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.

  • Pingback: | Christian Wolmar: Do we need more transport, or less?()

  • Aviation can expand and reduce CO2 emissions through re-investing revenue to develop cleaner aircraft and operations (the average aircraft in operation today is as fuel-efficient as a hybrid car) see and more specifically

    As a representative of new technology the Airbus A380 superjumbo (a third of which including the engines is made in the UK) in standard configuration does 100 passenger km on 3 litres of fuel, a hybrid car does it on 4. It also produces less perceived noise at take-off than you experience inside a London Underground train. See

    On aviation and the environment there are two sides to the story.

  • Chris Sharp

    Matthew, you’re comparing a fuel efficient plane with a fuel efficient car. Christian on the other hand is suggesting that it’s time that politicians tell us to stop using cars and planes.

    There may be two sides to a story, but in this case you are simply telling a different story.

  • Kippers

    A very good point, Mr Wolmar. Is the objective mobility or access? We seem to have found ourselves in a situation where we are moving about more and more, but have more difficulty is accessing the places that we need to go to. The location of trading estates and shops and hospitals, for example, is taken without consideration of how far they are away from where people live and whether they can be realistically served by public transport: it is then said that people are travelling more so they must be better off. Not necessarily: they are simply spending more time travelling to the places that used to be nearby.

  • The car scrappage schemes aren’t there to encourage more cars onto the roads, but to encourage the *removal of old cars* from the roads. The older the car, the more profligate it tends to be with fuel, and the dirtier the engine. It’s a 1:1 exchange: you give up your old rustbucket and get a newer, leaner, more efficient one in its place.

    (Granted, it’s also a way to encourage money to flow around stagnant economies again, as well as a sop to the national car manufacturing industries, but that’s not germane to the article.)

    From an environmental perspective, it could be argued this is a win-win, as long as you ignore the fact that merely building and transporting new cars to their destinations is rarely taken into account.

    Incidentally, the lifetime of rolling stock and infrastructure is another element in rail’s favour: few people use the same car for 30-40 years. Only air travel expects a similar lifetime for its vehicles.

    As for the costs: our rail network costs a mint because it was built piecemeal by a bunch of short-termist corporate interests, nationalised, privatised again, then buggered about with every ten minutes by every passing government and its ministers.

    I’d love to know why it’s considered a legal and moral obligation to fit every damned piece of public infrastructure with “step free” access—regardless of cost—for the disabled when the mobility impaired form a tiny, tiny minority in the UK. I don’t see us building prayer rooms for the far greater number of Muslims. Nor do I see braille timetables displayed at every station.

    The disabled already get “Motability” subsidies for modified cars. Why not just make it a 100% subsidy and be done with it? After all, if the electric car does take off, there’d no longer be any issues with emissions. And it means we can get more infrastructure improvements done for the money, encouraging more able-bodied people off the roads.

    There’s a shocking lack of holistic design and planning in government. Not that I expect anything else, but some of these problems are so bleedin’ obvious, it’s amazing some of their perpetrators ever managed to learn how to breathe.

  • Postscript: I’m aware that lifts aren’t only of use to those in wheelchairs, but this seems to be their main raison d’être. People carrying shopping or luggage can use stairs or escalators just fine. (Or go by car or minicab instead.)

    The US made a number of mistakes by slavishly following a “zoning” model, which has resulted in vast residential districts without so much as a corner shop. (Need a pint of milk? Get in your car and make a 10-mile round trip!)

    The UK has, in many ways, duplicated the same problems in building places like Bluewater, which is so far from the nearest railway station it needed to build a new road with dedicated bus lanes to serve it. (If Crossrail ever does get extended to Gravesend, they could do a lot worse than run it via Bluewater. Add some more car parking spaces and you get a nice park-and-ride station which can serve the nearby towns, as well as giving much easier access to the place via public transport.)

    Every planner assumes walking is free, that everyone owns a car, and that a 165-year-old railway line built to cope with steam locomotives that could barely hit 50 mph. should never, ever need realignment to remove all the sharp curves and kinks. Yet the road lobby has seen deviations, bypasses, road widening schemes and entire motorways built for much the same reasons for decades now.

    Bah! I’m off to kick something.

  • Dan

    People seem to travel ‘because they can’ although an interesting concept is the way that the cost of product distribution is switched (with the seemingly willing agreement of the consumer) from the producer / retailer to the buyer.

    Take supermarkets – once upon a time (probably up to about early 1970s) your food and goods were distributed to a range of small shops in walking distance of your home (and pre electricity you could not store much food either), a household member shopped regularly and had to walk to the shops in all urban environments. The cost of this distribution was met by the reatiler / producer – and built into the price of the commodity.

    Now you have one big shop serving a vast area, and you have to drive to get there in many cases. The cost has been transferred to the consumer as they have to take more time to get to the shop, and they have to go out and buy a delivery vehicle to get the goods (a car)! Shop sells stuff cheaper as a result – but the whole cost to the consumer is higher as you have to run a car (that you can then use for other things, like days out or so you can live far away from your work).

    Then, and here’s the irony – the supermarket is often built on the site of the old railway goods depot or sidings that once served the town, and from which delivery vehicles once took the products to the local markets, shops and neighbourhood high streets where you could buy the stuff. Self same high streets of course are now very run down, empty shops and an eyesore in many urban areas.

    The car, of course, has been a big contributor to the ‘inner city problem’ in this analysis – allowing people to ‘escape’ such areas to new build green field areas – without it, these areas would have been regenerated by the money of more prosperous occupants (as happens in a few urban areas where living close in has to be a serious option for some well off people – parts of London would apply, but for most more moderate sized urban areas this is not applicable).

  • Dan, I think I agree with you.

    In answer to Christian’s article, I think the problem is that we should perhaps be a little more open to new and innovative forms of transport, instead of relying on technologies which generally date back at least 70 years (air) and more (car and rail).

    For example, I know “monorail” is still considered a vulgar swear word in the west, but the Asians seem to be rather fond of it. As an alternative to traditional rails embedded in roads, it seems to offer a number of advantages in a city such as London, which has little enough road space as it is. Another element is that, since you have to put up OHLE infrastructure for trams anyway, you can also save a lot of time and construction costs by hanging the train from the same bit of civil engineering it gets its traction power from.

    The Wuppertal Schwebebahn, which is basically a monorail light rail line, was doing just this in the 1890s—contemporary with the earliest sections of the Northern Line. (It is Germany’s equivalent of a “listed” structure, which is why it retains its original over-engineered qualities. Later monorails are safer and far less visually intrusive.)

    This modular approach to building a transport network has already been used by the later DLR extensions—particularly on the City Airport branch—where the formation was pretty much prefabricated in sections, transported, and installed almost entirely mechanically. The obvious next step is to prefabricate *all* the ancillary infrastructure—signalling, ducting, power transmission, etc.—and not just the railway line itself.

    Another interesting development is the ULTra PRT system being built at Heathrow. Such a system might be of interest in rural districts where a traditional rail service serving the area doesn’t make sense: use an ULTra installation to bring the residents to trains for long-distance travel, and to replace personal transport—i.e. cars—for shorter journeys.

    Personal Rapid Transit can be more efficient than buses as it’s effectively an on-demand service. The vehicles would only be moving when they were needed, rather than carting air around every 30 minutes or so. The tyranny of the timetable—one of the biggest problems with public transport outside urban areas—ceases. (Within urban areas, vehicles / trains become so frequent as to make timetables irrelevant.) Also, there are some cost savings due to the lack of drivers, so you can effectively run it 24 / 7.

    If rail is to have any kind of future at all, it needs to be cheaper to build, run and maintain. I’m increasingly of the opinion that traditional rail might never achieve this goal. Which would be a shame as mass-produced electric cars may be just around the corner. And once those come out, all the arguments regarding inefficient internal combustion engines will no longer apply.

    In short, we don’t necessarily need “more” transport. We need *smarter* transport. Rail can be a part of the solution, but it cannot be the whole of it. We need to consider how people get to and from the stations at either end too. If we do not, rail will fail.

  • Peter

    Of course the real aim of car ‘scrappage’ was never to save the envirnment at all, but to help out the government’s mates in big business (and the unions), who built loads of cars that no one wanted.

    They might just as well have handed them fat cheques direct rather than go through all the rigmarole of destroying numerous perfectly serviceable vehicles.

    The fact that so much money was found for this scheme while rolling stock orders were cancelled and rail projects not pursued tells us all we need to know about this regime’s transport policies.

  • Dave Radcliffe

    When discussing rail, one important point is being overlooked, although touched on by one commentator – freight.

    Seeing a freight train (“goods trains” we called them when I was kid) on the UK Rail network is a rarity. Yet our motorways and ‘A’ roads are choked with convoys of lorries overtaking each other at 50 and 50.01mph.

    How a government could economically or morally propose and endorse a regime whereby 100 lorry-loads of goods require 100 lorries and 100 drivers, instead of 1 train and 1 driver escapes me. Unless of course it was to support their very generous friends in the RHA.

    The crooked Thatcher administration did more damage to our rail network than Dr. Beeching ever could have. Having closed many lines, they then sold the land to Supermarkets to buld upon, ensuring the lines never get re-instated. I’ve got news for them… supermarkets can be demolished (and re-built elsewhere).

    We need to undo this damage, and get freight back on rail. It HAS to move (no-one could disagree with that), so lets move it efficiently. That will start to reduce road congestion (and wear) so helps there too.