Government needs to show us the alternatives to the car

Rejoice, rejoice, as Mrs Thatcher once said. Oil prices are soaring and therefore so is the cost of petrol at the pumps. A rational transport policy is being created by mistake, rather like the way that the ring of plastic introduced to combat terrorism helped make the City of London a far more pleasant place to work.

The implications of higher fuel prices have yet to be really felt. In a rational world, over the next few months people will try to drive less, car sharing will increase, more cyclists will take to the roads and peaople will be more ready to uses public transport alternatives. Hopefully, if people are really behaving rationally in the long term, there will be a shift to smaller cars and there will be fewer sales of those ridiculous 4 x 4s that terrorise me and all other urban cyclists.

However, we do not live in a rational world at all and many people are ‘car dependent’, as the RAC has put it, jumping into their cars for the most ludicrous journeys. Nevertheless, people do respond to price signals. The only time that the growth in car use slowed for a time was as a result of the fuel tax escalator introduced by the Tories and briefly continued by Labour until it got scared of the motoring lobby.

Now, the market is doing what the politicians did not dare – pushing up fuel prices to a level that more reflects the external costs generated by car use, though with increased fuel efficiency, lower manufacturing costs and a global glut of production capability, motoring still remains cheaper, in real terms, than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, bus fares have risen inexorably over this period and the train tickets are now also rising in response to the soaring costs in the industry. Indeed, a brief glance at these historic trends demonstrates just how far we are from anything like a coherent transport policy and at how muddled government policy has been.

On the one hand, we have had injunctions like those of John Prescott for people to get out of our cars and use buses and trains. And yet his government has allowed the terms of trade between motoring and public transport to favour the former, thereby sending a strong market signal for people to continue jumping in their cars.

The other failing of government has been on the supply side. Given that a fuel crisis at some time was inevitable, where were the preparations to provide the alternatives? The 10 year plan published in 2000 was, at least, an attempt to set out a programme of investment, though a pretty modest one that relied far too heavily on private sector finance. But as I wrote at the time, it contained no real vision on what a rational transport policy might look like.

The present state of our transport infrastructure means that the car remains the only alternative for many journeys. It is no good crying over spilt milk. The government should act on the notion that high fuel prices – and even much higher ones than currently being paid – are a guaranteed feature of the future, and act on that basis.

There is much that can be done. It is no excuse saying that infrastructure takes a lot of time to build and nothing much can be done in the short term. For example, in France the centre-right government is considering a reduction in the speed limit in order to conserve fuel – which will have the welcome side effect of saving many lives in a country addicted to speeding.

In the longer term, not only do we need investment to ensure that there is an alternative to the car, but we need politicians who are prepared to look at ways of decoupling growth in transport from the ever rising standard of living. Now that would be something to rejoice about.

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