Please learn from our mistakes

One of the really dispiriting things about the politics of transport is the failure of other countries to learn from our mistakes. Right before our eyes, we are seeing countries with rapid economic growth in the Far East repeat the same pattern of car dependence that has caused us so much grief in Europe.

Now the same thing is happening in Europe, encouraged by our very own European Union. A timely report from a pan-European pressure group, CEE Bankwatch, ( highlights how, far from concentrating on environmentally-friendly methods of transport, the European Union’s aid programme to central and eastern European countries is focussed on building roads, some of which appear to be completely unnecessary.

The programme, worth £5billion annually, is being spent on a wide range of projects from sewage treatment to business support, but a large chunk is concentrated on beefing up the transport infrastructure. However, rather than investing in railways, many of which until recently carried a high proportion of freight, the EU’s programme is focussed on motorways and other major road construction.

Bankwatch points out that in Croatia, for example, 38 percent of the national transport budget is currently being used to build motorways. Yet, according to Marijan Galovic of the local campaign Green Action ‘many of Croatia’s existing motorways are under-used. This approach leads to reduced maintenance for local and regional roads and railways that serve the public better than the construction of new transit highways.’

The funding is predicated on the notion that building motorways result in increased economic development. But numerous studies have shown this is by no means always the case – good highway connections can encourage the outflow of people and investment as well as attracting it. And, of course, there are the environmental consequences of road transport.

In towns, too, the same mistake is being made. Instead of supporting public transport schemes, EU money is going into motorways and ring roads. Public transport networks in several major cities have also been allowed to decline, as a result of lack of investment. For example, in Budapest, municipal subsidies to the public transport company were reduced by two thirds between 1990 and 2000 with the obvious result that higher fares led to greater car use and increased traffic.

Amazingly, according to Bankwatch, thanks to car-oriented investment, the number of vehicles per person is already higher in the Czech Republic and Slovenia than in one of Europe’s richest countries, Denmark which has long had a transport policy focused on public transport and, in urban areas, cycling.

The worst aspect of this is that there is now going to be a massive expansion of these type of projects into countries adjoining the EU. A very little known programme, the TEN-T Extension, (Trans European Network Extension) has identified 62 short-medium term projects and 16 longer-term projects, worth a total of worth £30bn which it is earmarking for investment. Again, the focus is on motorways, many going through environmentally sensitive areas and several projects have very low financial rates of return. Moreover, there is little data about these schemes and they are being put forward by countries not as part of any coherent transport strategy but simply because the money is available. Yet, a recent report by the body assessing schemes, the High Level Group appears happy to endorse them.

In other words, not only are we encouraging other countries to follow our failed model of transport investment, but we are actually paying for them to make the same mistakes. Indeed, if in Britain we had the chance to start again with car usage levels of the 1950s, would we really have the same balance in infrastructure investment between roads and public transport? And we would not have a whole series of measures to ensure that cyclists and pedestrians were given far more priority? Yet, our money is being used to support policies which clearly are going to result in the same problems we are enduring.