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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 Sherlock.

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 transport.

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.

Austin Williams will be speaking at the urban.futures dayschool on 27th July 1997 at the University of London Union, London W1. Further details are available from on this site.

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