A to B: Transport week at the New Statesman

Introducing a week of themed posts on how we get from here to there and back again.

It's not where you go, it's how you get there. We all need to get around, from the day-to-day (the average Briton spends three and a half hours commuting every week) to the less frequent (there were 45 million flights abroad in 2012, mostly to Europe).

And how we choose to do it matters. In 2011, 21 people died on the London Underground, while 16 cyclists died in the capital. Those numbers may be roughly comparable, but when you consider that the Tube carries four million people a day while there is an eighth that number of cyclists, it's clear that one group is taking a much bigger (though still small) risk.

Living with that risk may be the cause of the fierce group dynamic cyclists display. But it's not just them. How we travel can define us in surprising ways. From the shared drudgery of an eight and a half hour coach trip across England to the commuters standing in an overcrowded train doing its best impression of a sardine tin, the trip matters almost as much as the destination.

Of course, for some people, the trip is the destination. Take the itinerant retirees of the British canal system, who give up society to live a life of fields, tiny town shops and everlasting damp; or the hundreds of rough sleepers who make the most of London's night bus network to catch 90 minutes of safe rest.

Over the next week, we'll be taking a look at all these aspects of transport and more. Hayley Campbell gives her rules for cycling; Alan White shares his time on a narrowboat; Samira Shackle reports on the car-centric lives of wealthy Pakistanis; and there will be more besides.

Monday: Hayley Campbell has been cycling in London for two years and is inexplicably Not Dead. Now you can be Not Dead too.

Tuesday: Alan White shares his time floating around Britain's canal network, and Alex Andreou shares the unique relationship a migrant has with planes.

Wednesday: Samira Shackle writes about the dependence the rich of Pakistan have on their cars, and Labour's shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle calls of the government to end its stop-start approach to cycling.

Thursday: Holly Baxter shares her love-hate relationship with National Express, the red-headed stepchild of transport, and Eleanor Margolis recounts her experience with the vikings of the N22.

Friday: Caroline Crampton recalls the time her parents were lost at sea.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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