Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – a comment on transport in Europe.

8. 1. 2007 - Andrew Letby
Anyone who has tried to audit an organisation is aware of SWOT analysis as a tool. Identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats is often a useful way of discovering how well something is working. The recent conference of Methodist and URC workplace chaplains which was held in Prague raised myriad issues about transport in Europe today. The SWOT headings can be used to identify some of the issues.

Thirty five chaplains from various parts of the UK travelled to Prague, from airports fairly close to their homes. This identified a great strengths: the ready availability of ‘low-cost’ flights from all regions of the UK to the fast growing tourist and business destinations of Central Europe. Using 5 different airlines and 8 separate airports the party all arrived in Prague to schedule and without horror stories. Coupled with an average fare of less than £50 return it was clear that by at least one set of criteria, the age of cheap, efficient and hassle free travel across Europe is well and truly here.

However it was on arrival in Prague that many found something less expected. Almost everyone was concerned about how they would travel to the conference venue on the opposite side of the city from the airport – only to discover a choice of buses and taxis which were both cheap and plentiful. Those of us who chose the bus and tram option quickly learned that for little money we could ride an efficient, regular and comprehensive network to any part of the city. As the conference progressed we all used this system to great effect as we explored and learned.
So what about weaknesses? Sadly they all seemed to be at the beginning of the journeys. Several of our group had problems reaching their departure airports and bemoaned the lack of public transport links. Several years ago when the Government published a White Paper on the future of aviation in the UK the network of airport chaplains commented that one of its failings was its lack of consideration of how the predicted numbers of passengers would access the expanding airports. The proposals seemed to consider no more than the provision of immediate access roads. So it was that people struggled through traffic, paid hefty parking charges and bemoaned the fact that the airport to railway station buses stopped running well before their late evening return flights were due to land. Many good intentions were laid aside!

The key to stress free travel is surely integration. However it sometimes seems that our desire for privacy and independence leads us astray. We want to move around on our own terms and resist attempts by transport planners to direct is to buses and trains. Despite the excellent transport infrastructure around Prague we did see some evidence that this tendency may yet defeat attempts to move people around efficiently. One of our Conference speakers was late arriving at our venue because she has been stuck in traffic having chosen to drive across the city. She openly admitted that she could have travelled by bus and tram but had chosen not to because they are crowded early in the morning.

So, what of the opportunities offered by easy access to major European Cities are immense? The very fact that our conference could take place in Prague is a good illustration. Our aim was to learn more about the economic and social situation in one of the new EU nations. Our learning curve was immensely steep and our understanding was enriched enormously. Such an experience could not have been gained from learning about the issues second hand, even a brief immersion in the context profoundly influenced us. Perhaps we lived a little ‘incarnational theology’. Now there it seems might be one of the opportunities given to us by the relative ease and low cost of transport today. We can learn more about one another; we can cross cultural divides and learn what it means to be the whole people of God. Tracing the development of God’s people it almost seems that it is divinely inspired desire with humanity to travel and explore. Significantly this is also good for business; tourism is a major global industry comprising around 5 per cent of the world’s GDP. Over 200 hundred million people are employed in travel and tourism worldwide. In the Czech Republic tourism makes up 7 per cent of overall exports and over 40 per cent of services exports.

But, and there is a big ‘but’ to all of this. According to Professor John Adams we now live in a world of ‘hypermobility’.[1] This is claimed to make society more dispersed – “with second homes abroad and mass migration mixing people up; more prone to crime, as people no longer know their neighbours; less democratic as more decisions need to be taken at a global level; more frenetic as people try to fit more and more travel into busy lives.”[2] Add to this the impact of carbon emissions and a serious situation begins to emerge. Of course there are many arguments put forward claiming that air travel is not a particularly serious offender, but in the end they are difficult to sustain. If our propensity to travel is having a massive effect on the environment then we should be concerned. It seems to me that human wisdom should be concentrated on being good stewards of creation, not exploiting it to destruction.

[1] New Modes of Governance: Developing an Integrated Policy Approach to Science. 2005
[2] Brendon Sewill, Fly now, grieve later - How to reduce the impact of air travel on climate change


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