The grander the better

We all have different ideas about what qualifies as a big job. Some would say running the country is the biggest challenge. Others might point to being England football manager. Heading the customer relations department at British Airways could well get a mention right now.

Whatever your views on the above, most people would agree that European transport commissioner ranks as quite a bigee. As this issue’s interview with current incumbent Jacques Barrot points out, the transport commissioner is ultimately responsible for everything from bicycle lanes to satellite positioning over an area stretching from Arctic Finland to the Greek islands and the west of Ireland to the Black Sea.

Far from being daunted by the scale of his domain, however, Barrot is a man with a plan. In fact he is a man with many plans and unless we never leave our home, we are all part of his vision of a cleaner, greener, more mobile Europe, watched over and measured precisely by the benevolent eye of Galileo, the EU’s own version of GPS.

Of course, there is no point in having grand supranational organisations such as the EU unless they are going to have grand supranational visions. What is important is that they are the right visions.

You have to wonder whether Barrot and his colleagues are asking too much of technologists to address problems that go beyond the ability of clever engineering to solve them alone.

Take traffic congestion. Barrot understandably identifies unclogging Europe’s cities as a priority, and said an ‘action plan’ for urban mobility will be ready in the autumn.

It had better be a good one. By coincidence, the AA last week published a report claiming cities such as Bristol and Glasgow are now as congested as London, and revealing that it now plans to put breakdown teams on scooters in a bid to beat the jams.

Barrot says Galileo will one day offer us a range of information on traffic congestion and the options open to us.

But what if there aren’t any options? What if all Galileo can offer you is the location of where you are stuck to an accuracy of one metre?

Mass car ownership and usage is a genie that is going to be hard to put back in its bottle and it is going to take more than technology to sort out the problems it brings.

Barrot is nearer the mark when he talks about the desirability of a ‘modal shift’, for example getting large amounts of freight off the roads and onto the railways. He puts forward the idea that a new network of high-speed rail lines could whisk passengers around the EU, freeing existing rail networks for freight transport and so easing pressure on the roads.

It might not solve the problem of congestion in town and city centres but this has the ring of a proposal with real substance. Indeed, The Engineer has supported extension of the high-speed network for some time.

The use of technology to micro-manage our transport networks certainly has a role, but big challenges require big solutions and the political will and finance to achieve them.

Too often the EU comes across as a body that is mired in detail. If Barrot and the rest can encourage Europe to think big and act big it will deserve to be seen as a force for positive change, rather than an eternal meddler.

Andrew Lee, editor