Do we need more transport or less?

The fundamental question that governments, both local and national, are never able to answer is whether they want more transport or less of it. Remember Prescott’s promise in his ten year plan published in 2000 that rail journeys would increase by 50 per cent over the next decade. Well, that’s one politician’s target that has been met but so what. Its effect on road congestion is imperceptible and while the trains are now fuller and less comfortable, the subsidy to the train companies and Network Rail is far higher than it was then.
What exactly has that increase achieved and, in any case, what government policy has contributed to it, apart from GDP growth. After all, regulated fares have been rising for the past six years at RPI plus one per cent, hardly an encouragement to travel by rail.
In truth, the question about whether society would benefit from more or less transport is one that I find difficult to answer and couch my reply in terms of what transport we are talking about. Some may be a good thing, while some may not, but it is a very difficult area. Clearly stag nights in Cracow by plane are not to be encouraged but what if your football team is playing there? It is tough for politicians to make hard and fast statements in this regard, but I think it is time that they started examining these issues in a coherent way.
While, broadly, train travel can be encouraged provided the alternative is less environmentally sustainable, aviation is so unequivocally damaging that it seems remarkable that any politician claiming Green credentials can support its continued expansion. However, the mode that really paralyses the politicians’ brains is the car. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the car scrappage schemes which have spread around Europe far faster than swine flu, with 12 countries adopting them, and several more considering it.
Why on earth are these countries encouraging more cars on to already overcrowded roads with all the consequent congestion and carbon emission? The pretence is that this is a Green measure because new cars are less environmentally damaging but even the government does not emphasise this side of the scheme very much, knowing that the argument can be shot down as easily as Obama swats flies.
So, instead, in a recent press release claiming that 60,000 cars had been purchased through the scheme, No 10 boasted that it helped not only ‘hard pressed consumers’ but protected ‘British jobs by stimulating demand for new cars’.
Oh God, this is such crass economic dyslexia that one wonders how on earth the man ran the economy for a decade. First, as Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson must know, while cars are assembled in the UK, most of the value is created elsewhere and therefore subsidising the purchase of new motor vehicles is, at best, of marginal value to the British economy, though many Korean and Japanese workers must have put the pair on their Xmas card list.
Secondly, while there will be a small environmental benefit, the £2,000 of government money that the replacement of each old car costs is a poor investment. The cost of every tonne of carbon saved through this measure is far higher than if it were spent on any other environmental measure from roof insulation to funding new technologies for Green energy.
As an aside, I am not sure I trust the government figures anyway. Is 60,000 credible? Who on earth trades in a ten year old car to buy a new one? Like most people I have never bought a new car in my life since it loses a fifth or more of its value when you drive out of the showroom and people who have cars a decade or more old are likely to be of similar mien. I no longer possess a car but my girl friend’s is an N Reg, but we have no plans to claim our £2,000.
Transit magazine points out, too, that if Gordon Brown really wanted to keep automotive jobs in Britain, he would have spent the money on supporting the purchase of new fleets of buses, many of which are still genuinely manufactured, as opposed to assembled, in the UK. It is a good point but does not go far enough. The scrappage scheme money could have supported a wide range of transport measures which, again, would have been far more environmentally beneficial.
Surely, the time has come for politicians to begin to say something like: ‘Actually folks, the act of driving cars is so damaging, not just in terms of CO2 emissions but also in relation to the built environment, using up a scarce resource, the countryside, the health of the population and so on that we are sorry but we are going to have to try to shift many of you out of your cars and onto other methods of transport, or even suggest that you do not make the journey at all.’ Poor old John Prescott was naïve enough to make a promise along these lines in his early days as Secretary of State for Transport (and many other things) and was never allowed to live it down by the media or transport professionals.
The truth is that we have got a few years before these decisions are going to be taken out of the hands of politicians and made by the market in any case. When we reach peak oil, there will be a catastrophic rise in the price of fuel that will end up determining who can travel through the price mechanism, as was starting to happen last year. It would be better for the politicians to begin to consider the implications of this, rather than merely pouring money down the throats of new car owners in order to maintain a status quo that we all know is doomed.

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