18 June 1997
Pedestrian transport policies
The merging of Britain's Transport and Environment portfolios into a new
super-ministry for John Prescott MP is supposed to be good for the
environment and good for transport.
But, as Austin Williams argues, it is proving to be more to do with
lecturing people about how to live their lives than helping them to get
from A to B
The argument for an integrated transportation system is irresistible. The
idea that we will be able to travel to any point in the country (and
beyond) by bus or train without inconvenience is the stuff of dreams. No
more waiting for hours for your connection, no more rushing for the last
bus, each stage in the journey will be linked by inter-transport nodes for
maximum convenience. Not as adaptable as the motorcar but less stressful
and giving you time to do other things on the journey.
Unfortunately, it remains the stuff of dreams. Transport Secretary, Gavin
Strang MP, argued that it would be foolish to introduce measures for
cheaper, better and more frequent public transportation while we are still
'psychologically wedded' to the motor car. The car, it is argued, is that
ultimate residual statement of Thatcherite individualism. The selfish,
raging motorist, who refuses to car-share represents a mindset which must
be broken if New Labour is to reforge a New Britain. We have to prove
ourselves worthy of public transport - they would have us believe. We must
show Gavin that we can be trusted.
This is "Don't Choke Britain Month", which is intended to make us more
aware of the hazards of pollution, especially that caused by the combustion
engine. Exciting events for your diary include: "National Breathe Easy
Week", "National Bike Week", "National Car-Free Day" and "Walk-to-School
Week". As you can see, the intention is to promote non-car means of getting
from A to B.
Traditionally the motor car has been blamed for pollution, but with air
quality standards higher than they have been for over 15 years and much
better than the famous London smogs of half a century ago, the goalposts
have moved from talking about pollution to talking about congestion.
Instead of concerns about exhaust emissions, it is now argued that the
major threat to our well-being is posed by swathes of tarmacadam destroying
community life. It has apparently taken away "from our children a freedom
to play in the street", according to ex-Transport 2000 chair, Harley
Indeed, under the recently passed "Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997" and its
follow-up "Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Bill", the objectives,
as far as its sponsors in the Green Party and Friends of the Earth are
concerned, are to reclaim the streets for communities; to "encourage or
enable cycling and walking ... [and to] alter planning policies so as to
reduce the need to travel". Public transport does not even figure in the
debate. Instead we are treated to a sermon about selfishness and the
community benefits of the humble bicycle.
"Live the impossible dream:", says National Bike's newspaper, Lifestyle.
"Eat yourself silly, and still lose weight!" "Burn fat, eat well, and live
longer". (As I contemplate my middle-aged spread, I'm sorely tempted to
walk the 400 metres to the chip shop.)
Sustrans, the National Cycle Network has been allocated GBP42.5 million by
the Millennium Commission to construct 6,500 miles of cycleways by 2005.
"The routes now being created will help civilise local communities", says
Jeremy Paxman, patron of Sustrans. Some transport spokesmen have even
floated the idea of jitneys, third world mini-buses crammed with passengers
to the point of overflowing, as an example of community-building social
However, the very nature of the authoritarian social contract that is
involved in this discussion underwrites the cosy imagery of the bucolic
idyll. A number of influential lobby groups already support higher fuel
charges and road-tolling, while Camden Council in north London have
confirmed their plans for no-car tenancies, whereby if you have a car or
subsequently purchase one, you will be liable for eviction for behaving
unsustainably. Newcastle-upon-Tyne is introducing measures to ban cars from
the city altogether. New Labour is happy to listen. It would seem that
slashing the road building programme is a policy of responsible government.
Car drivers will become the Smokers of the New Millennium, banished to the
margins of the city.
If we want to achieve a better transport system we should strive for
investment in better technologies and integrate infrastructural projects so
that they provide decent levels of local services and access to those
services. What we find however, is that there are increasing calls for
constraint barely disguised in the rhetoric of liberty (hypocrisy is the
vice that pays homage to virtue).
"We must reclaim the streets for people", say Transport 2000. "Parking
controls, reduced speed limits, ... and traffic bans can all help." Bans,
prohibitions and penalties. We seem to have come a long way from campaigns
to free up the system.
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