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.