causing concern by the late 1970s, but, as yet, this had produced no powerful green lobby. The 1973 oil crisis led to some restrictions on speeds, but this was a response to an economic rather than an environmental problem. In fact, the green lobby's attention was focused initially upon nuclear power, and Klenke remarks on something that I certainly found puzzling during my visits to Germany in the late 1970s. It was common to see private cars with the sticker "Atomkrah - nein danke!" ("nuclear power - no thank you !") and I wondered why such car owners saw no contradiction in opposing nuclear power while overlooking the harmful effects of mass motoring.
It was common to see private cars with the sticker "nuclear power - no thank you!" and i wondered why such car owners saw no contradiction in opposing nuclear power while overlooking the harmful effects of mass motoring.

By the time that 'green' attention began to be focused upon transport matters in West Germany, in the 1980s, the dreams of the 1960s about "freedom of travel for free citizens" had turned into a nightmare that was exercising politicians of all parties. Yet the outcome was not a proper transport policy, but a series of proposals to reduce the effects of car pollution, such as the use of lead-free petrol and more efficient engines. In the meantime, the politics of transport was assuming an increasingly European dimension, as the European Community standardised the weight of haulage trucks (thus increasing the weight permitted to German vehicles) and encouraged deregulation in anticipation of the single European market in 1991. These were measures that increased pressure upon road usage.

Before I reflect theologically upon these issues, I propose to discuss two particular problems. The first is the lack of a speed limit on German motorways, and the arguments that have been used to defend this situation. Pride of place has been taken by the view that a speed limit is a restriction of personal freedom and an unwarranted intrusion of the state into a private matter. In response to the view that excessive speed is more likely to produce accidents, it has been rejoined that it is up to individual drivers to exercise self-discipline. A further ground for having no speed limit on motorways is that this enables businessmen to travel faster and goods to be delivered more quickly. Speed limits would thus reduce the efficiency and profitability of business. At one stage, it was argued that higher speeds would allow more vehicles to be using a motorway at any one time, thus allowing a more efficient use of the road space available. This argument foundered on the fact that, as speed increases, the braking distance for motor vehicles increases exponentially.

The other matter for brief consideration is the environmental cost of transport. Figures given by Klenke indicate that when all costs are taken into account, including road or rail maintenance, accidents, environmental pollution and noise, there is a shortfall in covering the true costs as follows. For one person travelling 10 kilometres by private car, the shortfall, or underpayment, is 25p, for a rail traveller it is 7p and for a bus traveller it is 5p. In other words, we are not paying our way, especially when we travel by car. To assume that these costs do not have to be met somehow is to live with our heads in the sand. Some of the costs will certainly have to be met by our children and grandchildren.


The development of means of transport in the past 150 years has brought many benefits. By the middle of the 19th century, there was already an extensive network of railways in Europe which, at the modest speeds reached in 1850, reduced journey times to an eighth of what they had been previously. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to travel for thirty or forty hours in a horse-drawn vehicle on poor roads, especially if one could not afford to be inside the vehicle. Even the discomforts of a fifteen-hour flight with 350 other passengers in a modern airliner pale in comparison. Again, modern transport has made it possible for ordinary, as opposed to only wealthy, people to travel to many different parts of the world, and if this has resulted in greater contact and understanding among different peoples, this can only be viewed positively. On the other hand, there is an environmental price to be paid for such mobility, especially in the use of non-renewable sources of energy, the need for vast areas of land for airports, and such things as noise pollution.

However, this reflection will leave aside air transport, and will concentrate on road transport as already sketched. The German experience shows that the development of road transport has not been a rational process, but a series of isolated decisions, often backed by powerful interest groups, whose resulting crises have been met by ad hoc rather than rational responses. The British experience, and that of other countries, is similar. It needs to be asked how the general public would have reacted if all the known consequences of mass motoring and of road haulage had been set out in a balance sheet before the decision had been taken to manufacture motor vehicles on a large scale.

The balance sheet would have looked something like the following. On the credit side would be the advantages of mass motoring: the freedom of movement for individuals and families, the greater security for potentially vulnerable travellers, especially lone women at night, greater mobility for physically handicapped people, the ease of distributing goods and services from door to door, thus providing the range of choice of consumer goods to which we have become accustomed.

A matter often overlooked is that parts of motor vehicles contain substances that cannot easily be recycled or disposed of. The debit side would contain the following items. First and foremost would be the serious injuries and loss of life in road accidents. Britain, with one of the best records in Europe, still has 3,500 road deaths per year - a total that would top 100,000 in thirty years. A report in Deutschland for 21 August 1995 quotes research done by the Heidelberg Institute for Ecological Forecasting, according to which there will be 50 million road deaths worldwide in the next 35 years. The next item on the balance sheet would be the demand for non-renewable energy (estimated by the Heidelberg Institute to increase four-fold by 2030) and the consequent environmental pollution. Further items would include the fact that the demand for space for parked vehicles in Britain equals at least the size of a city such as Birmingham, the noise of motor engines from which it is almost impossible to escape, and the opportunity for petty crime that the mass existence of motor vehicles affords. A matter often overlooked is that parts of motor vehicles contain substances that cannot easily be recycled or disposed of. Finally, nothing has been said about the effects of motoring on the animals, trees and plants with which we share the world, whose habitats are destroyed by roads, and whose lives are affected by the noise, pollution and danger of motor transport.

If the general public had been presented with such a balance sheet, it would surely have decided that the costs were too high, even allowing for the fact the true costs are not being met. It would surely have demanded that rational ways should be found of enabling people to travel and of goods and services to be delivered without exacting, for example, a cost of ten lives per day in Britain. But the matter needs to be formulated more sharply still. Why should we speak of the past, as though we have no control over the present or future? Why should we not draw up a balance sheet now, and allow the public to decide whether things can be allowed to continue as at present or whether immediate and radical changes are called for ?

The sad answer to this last question is that no such balance sheet will be drawn up and no view of the public will be sought, because we live in a world in which policies are determined by powerful interests whose view of what it means to be a human being is that humans are mainly material for financial manipulation.

It is at this point that Habermas's discourse ethics is important. Discourse ethics is not a way of deciding moral issues; it is rather an enabling framework within which solutions to moral issues can be sought, and is based upon a universal principle which can be paraphrased as follows:
In order to be valid, a moral norm must be one that can be accepted freely by all those whose interests are affected, having regard to the foreseen consequences of its implementation and the foreseen consequences of other possible courses of action.

Habermas grounds discourse ethics in the fact that, in living our daily lives, we are prepared to act rationally and to accept the better argument. Thus he rejects the position of those, for example, who maintain that ethical norms are no more thanpersonal preferences. To defend this position, adherents of this view resort to rational argument; yet their fundamental position is that these are only personal preferences. They are therefore inconsistent, and only confirm the importance of rational argument.

From a theological viewpoint, discourse ethics is a practical implication of the injunction to love one's neighbour. It means taking my neighbour seriously as a person with interests that should be respected; it implies an active stance in which I support and defend my neighbour. Much more can, and should, be said about theological justification for discourse ethics, but for present purposes a grounding in love for one's neighbour will suffice. If the issues of transport are subjected to the universal principle underlying discourse ethics, they are influenced as follows. We have to ask whether all those who would be affected by a particular policy - those who would be killed or injured and their dependents, those whose health would be affected by noise or by an increase in the incidence of asthma, those of our children and especially grandchildren who would be required to pay for our present failure to cover the full environmental costs of mass motoring - we have to ask whether all these would freely accept that such arrangements were in their best interests and the best interests of all.
From a theological viewpoint, discourse ethics is a practical implication of the injunction to love one's neighbour. But it would be necessary to go further on two grounds. First, although discourse ethics implies the existence of people who can be articulate, and who can decide what is the better argument, Habermas recognises that there are people, as well as animals, who are excluded from discourse, yet whose interests should be represented. For our purposes, therefore, we can add to the list of those given above, the animals and other species whose habitats are destroyed and who are affected by noise and pollution, as they are unwillingly made partners in the enterprise of human mass transport. The second point, which derives from theology, is that it is a Christian duty not only to see that the interests of my neighbour are heard; it is my duty to defend those interests. If I could know that my neighbour was going to be the fatal victim of an accident, it would not merely be my duty to let my neighbour express an opinion about being a fatal victim; it would be my Christian duty to prevent my neighbour from becoming a fatal victim.

What emerges from a discourse-ethical consideration of transport is a view of what it means to be human, that is a co-operative and communicative view, not an individualistic view embodying Cain's question, "Am I the keeper of my brother or sister? " It is important to keep this co-operative view of what it means to be human in mind while some of the positive policies for dealing with our transport crisis are considered.

In his ecological best-seller (in Germany), Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker makes some important proposals. The first is for a European-wide ecological tax on road usage, whose proceeds would be spent on ecologically better methods of transport such as railways. Second, he would forbid freight to use specified roads, and require freight to be transported by rail. Third, he proposes that all use of private cars or freight lorries should be carried out on a leasing principle, which means that the full costs of any journey made would be paid on the basis of the number of kilometres travelled. Fourthly, on the matter of space for new roads, he proposes that for every length of new road an equivalent length of old road should be given up. He makes the same point about new railway lines, given the vast amount of building of new express lines in Germany.

The draconian nature of these proposals indicates how serious the crisis is that we face; and it is to be hoped that one or two of them - for example, a realistic tax on road usage - might be implemented. Yet one powerful reservation must be made. All these measures imply a top-down solution. They do nothing to alter the fact that our present transport situation mirrors and magnifies a fragmented world in which individuals and groups pursue their own interests to the exclusion of others, including the environment and its animals and other species. They do nothing to make us aware of our responsibilities to each other as human beings and to the other species with whom we share the planet. They do nothing to ask us what narrative drives our view of what it means to be human, and whether, in the light of this narrative, we are seeking to create "structures of grace" through which to express our understanding of being human in harmony with the other inhabitants of our planet.

The task of an environmentally-sensitive theology is to put into the forefront of people's consideration the question "What does it mean to be human ?"and how this should be expressed in "structures of grace". The result will have radical political and ecclesiastical ramifications; and transport is not only a convenient place to begin but the place where, in today's world, we probably meet the greatest day-to-day practical denial of our divine vocation and stewardship in an awesome universe of which we are an infinitesimally small part.
  Professor John Rogerson, a member of the Editorial Board of Theology in Green was Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University from 1979 to 1994. He retired in 1996 to devote his time to theological, ethical and ecological matters.

First published in Theology in Green Issue 3 (1995) Autumn. Republished with permission. Our thanks - Ed.

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