Formulating an ethical transport policy

Transport is something that we all need but nobody wants. This poses a fundamental question for the state: should it encourage more transport, which after all increases GDP and economic growth, or should it attempt to limit the use of transport because of its damaging environmental effects?

Ever since coming to power, the Blair government has never addressed this issue. Indeed, transport has been a no go policy zone. New Labour has generally opted for the easier option – let’s have more roads, rail passengers, airports – without any attempt to address the problems and contradictions of this policy.

It has not all been bad. There have been some sensible initiatives like the ten-year plan for transport and commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but these have been far outweighed by policies that entrench the existing emphasis on car travel, such as the continued subsidy of company cars and a continued big roads programme.

Moreover, moves during the first years of Blair’s administration towards a more environmentally friendly transport policy have now been reversed. Any attempt at joined up thinking in the early days when there was talk of an integrated transport policy, whatever that is, has long been abandoned. Environment and Transport were originally reunited by Labour in 1997, but then split again in 2001 with little explanation of how this would help the development of a long term strategy that balances the needs of these two potentially conflicting policy areas.

Take the sustainable communities initiative. The name sounds good but there has been precious little demonstration of how the thousand of new homes to be built in various corners of the overcrowded south east would, in any way, be sustainable. There has been, for example, little liaison between the Strategic Rail Authority, which determines long term rail policy (although it is in the process of being abolished), and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is in charge of planning.

Transport has been the area in which the two first Blair governments least exerted themselves. There are good short-term political reasons for this. Transport is a long-term issue that delivers little in the lifetime of a politician. Order a shiny new underground line today, and some other bugger, possibly of a rival party, will open it.

Moreover, there is the huge 500 lb gorilla squatting permanently in the corner: the motorists and their ever vocal supposed representatives, who are ready to pounce on anything perceived to damage their interests. The most dispiriting aspect of the recent election was the fact that the Tories vowed to end ‘Labour’s war on the motorist’. If only there had been one!

Transport policy solutions are usually seen in terms of big projects – a north–south rail link, more motorway lanes, new airport runways and the like. They are usually couched in terms of helping business and boosting the economy rather than simply allowing people to travel more, a tacit recognition perhaps that ‘more transport’ is not in itself a desirable political end. Of course a rational transport policy should have, as its principal aim, facilitating people getting around. But it cannot be just that. It has to recognise, at its core, the environmental damage caused by transport.

The key problem for anyone attempting to develop a coherent policy around these goals is that they are fundamentally contradictory. With the exception of cycling and walking (and those rare beasts, windmill driven cars), there is no such thing as a sustainable form of transport. All travel by mechanised means is damaging to the environment: it’s just some, like using a 4×4 to take children to school, is more harmful than others, like hopping on a Tube train with a thousand other people.

For the moment technological solutions like fuel cells from wind-generated electricity are too far off to be considered in the debate. Therefore the starting point for any ethical transport policy ought to be the notion that travel should be reduced. Politically, though, until the effects of global warming become so apparent that a real feeling of crisis develops, this seems impossible to implement. Moreover, the involvement of the private sector in providing such a large proportion of public transport means that a goal of reducing demand will be fiercely opposed by commercial interests.

So, instead we have complete contradictory policy initiatives from the government. On the one hand, Tony Blair says that environmental issues, particularly global warming, are the greatest threat facing humanity, while on the other we have an airports policy that is designed to encourage and perpetuate the ridiculously low fares that have led to such a massive growth in passengers and flights. We have positive statements about Kyoto and meeting targets by both 2015 and 2050, and yet lots of detailed decisions by government seem to ignore these aims completely, the most obvious being the refusal to raise fuel taxes in recent budgets with the result that motoring costs, in real terms, are actually less now than they were twenty years ago, a ridiculous basis for a transport policy. The very fact that fuel tax is not seen as part of transport policy but as merely a fiscal measure demonstrates the lack of coherent thinking on this issue. Yet, when the fuel tax escalator was introduced by the Tories in the early 1990s, there was a definite slowdown in the rate of traffic growth.

These contradictions are hardly surprising given they go to the core of political and economic policy. Transport growth is a side effect of economic growth and decoupling the two is a holy grail that no government has managed to find. Even solutions that attempt to stimulate a mass transfer to public transport are not as necessarily as environmentally sustainable as their supporters would have us believe. New public transport infrastructure requires considerable resources, as well as ongoing financial subsidy, and may well stimulate people to travel longer distances than they might otherwise. Providing extra commuter services into London along the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link is a good example. Not only will these high speed trains gobble up a lot of energy, but their very existence will encourage people to move further out of London and live in Ashford and the surrounding area, ensuring a 100-mile round trip daily commute. There are very good reasons in terms of regeneration to support such projects, but that, in a way, is nothing to do with transport policy.

During the first term of the Blair government, John Prescott announced a policy of trying to increase rail passenger numbers by 50 per cent but without any explanation as to why this was desirable. Such a target only makes sense if it involves a modal shift away from cars, not merely an increase in all travel. Yet Blair’s current transport secretary, Alistair Darling, specifically eschews such attempts at modal shift. When asked whether rail travel should be encouraged compared with domestic aviation, which is far more polluting, he said it was not up to the government to attempt to encourage people to use one mode or another.

That is patent nonsense and highlights the starting point of a more ethical transport policy. The core aim has to be to reduce demand for environmentally damaging forms of transport. The only framework in which politicians could realistically express such a policy would be by winning the public over to the notion that the issue of climate change and global warming require a radical approach and hard choices. We may not yet be at the stage where we could have a Second World War type advertising campaign with posters and TV advertising asking ‘Is your journey really necessary?’, but we may be getting there and as a start the government has to begin to articulate seriously the danger we face. It is possible to create a climate in which increasing transport use is seen as a problem rather than a goal

A policy shift does not have to be a big bang approach that is so painful it would representelectoral suicide. In the short term, there are countless small measures which can begin to set out this new approach. They range from requiring – not just asking – local authorities to adopt policies that are tailored to encourage cycling and walking in their areas to creating planning rules that have transport minimisation at their heart. In short, the whole gamut of transport policies of local authorities, who are important deliverers of transport measures, must be tailored to a genuinely sustainable agenda. Indeed, reducing the overall demand for transport is the key to any ethical policy. Again, politically this is not easy to sell. You can imagine the Daily Mail headlines ‘Cheap holiday flights threat’ or ‘They want to stop you going on hols’.

But ultimately there is no choice except for the government to use its ability to influence the market through pricing. It is ridiculous that it is cheaper to run a small car than use public transport. Or that Andy, my young teacher friend, can afford to fly to Dubai for his half-term holiday. Indeed, the cost of public transport relative to that of motoring has risen every year since the fuel tax escalator was abolished by Gordon Brown four years ago.

The government is not a passive bystander unable to influence the market. For a government that believes in responding to signals from the market it is strange how little ministers seem unwilling to want to mechanisms to influence it, such as taxing motorists more or encouraging rail travel. How come after two full years of a supposedly environmentally conscious government, we still do not have anything like a graduated road tax fund licence that rewards drivers of Corsa’s and penalises owners of 4x4s?

Through pricing mechanisms, the government can make bus travel more attractive, encourage rail use, and charge more for car users, particularly those using congested roads. Indeed, that is the one positive area where some brave thinking has been taking place. The only exciting development in transport policy during Labour’s tenure has been the congestion charge introduced by Ken Livingstone while he was in exile from the party. But to his credit Alistair Darling, the present Transport Secretary, has demonstrated real commitment to the policy but in trying to cobble together a consensus on the issue, as promised in the manifesto, he is being far too cautious. A fiscally neutral road pricing policy is merely a device to reduce congestion, not a way of trying to stimulate a modal shift, nor of addresssing environmental issues. Trying to enlist the support of the Tories, the party that had promising to abandon the ‘war on the motorist’ as virtually its only election manifesto promise on transport is never going to result in the sort of taxation system that will even begin to deal with the environmental problems caused by transport.

A universal road pricing scheme would be the start of an ethical transport policy by allocating road space more fairly. The argument that higher taxes on transport discriminate against poorer people has always been fatuous. Of course, it is unfortunate that some relatively less well off people will pay less, but that is how the market operates, and there is no suggestion that we should all be able to own Rolex watches or live in six-bedroom houses. Market mechanisms are the chosen weapon of our politicians for most of their policies, so why should transport and the environment be an exception? Moreover, road pricing is probably, in most circumstances, a progressive form of taxation. Poorer households tend not to own cars and use public transport, which can be subsidised from the proceeds.

But the issue of how road charging affects the poor highlights the other requirement of a more ethical transport policy: social inclusion. This is difficult because of the problem of targetting financial support. Until now, subsidies have been concentrated on services rather than users. David Begg, the chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport, has suggest that instead of giving train and bus companies money to run services, it could be possible to subsidise the user directly through smart card technology. This opens a whole can of worms that is beyond the scope of this article, but shows that there are some potentially very exciting ideas using new technology.

While waiting for the adoption of universal road pricing, there is a myriad of little things that can be done which would add up to the beginnings of a more ethical transport policy. None of them are rocket science. The most depressing aspect of having written about transport policy for over a decade is that much of what needs to be done is well known and has been implemented somewhere in the world. It is a matter of trying to achieve the achievable, because then the unachievable may happen. What is required, especially in a small country like the UK, is to bring all these ideas together, presenting them in the context of a global emergency which needs addressing. Such a strategy would represent the beginnings of an ethical transport policy.

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