Road to nowhere

24 September, 2007

The Department of Transport needs a major sort out if we‘re going to keep Britain moving.

The Department of Transport’s response to the changing transport and environmental needs of the nation make the turning circle of a supertanker look sprightly. There is an institutional unwillingness in the department over many years to embrace radical solutions to Britain‘s transport needs. Alternatives are met with the haughty distain that flat earthers once handed out to heretics. Labour came to power ambivalent to road building especially with the conservatives experience of road protesters but now has a road building programme costing billion after billion despite a remarkable lack of evidence of its effectiveness at reducing congestion. Yes Minister may be off air but Sir Humphrey is alive and well in the Department of Transport.

There is also failure to see transport connected with other policy agendas. Meeting Britain’s environmental commitments seems to have passed the Department of Transport by. According to DEFRA transport is the only sector where emissions of greenhouse gases are set to rise between 2000 and 2020. The only thing that gets recycled at the department of transport is the policies of road building and airport expansion.Similarly cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling obesity as well as transport. Not that you would know about that from the departments spending priorities which prizes major infrastructure projects over inexpensive alternatives like safe cycle routes which not only reduce congestion but also have immense health and environmental benefits.  

So what should be done? The Highways Agency, a redoubt of immense profligacy, should be abolished. No more road eye wateringly expensive widening schemes at £1000 per inch like the M6. Instead a Highways Safety and Maintenance Agency should be responsible for the upkeep of the present roads network but crucially take away the institutional incentive to ever greater road building.On road pricing what we need is not piecemeal one off solutions like the congestion charge but a national system locally controlled by councils who have the specific knowledge of their areas. If it works for London then the rest of the country should be able to benefit as well. Sure the people who signed the anti road pricing petition on the Downing Street website aren’t going to like it but their not going to like ever increasing congestion, delay and illness inducing pollution either. This government set up and spends £10 million per year running Cycling England. This should be welcomed but it would only buy 250 meters of a fourth lane on the M6. Holland has a cycling culture that plays a large part in explaining why they have half the rate of obesity that the British do. It’s not expensive either especially when the burden on the NHS is taken into account and we should shamelessly emulate them.Post Hatfield the railways have had a successful few years with both passenger numbers and safety up. Overcrowding, a problem of success rather than failure, remains particularly at peak times. Ruth Kelly’s recent statement to the Commons setting out the Rail White Paper had much to commend it not least an extra 1300 carriages and some significant station capacity developments but it was a no to high speed rail or electrification. If continental Europe can have a large and growing high speed rail network, if China and Japan can invest in it as well why can’t the country that invented the railway in the first place not get the significant environmental and economic benefits of high speed rail other than on Eurostar?

When New Labour came to power it set out to be radical and bold but when it comes to buses it has been New Labour’s bete noire Ken Livingstone who has in London greatly improved bus usage against an unfavourable national picture. London buses should be used as a model for the rest of the country and the Oystercard scheme made national.

Domestic air travel on a small island like ours and private flights are an ecological absurdity and ought to be very heavily penalised by the Chancellor. Government is able to regulate the numbers of domestic flights, it should also be willing. After all the world will not end if people can’t fly from London to Manchester every week but it may do if everyone does.

We need a new covenant between people and government on transport. It should cost more to take environmentally inferior forms of transport such as the private car or domestic flights. In return we will dramatically improve the rail network with high speed lines, metro systems will become a common feature in our towns and cities, high quality bus services will be plentiful and our cycling and walking facilities will make even the Dutch green with envy. We have the ideas and resources to reduce congestion, protect the environment and tackle obesity all we need now is the political courage.


4 Responses to “Road to nowhere”

  1. Ratso said

    All too true. In public health Labour governments have proved themselves amazingly timid – especially when compared to wildly radical reform of the NHS often informed by little or no evidence.

    Walking and cycling are cheap and effective measures, with substantial evidence base. Does anyone campaign against them? So why don’t we take them seriously?

    I am not sure that congestion charges would be necessary if we implemented measures to give priority to public transport and cycling. If care drivers sit in their cars in a trafic jam and watch buses and bicycles passing them they might see that there is a better way to get where they want to be.

  2. Ol said

    Positive action against emissions would undoubtedly upset a lot of people. Cars are seen by many as a right, and ridiculously as a right of passage to adulthood. Perhaps the government is not really willing to ‘tackle’ drivers for fear of upsetting such a large portion of the populace. A cultural shift is needed first, although the governments cycle to work scheme is a start, educating future generations about the importance of zero emission commuting is vital. Maybe more kids cycling to school (as well as helping with the obesity crisis) might make parents drive a little more carefully too.

  3. parburypolitica said

    Martin: I think the road pricing is necessary as it would provide the funds or improvements in other transport modes without massive fare increases. Also I think the cost of driving has gone down relatively over the last 30 years though that would need looking up.

    Ol: I think the key is giving people positive choices. Drivers are a massive voting block and we aren’t going to get them all on a bike just yet. But why would they want to to sit on their arse when it is far healthier and more enjoyable to cycle. Agee about the needs to get kids on bikes. Actually I think sustrans have done work on this which shows the numbers of kids who want to cycle to school is a lot greater than the numbers presently allowed to.

  4. Give me an old cool bicycle, and I’ll ride around the city for days.

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