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Austin Williams is bemused by a government 'transport policy' which encourages us not to travel

On yer bike

When the government launched its long-awaited White Paper 'A new deal for transport' at the end of July, everybody from Friends of the Earth to the Automobile Association agreed in principle that it was a positive step forward - 'but not', said Friends of the Earth, 'the Great Leap Forward we still need'. The imagery of a Chinese-style bikeocracy was not accidental. The White Paper has been described as the document that will literally pave the way for the future of transport in Britain, by downgrading the car and prioritising cycling and walking.

The White Paper is the result of months of consultation with interested and expert opinion, ranging from road hauliers to pedestrians, trainspotters to train operators. All of the contributions were accepted gratefully by the government for fear of offending any particular transport interest. In return, most lobbyists have fallen into line and accepted the White Paper. At the end of it all, John Prescott could plausibly boast that 'this is a White Paper that everyone can agree with'.

What does the White Paper offer? Not a lot, in short. The final delay in publication was to incorporate the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which allocated only a limited budget to the highway mainten- ance programme, and confirmed that there was no public money available for major new transport initiatives for the foreseeable future. Yet it has been widely welcomed because there is a broad acceptance of the prejudices which underpin the proposals - specifically the prejudice against the motor car. The need to reduce reliance on the private car is the unquestioned assumption that runs through the whole document. Self-confessed 'petrol head' Quentin Wilson, of BBC TV's Top Gear, proclaimed that 'nobody can disagree that we have to do something about reducing the car', but complained that the proposals were being introduced too hastily. A curious criticism of such an overdue document, but if that's the level of criticism from a motoring magazine, no wonder the principle that car use is a problem is firmly established.

Hardly anybody demands more road infrastructure any more, since they accept the argument of the Standing Advisory Committee for Trunk Road Assessment (Sactra) - that more roads would inevitably result in more cars using them. Leaving aside the old-fashioned viewpoint that this was the very reason to build roads in the first place, acceptance of the Sactra position means conceding that we cannot build ourselves out of congestion. And if the 'natural' limits of road space are given, then any relief to traffic density can only be achieved by reducing pressure at source; that is, by using the roads less. This is the philosophy behind the government's slashing of road bypass proposals one week after the White Paper was published.

Everybody is puzzling over why Britain, with fewer cars per head than most European countries, has greater car usage than the rest of Europe. It seems obvious to me. Most of Europe is known to have a well-funded, integrated, smooth and efficient public transport network, which allows people a choice. Surveys show that people drive so much in this country because alternative modes of transport are unsatisfactory. Yet now the government not only refuses to invest in public transport, it is also rejects new road building.

Insisting that the White Paper is not anti-car, John Prescott said that 'Mondeo man can breathe a sigh of relief'. At one level this is ridiculous: the White Paper holds the car responsible for everything from children's lethargy to adult heart disease, from climate change to community breakdown, while the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) report argues that people should be 'cajoled' to travel less by private car. And lest we forget, measures have already been introduced to drive motorists off the road.

At another level, however, Prescott has a point: instead of simple anti-car policies, we now have a fully-fledged anti-transport policy. On closer inspection the White Paper is questioning whether we should travel at all. In the initial consultation paper the question was posed, 'what can we do to reduce people's need to travel?'. In the White Paper's response, the DETR states that we need to assess whether our trip is necessary in the first place. There is little guidance on what 'unnecessary travel' is, but there are plenty of clues: trips to the local shop, the school run, trips that you could have shared with others, etc. If our trip is unavoidable, we should consider doing it without the car, preferably by cycling and walking. It is bad enough to have an integrated transport document that marginalises one section of the travelling public, the car user. But to publish an integrated transport document that marginalises the concept of travelling...

At root the debate is not about transport policy at all, but about social policy. It is about encouraging responsible citizenry through the medium of transport. Britain's roads are in crisis, we are told, and in partnership with New Labour we can all lend a hand. The Dunkirk-style rhetoric culminates in John Prescott's disingenuous remark that 'we are not asking for great sacrifices', while enjoining us to do our bit and walk to work.

Indeed, the DETR Walking Steering Group (I kid you not) recently explained that 'benefits flow to both individuals and to society when people walk'. Walking is 'conducive to neighbourliness and social interaction, thereby helping turn places into communities'. The White Paper itself states that it wants transport to 'help to make a fairer, more inclusive society...(to) tackle social exclusion and improve neighbourhood management'. Professor Philip Goodwin, chair of the advisers to the White Paper, has set his sights even higher, likening the reduction in the car to the abolition of slavery. Cyclists of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Keen to build on the unity of purpose generated by the enthusiastic participation in the consultation process, the DETR has announced at least nine other separate consultative documents on transport that we can all get our teeth into, from 'Road safety' to 'Bus re-regulation'. The process of consult-ation, it seems, is everything, the outcome irrelevant. Everybody will have an opinion, everybody will be encouraged to participate and everybody will be happy to have been asked. The fact that nothing will have improved as a result seems to have passed the transport groups by.

A recent article by the Policy Studies Institute's Mayer Hillman emphasised the 'vital importance of walking within any transport strategy', concluding that transport policy 'should be dedicated to enabling and encouraging people to lead more of their lives within their local communities'. A report from the Chartered Institute of Transport argues that government must persuade people 'to change both their current methods of filling their time and also their cultural symbols', so that children are not raised to believe 'that to do anything means to go out, and to go anywhere means to travel by car'. It seems the purpose of transport policy into the next century should be to create a situation where people don't travel outside their own parochial boundaries, if at all.

This is the biggest indictment of transport policy at the end of the millennium; a policy that encourages parish-pump values instead of broadening horizons, celebrates physical exertion over engineering, and tells us not to travel at all unless absolutely un-avoidable. As we say in Newcastle, 'I've seen the future...and it walks'. [Try it in a Geordie accent - ed.]

Austin Williams is coordinator of the Transport Research Group

Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998

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