6th T2M conference, Ottawa 18 – 21 September 2008
Newly-elected EC member Ian Gray travelled from Australia to be in Ottawa, and here recounts his time at the conference.
If I were to suggest anything in particular to distinguish the 6th T2M conference from the others I have attended (5th in Helmond and 4th in Paris), it would be the growing prominence given to public policy issues. This view is probably idiosyncratic – expressing my own interests and preferences – but my strongest impression from the conference is that we are building capability to apply historical and related socio-cultural-geographic analysis to the most significant transport policy issues of the times. I should declare that I was one of the organisers of the plenary panel session on policy, and am interested in furthering policy-oriented studies in transport history. Such is the perspective I took to Ottawa.
Bias aside, all three conferences I’ve been to have been valuable learning experiences and downright enjoyable for me, and I am sure for the others attending. Ottawa certainly continued that trend. T2M has been blessed with conference organisers who have been able to create a very convivial and productive atmosphere for intellectual exchange.
Certainly those interested in policy issues were well provided for at Ottawa. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s keynote address at the opening reception told us emphatically that global warming is happening, with a reminder that many practices of transportation are problematic and must change. While I found Thomas’s argument to be well-reasoned, I did come away a little concerned that overstatement, to the extent that it could popularly overwhelm reasoned critique, might defeat his purpose. Tom McCarthy, at the opening plenary next morning, offered a multi-multidisciplinary perspective on ‘Automania.’ Policy was again in focus, this time with respect to research in which history intersects with social psychology to challenge public behaviours of automobility and their unintended consequences.
Perhaps inspired by Tom’s lecture, when confronting the usual problem of choosing which of four concurrent sessions to attend, I opted for ‘Automobility and the Environment.’ Eva Lindgren’s paper demonstrated the ‘rebound effect’ in Sweden – when improved fuel efficiency does not reduce emissions because people buy larger, more powerful vehicles. Dimitry Anastakis explained how Canada lagged behind the USA in automobile pollution regulation. Is regulation the best means to avoid the unintended consequences of automobility? And if it is, can we reasonably expect governments to regulate? The policy implications could justify pessimism in the light of the Homer-Dixon theme.
I had a little less difficulty choosing from the second concurrent session offerings, due to one titled ‘Policies, Place and People’ chaired by Gijs Mom. In addition to the policy element, this session included a paper by Etienne Faugier about the early use of motor vehicles in rural France. As a rural researcher, I was pleased to see some attention given to non-metropolitan transport. I have seen rural transport issues dismissed as inconsequential, on the grounds that urban problems are so big. There can be no argument that urban problems are big, but it does not follow that research into rural change lacks relevance either to scholarship or policy. I found Etienne’s work very relevant.
Policy was again the focus of the session in which I presented my own paper with Julian Hine. In the same session, Massimo Moraglio provided a political economy angle, discussing the relationship between public transport and the automobile industry in Turin. Gunter Heinickel and Hans Liudger-Dienel turned the discussion towards the micro level of mobility and behaviour. I mention these papers partly because they illustrate how T2M, through all three conferences I have attended, has been able not just to integrate research on transport modes, but also bring together a range of theoretical perspectives and maintain lively and convivial debate.
Among the many sessions I could not attend were several papers which, thanks to the conference CD, I have been able to read. I was particularly intrigued with the work of Siegmund Langegger. Perhaps my interest arose in part from the com-fort this sociologist found with the theory discussed by Siegmund. What intrigued me was the way in which the history of the demise of a tram (streetcar) system was used to illustrate theoretical arguments about causality and individual reason: apparently the primary purpose of the work. Without wishing to compromise the rigour of historical analysis, I do wonder if we might be able to take this type of work a step further to debate innovative perspectives on policy issues, highlighting the implicit interpretations of the pre-sent and the past contained in current policy.
On the lighter side of T2M, the National Research Council of Canada, one of the sponsors of the conference, facilitated an excellent excursion to its transport research facilities, one of three destinations from which delegates could choose. I heard much praise for the other excursions (to Gatineau Park and the Agricultural Museum) also. Lighter still was a very pleasant cruise along the Rideau Canal, followed by the conference dinner. The dinner was held in a government conference facility which had been the very grand downtown Ottawa railway station. We have some examples in Australia of railway stations in central business districts which have been closed in favour of much smaller and coldly functional stations in the suburbs. I have seen other examples of downtown closure in Canada, such as in Montreal and Regina (with the latter city having no passenger rail service at all now). I don’t find this a happy situation, but any sad-ness I suffered at the T2M dinner was soon dispelled by Canadian beer, excellent food, presentation of T2M awards and, most importantly, a musical fare-well (provided by the Executive Committee ‘choir’) to retiring President Gijs and a stirring speech from incoming President Hans.
The idea for the policy plenary developed from a conversation I had at the Helmond (DAF Museum) conference dinner with Paul van Heesvelde and Luisa Sousa, and Colin Divall’s closing plenary comments to the Helmond conference. My recollection of the conversation with Paul and Luisa is rather vague now, perhaps due partly to the excellent wine among other distractions offered that evening. But I do remember thinking about moving further towards debating, not so much specific policy issues, but ways which might help us to expand our means of contributing to policy debate. Discussions with Gijs Mom, Garth Wilson, Colin Divall, Paul and Luisa early this year led to us inviting Professor Katsutoshi Ohta of Toyo University, Japan; Mr Bob Paddon, Vice-President Corporate and Public Affairs, Trans-link, Vancouver; Professor Julian Hine, University of Ulster; and Professor Colin Divall, University of York. Garth obtained sponsorship from Transport Canada. Transport Canada suggested the specific policy issues for us to discuss, clearly indicating current urban transport policy concerns in Canada. (How better could we have had an effective discussion? I now ask myself.) Each panellist agreed to answer one or two questions covering topics such as the relationship between land-use planning and public transport development, social status and mobility, governance of public transport and roads/traffic, and demand management for sustainable transport. I find it difficult to report on the extent of success achieved by the plenary as I was myself a panellist. However, I can report that the feedback received from our guests was positive. I am confident that the ‘non-regulars’ (Professors Ohta and Hine and Bob Paddon) enjoyed the plenary and found it, and the whole conference, to be a valuable experience. I was particularly pleased and grateful to Bob Paddon that he took the time to attend most of the conference.
With my policy imagination in high gear by Sunday morning, I found the ‘Roads, Rails and Political Development II’ session to be unusually stimulating. Both papers were excellent, but I found Kevin James’ report on a proposal to build a ‘tunnel’ under, or rather in, the Irish sea to be quite intriguing. The ‘tunnel’ was a megaproject which didn’t happen, but in recent years the work of Bent Flybjerg and his colleagues (Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) has drawn attention to many which have happened. Much transport policy is formulated in debate about megaprojects. I ask myself if there is more to be learned from historical analysis of such debates.
In Australia we sometimes hear calls for ‘evidence-based’ policy. That is often taken to describe policy which is developed from methodical analysis rather than from political intrigue or convenience. I wonder if we might find room for debate about the nature of appropriate evidence and the place which historical and socio-cultural research might have in the specification of legitimate evidence for transport policy. Which leads me to wonder if a future T2M conference might be held alongside a transport research conference of the kind we have in Australia where the engineering and economics professions tend to dominate (without excluding other orientations).
The plenary panel on museums was interesting. I learned about the tensions which museum managers can encounter when their exhibits address public issues. Being myself a volunteer tour guide in a small rural railway museum, I felt some sympathy for the point raised by Geoff Graham in discussion – please don’t forget the small museum! Phil Scarpino entertainingly summed up the conference, taking us back to the ways in which trans-port historians and others might confront some of the great issues of our time.
In concluding, I must thank Garth and his helpers for organising a superb conference. We were looked after very well. I felt confident that I could relax and learn: whatever I might have forgotten or misplaced would be remembered or found by a helpful person somewhere, and I would find myself at the right place at the right time. It was always worth being there.