games, trains and automobiles

A lot of people liked last week's newsletter on HS2, which was nice. One consistent response, though, was to cite figures from the DfT which suggest that it will take a hundred-odd years for the line to become carbon neutral, and that's something I felt was worth addressing.

There's the simple response, which is, broadly, "yes, if you're building infrastructure which has a lifespan in the centuries, you can afford to have a carbon budget which pays off over that period". That's not nonsense, but I do think it undercuts the urgency of reducing emissions. A carbon budget isn't like personal finances, it isn't fine so long as you're in the black by the end of the day. More emissions now is worse than less.

Instead, I think the more important response is to be serious about when we can, and can't, reject such figures. The question of whether – or when – HS2 is a carbon neutral project is intimately tied up in waves arms everything else. The DfT's figures assume 4% of journeys made by HS2 would otherwise be made by private motor vehicles, but that's because the DfT's assumptions do not account for other potential policies, like putting on a dark jacket at night and pouring sugar in petrol tanks, or scattering caltrops on the M1.

Building train lines can rarely, on its own, do much to reduce carbon emissions, particularly in the short term. To get people out of their cars, you need policy which can get people out of their cars; the point of the trains you're building is to justify those policies. But if you have to look at the trains on their own, they'll never be great.


Speaking of getting people out of cars, I saw this dataset this week, and it's so bleak.

There's broadly three trends here, one over-arching, and the other two visible when disaggregated.

The first is simply population. London has, in the period in this chart, grown from a city of 57m people to one of 66m. A 15% increase in bodies will lead to strain everywhere else, and that shouldn't be discounted.

In fact, that 15% increase would take London's traffic from the 19.1bn miles in 1993 to to 22bn in 2019 – almost exactly the growth that we see in this chart. If all else were equal.

But all else is not equal. The first infection point in the chart above is the introduction of the London congestion charge in 2000, which succeeded not just in cutting vehicle miles in the capital, but in keeping them on a downward trend for the next decade – a downward trend helped by the reduction of economic activity in the Great Recession of 2007 onwards.

And then it all goes wrong. Like I said, there's two remaining trends in the teens, and we can see them if we split out light commercial vehicles and cars and taxis.

I'm going to speak in broad brushes here: what we're seeing are Uber and Amazon.

The rise in package delivery services, and corresponding increase in LCV miles on London's roads, is broadly what we would expect from the increase in e-commerce.

There are certainly ways the whole system could be made more efficient. Perhaps, instead of eight different services each hiring gig workers to careen around London in white vans, we could centrally sort packages so that only one delivery person needed to go to each house per day? And perhaps we could allocate the packages to delivery people so that their routes were more efficient: make it so that one delivery person served every house on the same street, for instance.

You could even ease up some of the uncertainty inherent in these jobs by making it so that the same person was allocated to the same street regularly, building a sense of community and local relationships. You could even get nice red and yellow uniforms, and perhaps some celebrity branding from one of the less toxic royals. Prince Edward's not been linked to any international paedophiles, as far as I know.

But I accept package delivery as a genuine sectoral shift. Uber… not so much. The taxi company spent much of the early 2010s arguing that it acted to complement, rather than compete with, public transport. It trotted out stats to show how many journeys began or ended at tube stations, and argued that the future it was building towards was one in which private car ownership was a thing of the past.

But what's actually happened is a far simpler story: Uber has massively reduced the cost of taking a taxi and so more people than ever are taking taxis. People are taking taxis instead of nightbuses; people are taking taxis instead of walking; and some people are taking taxis instead of taking the tube at all.

I don't think that's good, personally.


I had a fantastic time over the weekend putting together a remote party game night. I'm preparing for the second wave of lockdowns by getting on zoom like it's March again. We played Wavelength, Spyfall, Coup, and Resistance – all using… semi legal web versions of the games, which could be played remotely. Anyway, I hugely recommend them all, particularly Wavelength – think Codenames meets Monikers. If anyone else has similar suggestions, hit reply and let me know!