It is wonderful to see how local, community and alternative economics has grown and changed over the years. More and more people are seeing finance as a critical tool ripe for change. Food systems thinking gets much bolder, more sophisticated – and much tastier.
New ways of doing housing continue to amaze me in their fusion of world class design and radical political ambition. Even a cursory glance at the ’10 ideas’ section in each of the cities which New Start has visited before Leeds shows not only good ideas in theory, but many exciting projects happening on the ground.
Yet the one thing that strikes me as missing is the one part of the economy which almost all of us (especially in Leeds) struggle with every day: transport. If one is to judge from the ideas and projects coming out of other cities and regions, transport either isn’t local, isn’t community, or isn’t alternative.
‘The UK has the most privatised infrastructure system
in the industrialised world, and transport is particularly so’
Yet I would argue that transport needs to become a collective priority for the local practitioners and activists. There are a few good reasons why I think this, some of which are part of traditional local economies thinking, and some of which are not.
- Transport has a lot of local companies – and innovation: Especially in a place like Leeds, we tend to forget that private hire vehicles and taxis are local companies. We essentially invented Uber using the same business model (privately owned and operated vehicles plus the technology to hire and connect them), only to now be facing a well-funded tech giant providing the same service with far greater costs. We have seen small tech startups like JumpIn (designed to help students share taxis) begin in Leeds and then get bought up. Cycling stores, bike repairs, transport planning firms, some service providers, small local garages – both in ‘alternative’ transport and in traditional transport, local economies are more important than we think. Whether they fit in the alternative spectrum – like Bordeaux’s famed Garage Moderne, a collective where you can get anything with gears or a motor fixed, learn to fix yourself, and enjoy a beer afterwards – or just the local repair shop, there is much in the transport economy we need to understand and better embrace. There is also immense potential for local innovation here – from car sharing to potential for local buses and much more – amid a transportation economy that is poised to change radically.
- Other local economies depend on transport: None of what other local economies are trying to do is possible without this foundational urban system. It is our lifeblood, especially in the north where we have so many smaller places which add up to one very very big place – but only when connected. While many local economy advocates dream of a smaller world – some for good reasons – most of us in the north realize that we have to be better and more connected. It has to be a choice whether to move around, and, for too many of us, that choice is too expensive, too unreliable or too infrequent – which impacts all of the other economies we are trying to build.
- Britain’s transport system is dominated by big business, which doesn’t create great and accessible transport: The UK has the most privatised infrastructure system in the industrialised world, and transport is particularly so. We also know we need major investment, and better mobility, and this is part of the reason that much of the money associated with devolution comes in the form of new transport infrastructure. But under the current system, public transport investment will not result in the type of transformation the north is looking for, in part because such a high percentage of transport spend ends up as corporate profits. We can do better, in part by incorporating ideas and ideals from local economics.
This latter point is particularly important, because it requires that local economic practitioners, organisations and advocates band together to fight for a system which isn’t necessarily local – but which is important to all localities.
Transport can never be a ‘local’ economy, but it can be run better, with more profits reinvested in service, and more people able to access a better, more sustainable and more affordable system, in part so that more local alternative economies can thrive. But this will require that the communities get together to advocate for a better transport system – embracing and supporting those aspects of our system which can be done locally well, and pushing for those bigger systems to be held to better economic principles.
Alex Schafran is a lecturer and researcher at the School of Geography at the University of Leeds