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Transport and its discontents

Critics of the UK government’s roads policy say nothing radical, new...or even critical.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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UK transport secretary Alistair Darling may have announced yet another alleged U-turn on transport, by intending to build more roads (1) – but the reality is rather different.

Once again, the straightforward announcement of the annual spend set down, some three years ago, in the 10-year transport plan, is interpreted by sections of the media and lobbyists as some kind of Road to Damascus conversion to the merits of the car.

Meanwhile, a couple of ‘independent’ assessments on the UK transport sector have just been published in an attempt to reveal the truth about government transport policy – and each has been feted as a radical new criticism of the government’s actual performance measured against its pledges. But these reports contain nothing radical, the ideas aren’t exactly new…and, to add insult to injury, they are not even critical. If these are the government’s worst critics on transport, we can expect the chaos and misery to carry on and on.

The Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) review of the government’s 10-year transport plan (2) is, so far as some sections of the media go, a damning indictment of the transport strategy’s failure ‘on delivery and as a solution to congestion’. In fact, the majority of the criticisms lack substance and simply reinforce the concerns of British industry that the state of UK transport is not good enough to help with efficient trade practices, or to increase the profitability of UK businesses. Nothing new there, it seems.

But this paper does carry a different tone to previous bleats by the bosses’ union that more investment is needed in delivery mechanisms. What’s changed is that the CBI does not appear to be convinced by the validity of its own criticism, and certainly does not seem to think that any change for the better is possible. When its press release states that the ‘[transport] plan is behind schedule and, even if completed, it won’t now reduce congestion but abandoning it would be worse’, this is equivalent to saying that the government’s proposals are rubbish, but it’s all we have.

The CBI report is a fairly anodyne document, which shouldn’t cause concern to any reasonably confident government. But the government isn’t even reasonably confident if it cannot take the kind of criticism levelled by the CBI, which contains such barbs as insisting that the level of funding that has already been pledged should be sustained, or that ministers should continue to back the transport plan.

These are not criticisms so much as restatements of government policy – there is no evidence that the government is planning to alter the agreed funding levels substantially, nor are there any suggestions that majority all-party backing for transport is waning. The report therefore reads like an advisor telling the government to show resolve – to keep its pecker up – rather than a challenge to its policy. Phrases like ‘progress in delivering transport improvements has been very disappointing’ is hardly the stuff of major complaint.

The CBI’s critical overview touches on all of modes of transport, but all are incidental to the central issue of car-based transport. In anticipation of the better researched and slightly more scathing report by the Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT), it says that in terms of road policy, decisions should be taken more quickly; for rail, more money is needed; airports need a long-term policy framework; and shipping ports need additional capacity.

The report ends with calls for the government to focus on delivering real improvements in the short term – for solutions that can show quicker returns and thus keep businesses and customers happy. But road policy decisions, for instance, that can be turned around and implemented quickly tend to be, by definition, non-infrastructural ones. So, recognising this, it makes a call for more restraint. Lo and behold, the report recommends the old chestnuts of:

More congestion charging (to reduce the numbers on the road). Coincidentally (or not), transport minister Alistair Darling has just announced the roll-out of a feasibility study into the congestion charging issue (3);

Utilising the hard shoulder (to provide more road space without having to build any more road space); and

Better management of road maintenance teams to minimise disruption (to ease the flow of the reduced traffic levels).

All in all, the CBI seems to be content with measures that simply give the appearance of improvement.

Whereas the CBI have used data from old sources, the report by the Commission for Integrated Transport is more substantive and actually prides itself on being generated from its own research base report (4).

This was the document that we were led to believe was going to be Professor David Begg’s swansong. Begg, chairman of the CfIT, was reported to have fallen out with government ministers over his condemnation of the state of Britain’s transport networks. He has been praised for his integrity for committing what was widely anticipated as professional suicide in order to defend our transport system (5).

This report is certainly critical, but of the 17 targets and indicators in the 10-year plan, the CfIT is happy to announce than 11 have been met – including, for example, the successful reduction in overcrowding on London rail services. Apparently, overcrowding decreased from 5.1 percent to five percent. Apart from the fact that this smacks of the redefinition of overcrowding that London Underground chiefs tried to sell to a bemused transport committee earlier this year (6), defining a drop of 0.1 percent as a success is scraping the barrel a little.

The most interesting aspect of the report is the clear redefinition of ‘mobility’ in favour of ‘accessibility’. Mobility is defined as ‘freedom of movement prioritised above other objectives’, whereas accessibility is defined as ‘the ability to interact socially, to work or make use of goods and services, while reducing the dependency on the car’.

Admittedly, the report goes on to state that this should be done by better ‘land-use planning, availability of better services and making better use of the existing capacity’. But while this sounds ambitious and far-reaching, in effect it amounts to: Alistair Darling’s congestion charge initiative; the CBI’s three-point plan; and the recent Independent Transport Commission (ITC) treatise, which suggests that ‘the only effective way of achieving a sustained cut in congestion appears to be to introduce some road user charging on our busiest roads’ (7).

It seems that we have a little longer to wait to see a meaningful confrontation with government over transport, and a lot longer to wait for established lobbyists and government quangos to do it on our behalf. With every piece of ‘criticism’ compounding the need for greater demand management mechanisms, congestion charging has effectively been given official blessing as the answer to all transport ills.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Get on your bus, by Austin Williams

For whom the road tolls, by Austin Williams

Nothing goes, by Jennie Bristow

(1) ‘More tarmac means more freedom,’ Peter Briffa, The Times, 10 July 2003

(2) ‘Credibility on the Line: Ten Year Plan progress report’, CBI Transport Brief, July 2003

(3) Reported, with some exaggeration as, ‘ministers will this week give the green light to congestion charging across Britain’s entire network’. ‘Congestion charges will come in with £6bn roads expansion’, David Cracknell and Mark Ludlow, Sunday Times, 6 July 2003
; or £7bn scheme to tackle congestion, BBC News, 9 July 2003

(4) Ten Year Transport Plan: Second Assessment Report, Commission for Integrated Transport, 7 July 2003

(5) Darling threatens independent transport adviser, Matthew Tempest, 17 April 2003

(6) ‘Overcrowding in the mind,’ Dick Murray, Evening Standard, 23 January 2003

(7) Transport Pricing: Better for Travellers (.pdf 872 KB), Independent Transport Commission, June 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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