New Labour wants to swap the 'car culture' for an 'integrated transport system'. Austin Williams wants to know how these fine-sounding words will help us to get about more easily
On the road to nowhere
One of the first acts of the New Labour government was to merge the Transport and Environment portfolios into one super-ministry. Headed by John Prescott, the new department immediately announced its commitment to an integrated transport strategy. On World Environment Day in June, Prescott received a tremendous ovation for a raft of proposals intended to encapsulate 'the highest aims for our transport system'.
The idea of coordinating services to provide a genuine choice for travellers is something that anybody with an interest in transport would want to support. The possibility of travelling conveniently by public transport to any point in the country (and beyond), has long held a place in the daydreams of those standing in rainy bus queues. No more waiting hours for your connection, no more rushing for the last bus: each step of the journey would be linked by inter-transport nodes which would coordinate services for maximum efficiency.
Of course, public transport could never be as flexible nor immediate as the motor car. However, a highly developed public transport system would have its own advantages: faster over long distances; less hassle in many cases; more freedom for the traveller to do other things on the journey. For once, the erstwhile car driver would have the chance to indulge in the pleasures of the scenery. There seems little doubt that a much improved public transport system would tempt car owners to leave the car at home at least some of the time - I am certainly all in favour of letting the train (hovercraft, helicopter or monorail, for that matter) take the strain.
It would seem clear that the one thing required to improve and integrate the public transport system is investment, and a lot of it. However, despite the rhetoric, it is not on the government's agenda to spend any extra money on transport. Chancellor Gordon Brown's July budget made it plain that there will be no new public money for transport investment and that existing resources will have to be allocated more prudently. Yet nobody seems too upset about this. Transport Secretary Gavin Strang reassured everybody that Brown's austerity budget was in fact a ringing endorsement of his plans. And when I spoke to representatives of interested lobby groups to gauge their reaction to the government's proposals, they tended to be supportive and did not mention the need to invest in improving public transport:
'We welcome Labour's proposals although we are concerned that they are not undermined by short-term decisions. In the long run we look forward to tougher demand management in terms of parking taxes and road policy.' (Stephen Joseph, Transport 2000)
'We welcome the moves towards an integrated transport strategy, although there were many missed green tax opportunities in the budget.' (Alan Francis, Green Party)
'We are in favour of integrated transport, but Labour will need to consider any decisions that will work against it. For example, the relief road-building programme and the continued construction of out-of-town developments.' (Roger Higman, Friends of the Earth)
Gone were the visions of improved services. Instead, they all spoke of the need for increased penalties and prohibitions on the car. Why? Antipathy to what is called the 'car culture' has become so ingrained that attacking car drivers is seen as a positive contribution to transport policy, and to public transport policy in particular. The mentality appears to be that cars and public transport are in competition, so a setback for the former is necessarily good for the latter, even if in reality car drivers are simply being penalised while public transport is left in the same sorry state as it was before.
Within only 100 days in office, Gavin Strang had already halted construction of two major road-building schemes and put a hold on a further five. Under pressure from environmental lobbyists, the government is actively considering road tolls, company car levies, flat rate payments for city-centre road users, and much, much more. For the new government, demands from environmental and public transport campaigners for big cuts in the road-building programme and financial penalties for motorists must seem too good to be true. Labour is in the enviable position of allowing the lobbyists to come up with all kinds of wheezes to save money, while the government can appear slightly more moderate by only introducing some of the austerity proposals.
Prescott has launched a consultation paper, 'Developing an integrated transport policy', which calls for everybody to contribute to framing future transport strategy. To avoid any far-fetched suggestions - such as an injection of cash - the document gives a few pointers as to the direction that the debate should take: 'Recognising that funding available from the public purse is strictly limited, how best do you think our transport systems could be improved?...What balance should there be between "sticks" and "carrots" to achieve our aims?' Carrots can be expensive, but Labour need not worry; the sticks it needs to beat the motoring public grow on trees, nurtured by the supposed proponents of decent public transport systems.
How can it be that cars and public transport are in competition? Admittedly, cars and buses use the same roads. However, surely, even here, critics of the car should be arguing that more money spent on buses, perhaps with lower fares, is the way to get people out of cars. Instead, they have all but ignored the issue of investment and declared that they are fully behind - or rather some way in front of - the government's attack on the 'car culture'. Why? Because critics of the car are really critics of car drivers.
The environmentalist view is that drivers are irresponsible, anti-social and so wedded to car use that shock treatment is required to break their dirty habit. While environmental lobby groups often disguise their criticism of the car with demands for improved public services, they tend to agree with the government that it would be foolish to introduce measures for cheaper, better and more frequent public transportation while we are still 'psychologically wedded' to the car. Who would catch a bus while the car remains a viable alternative, runs the argument. The notion that we have to tackle the dominance of the car culture before investing in public transport is a strong theme of the discussion these days.
Congestion has become the new bogey (That's enough snotty puns - Ed). We are forever being told that there is too much traffic on too many roads. Curiously though, nobody seems to know how congestion is determined. When I phoned New Labour's Transport Policy Unit, responsible for drafting mandates on this issue, a spokesman could only read me the dictionary definition: 'an abnormal accumulation or build up....for example, blood clots....' Hmm, I see. However, the term's vagueness seems to be its strong point. The anti-car lobby need only state that there are unsustainable numbers of cars on the road and no further substantiation is required. Public transport and private cars are then seen as competitors for ever decreasing road space.
The only thing that will be improved by penalising car users while not investing more in public transport will be the Treasury's revenues. It will do nothing to improve transport. In the past, the theoretical solution to high density traffic flows was, first, to give careful consideration to the strategic requirements of each specific case, and then to improve the infrastructure to overcome the problem. Today, however, this is seen as irresponsibly utopian. Since there is an unquestioned assumption that there are too many cars on too many roads, it follows that building more infrastructure will only delay, or exacerbate, the problem.
Rather than building more infrastructure, transport commentators recommend that we should reduce demand, to nip the problem in the bud. Amory Lovins' Hyper-car prototype exemplifies this new agenda. This 500kg, 5-door concept car, powered by 'hybrid-electric' propulsion, can travel in excess of 300 miles on one gallon of petrol. Carbon dioxide emissions are not even an issue. But even here, rather than give their unreserved endorsement to this technological achievement, its developers point out that one of the more 'undesirable' side effects of the Hyper-car is that, because it is so attractive, more people will want to drive it! Understandably, if too many cars is the problem, fewer cars is the answer.
Congestion, or more perversely, over-congestion, is used as a shorthand way of discussing the allegedly detrimental social impact that cars, and the roads upon which they drive, have on residential and rural communities. According to some researchers, roads have become a virtual Berlin Wall in many areas, separating friends and families by an impenetrable wall of traffic. (Haven't these people heard of Pelican Crossings?) In his influential booklet, 'Unlocking the gridlock', Christian Wolmar - political, and formerly transport, correspondent for the Independent - shows his rather shaky grasp of both specialisms: 'Main roads, in effect, create barriers within or between communities almost as effectively as does the religious divide in Northern Ireland. 'Excoriating the car as a symbol of Thatcherite individualism is deemed to be a precursor to building a more humane society. Some transport experts have even floated the idea of jitneys, Third World minibuses crammed to the point of over-flowing, as a positive example of community-building social transport.'
The idea of an improved, modern public transport system has disappeared from the debate. Instead we are treated to sermons about the individual and community, health benefits of life in the slow lane, and offered the squalid, impoverished Third World model of transport as a step towards a 'more humane society'.
'Live the impossible dream', says National Bikes newspaper, Lifestyle, 'Eat yourself silly, and still lose weight!'. 'Burn fat, eat well, and live longer.' Under New Labour, you can have your cake and eat it provided you follow a healthy regime of vigorous exercise afterwards. Within the limited world-view of environmentalists, cycling and walking are promoted as exciting transport alternatives. Sustrans, the National Cycle Network, has been allocated £42.5 million by the Millennium Commission to construct 6500 miles of cycleways by the year 2005. Cycling may be an enjoyable leisure pursuit, but it is now being promoted as a local substitute for the car. 'The routes now being created will help civilise local communities', says Jeremy Paxman, patron of Sustrans.
Underpinning this cosy notion of genteel civility lies an authoritarian social contract. Mechanisms to permit only 'responsible driving' are already in place. It is taken as read that there should be higher fuel charges to reflect the real 'social' costs of motoring. (These costs include such things as NHS treatment for asthma sufferers and accident victims, traffic wardens' wages, parking meter maintenance, etc). Road tolls are soon to be introduced. A number of councils have followed Camden's example and introduced 'no-car tenancies' which means that if you own, or subsequently purchase, a car, you may be liable for eviction.
The government is giving serious consideration to pay-as-you-drive schemes, while Newcastle and Edinburgh are planning to ban cars from their city centres altogether, with hi-tech CCTV surveillance at entry points to ensure compliance. There are numerous other examples of how local authorities are wilfully increasing congestion through town-centre redesign, in order to 'persuade' die-hard drivers to use the bus. Insidious suggestions include a prohibition on rush hour traffic on the M5 and M6 near Birmingham and the closure of some of London's roads and bridges to cars, done to teach us a lesson by actually increasing congestion elsewhere. Car drivers are being set up as the smokers of the New Millennium, banished to the margins of the city.
The debate around an integrated transport system has little to do with public transport and absolutely nothing to do with helping us get about more easily. The ideals have been subsumed into a moral campaign to change individual behaviour and to reforge a sense of community. People's real transport needs are being put on hold, while the government concentrates on breaking the supposedly irresponsible reliance on the motor car today. If we want decent infrastructure, it now seems, we will have to show John Prescott and Gavin Strang that we can be trusted. It is up to us to prove ourselves worthy of public transport.
Surely, if we want to achieve a healthier environment and better transport system, we should be striving for increased investment in better technologies, to integrate infrastructural projects so that they provide a decent level of accessible services. This is not inconsistent with the use of the private motor car, the single development in transport which has done most to liberate people in the twentieth century. But try telling that to a government intent on demonising car users as irresponsible, and so finding a scapegoat for the transport problems brought about by underfunded crumbling public services.
Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997