To Loughborough University and the Sir Frank Gibb building (pictured) on Thursday, where I gave a talk to MSc students on the politics of local transport.
I was invited by Senior Lecturer Dr Marcus Enoch - our paths have crossed several times over the past few years as he has researched amongst other things the Bus Wars of the mid 1990's. Marcus originally comes from Darlington, and I was delighted to accept his invitation.
So I got a chance to talk for a whole hour on transport and local politics (imagine!) Fortunately, I was able to cannibalise a couple of officer presentations on the Local Motion and Cycling Demonstration Town projects, seasoned with a liberal sprinkling of my own anecdotes and quotes from Yes Minister. As always, it was the Q&A session at the end, which lasted about half an hour, which threw up some really chewy issues, chiefly the politics of road pricing (or is it congestion charging?)
Rising demand for transport is a consequence of a strong and prosperous economy, and increasing globalisation of markets for goods and services. Against that background, and despite planned transport spending of some £140 billion over the ten years to 2015, congestion is expected to increase by 25 per cent over the same period.
When I looked intensively at the subect of demand management back in the late 1990's, it seemed as if road pricing was the only sure-fire way of addressing the remorseless growth of traffic on our roads. I want to be clear - the North East in general and Darlington in particular would be entirely the wrong place for a discrete road pricing scheme. The Local Motion project shows, however, that real reduction in car travel can be achieved by providing people with information about the alternatives available. I think the Local Motion has been so successful in part, however, because of Darlington's ideal geography (tightly-knit and flat), so journeys under 3km could be targetted.
So where does this leave us regarding longer inter-urban journeys, for example? After the disastrous Edinburgh referendum in February 2005 (where on a 60% turnout residents voted 74/26 against a scheme) a number of councils are shying away from congestion charging - Leeds and Birmingham are two examples. Manchester and Cambridge still have plans on the books, 'though. As central government seems to be rowing away from road pricing at a rate of knots, it's difficult to see from where else leadership on this toughest of political tests will come.