Election manifestos fail to address transport issues

The most depressing aspect of transport policy is that most of the solutions are known but that politicans will not or cannot implement them. This is all too apparent at election time as transport slips down the political agenda and gets barely a mention in the hustings.

Evidence of what needs to be done to improve the situation appears with great regularity. No one is suggesting that congestion and other transport problems can be solved overnight, but at least we could be. The front page of Local Transport Today recently (March 31 2005) had two interesting articles next to each other. The first one reported on the fact that according to the Department for Transport’s own projections, improvements in fuel efficiency and expected falls in fuel prices meant that motoring costs in real terms (i.e. discounting inflation) between 2000 and 2010 would fall by 23-29 per cent. Is it surprising, therefore, that the roads are crowded?

The second article focuses on research by the Commission for Integrated Transport set up but never listened to by the Labour government. The work, by consultants MVA, point out that better public transport on its own is not enough to reduce traffic problems, since the space vacated by those using buses, trains and trams is taken up by new motorists. It gives the example of Zurich and Dublin, where good public transport has not solved the congestion crisis. Only in London, Barcelona, Rome and Singapore which have implemented improvements in public transport along with efforts to deter driving into the city centre has there been a reduction in car use. In other words, modal shift needs both a carrot and stick approach.

None of this message seems to have got through to Gordon Brown. While it may have been a bit optimistic to expect him to soak the motorist in his pre election Budget, he could, at least, have put higher vehicle exercise duty on the fuel guzzling monstrosities which are increasingly filling up London’s streets. That could have been tax neutral by lowering the duty on smaller cars. And meanwhile, the Treasury, infuriated by soaring rail costs refuses to sanction any enhancements on the railways.

Nor will any of the party manifestos for the forthcoming election even hint at addressing the fundamental iniquity – that public transport costs are rising faster than those for motoring and that therefore, thanks to the basic laws of economics, there will be more people seeking to use Britain’s already overcrowded roads. And, given the fall in the real cost of motoring, people are travelling more and more, often on quite unnecessary journeys, simply because it is so cheap.

In the same issue of LTT, the veteran transport adviser, Sir Christopher Foster, who has had a mixed career given he was responsible both for cost benefit analysis methodology and rail privatisation, says something very relevant: ‘I despair of politicians for their lack of drive. I would love to see a transport policy that I could admire championed by someone who could carry some conviction in what they say.’

It ain’t going to happen, Sir C. As John Cleese once pointed out, its not failure that is the problem, but the desperate hope that things will still be OK. On transport policy, we need not worry. There is very rarely any hope of a better tomorrow.