The problem is that when it comes to lift clubs for children and teenagers, I have too much information. Information which, once seen, cannot be forgotten. It has changed the way I think about my teens, their schools and teachers, their extra murals and their social lives. Most of my otherwise intelligent and well-read circle of friends have no idea about this. The information? It relates to seemingly mundane topics of traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Given that many are passionately interested in traffic congestion and only luke warm about carbon then let’s start there.
The traffic in the mornings, we know, is always hell. But it’s particularly hellish during school terms and when universities are in session. The good reason for that is the traffic in the morning is 30-40% commuter and 30-40% school/ college related. As individuals, we despair, believing that we can do little to dent it. Interestingly, though, that’s not how traffic works. In fact, in congested cities where traffic is generally in some sort of unstable equilibrium, little changes to traffic composition can have disproportionally large impacts. Four children being driven to school with mom in four separate cars for example, could, if lift-clubbed in, reduce space used by vehicles by 40m2. That freed up space means, in simple terms, less congestion. In practice, of course, it’s a bit more complicated, but the principle that the status quo can be challenged remains.
Lift-clubs get really compelling, though, if we look at global warming. This is all too often is imagined as a Big Industry problem or else something we can alleviate at home through putting on warm clothes, fitting low energy lights, recycling and buying local. I don’t knock these for a minute, but we also need to look at lifestyles much more carefully if we’re going to really dent energy use and emissions. The data shows that transporting people and stuff accounts for roughly half of all the energy used in cities in South Africa. We tend not to notice it. But it’s significant.
So where is all that energy going? Detailed work done in Nelson Mandela Municipality backed up our own findings in Central Cape Town. Many people use very little resource energy at all to move about either because they walk or cycle, travel very short distances, or use energy efficient public transport. In fact 80% of the transport energy used in cities is by 20% of the population. Who are those 20%? Well, the uncomfortable reality is that I’m one of them – living in a two-car owning household with an upper-middle class lifestyle. The detailed data we have is a bit thin but we can conservatively estimate that 5-10% of all urban energy used is related to the transport of upper-middle class and wealthy children and teenagers.
Two closing thoughts, then. One is that it makes little sense to teach affluent children about resource constraints and global warming at school and to continue ferrying them to hockey on their own with mom. Secondly, here is a rare instance where, with a little commitment individuals can really make a significant impact. It takes organisation and community-mindedness, but parents have that already and (bonus) the big beneficiaries in all of this are the children.