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Blaming John Prescott is not the way to solve our traffic problems

Much of public transport is inadequate, yet people will put up with so much to stay in their cars
IF YOU'RE looking for evidence of the adaptability of late-20th- century man, try the tailback of traffic stretching westwards out of London on the dual carriageway A40 between Hammersmith and Park Royal most late weekday afternoons. This stretch of road was to have been turned into motorway, but the present Government shelved the project. But are the drivers palpitating with fury and frustration in their (almost invariably passenger-free) middle-range company Mercedes and Ford Mondeos? No; what's frightening is that so many of them are not.

The levels of pollution generated by all those idling engines through all those exhaust pipes may be awesome. The costs of absurdly long travel times may be doing brutal damage to the economy. But nothing, it seems - not even a two-hour journey that should take 30 minutes - will prise people out of the enveloping comfort of their cars. This, as the millennium approaches, is the ultimate Zen of radial gridlock. (For the orbital version, try the M25.)

It's also, of course, what terrifies politicians. In theory - apart from those aberrant theorists on the right who think that all you need is to cover the landscape with 10-lane motorways and there will be no transport problem - every politician subscribes to the view that urban congestion is a crisis that needs to be solved by changing human behaviour, preferably by turning those motorists into equally happy and resilient commuters. The problem is: how to do it, when much of public transport is woefully inadequate and they are prepared to put up with so much to stay in their cars?

The fact that the present Government is still, after two years, struggling to produce anything that looks remotely like an answer, has now been visited full-frontally, and almost exclusively, on the person of John Prescott. It is, as he himself remarked yesterday, "open season" on the Deputy Prime Minister. In a Select Committee report that crusty grande dame of the old Labour right, Gwyneth Dunwoody - with active encouragement, it is rumoured, from another prominent Labour member of her Committee, Andrew Bennett - complains witheringly that his Department's "achievements have largely been confined to the publication of documents and policy statements and the establishment of task forces".

Time to drag a distinctly unhappy Mr Prescott on to the Today programme for yet another grilling. Then there is an unexpectedly pregnant pause in the long-awaited ministerial reshuffle. "Obviously," mutter the augurs, Tony Blair is trying - despite all the advance signals that he wouldn't - to dismember Mr Prescott's massive department and deprive him of all his favourite ministers. And so on.

If only it were that simple. Mr Prescott certainly hasn't been perfect. To take just one example, his expensive and hybrid solution for the London Underground - a compromise between the Treasury's not unreasonable desire for full privatisation, and the demand of the old left for public money to be poured down the unresisting gullet of one of the worst transport managements anywhere - is looking worryingly like the worst of all worlds. But it wasn't his fault that he didn't get his precious Transport Bill in the last parliamentary session. Or that one of the ideas that he has fought most fiercely for in Whitehall still has to overcome considerable political resistance.

For the big triumph John Prescott has had was to persuade the Treasury to allow local authorities to levy congestion charges and plough them back into public transport. But when will this happen? Downing Street is said to be distinctly nervous of its anti-car implications. The candidates for the London mayoralty are beginning to run scared of the idea. The chances of its even happening before, say, 2002, are slim.

Yet the case for it is strong, as one of the brightest sparks in transport thinking, Professor David Begg, the Prescott-appointed chairman of the independent Commission for Integrated Transport, pointed out to Mrs Dunwoody's committee a fortnight ago. Professor Begg replied, to those who think that merely providing better public transport is a panacea, that doubling its use would be no more than the equivalent of five years' traffic growth. He contrasted Bangkok (unrestricted road access and utter gridlock) with Singapore (road tolls and free-flowing traffic), and in a memorable phrase suggested that the British road system was the "last vestige of Stalinism", using queues rather than prices to ration goods - in this case, road space.

Congestion charges aren't without political risk. But a recent Mori poll shows that 71 per cent favour road pricing if it goes back into public transport, while 75 per cent are against if the money goes to the Treasury. And the problem now is that the Government, as the Tories opportunistically - and blithely ignoring their own past failures - have recognised, may risk the reputation of being seen as anti-car because of its rhetoric, without reaping any of the advantages of doing anything to curb car use.

Moreover, one of the reasons for the Government being seen as anti-car has nothing whatever to do with Mr Prescott. The relentless rise in petrol duty irritates the motoring lobby because it is ploughed back into the general Treasury coffers, and not necessarily into transport. One of Mr Prescott's achievements has been to ensure that congestion charging - if and when it happens - will go straight into public transport, though even then the Treasury has stipulated that this will last for only 10 years.

These are not easy problems. You don't have to be the Iron Chancellor to wince at the prospect of huge public investment on the railways when the cost of the still-badly-delayed Jubilee Line extension is pounds 3.5bn and rising, and the Heathrow Express (built by the private sector) cost pounds 500m and is still struggling to make a profit. For that reason, among others, there is a strong case for the Begg/Prescott view that culture- changing congestion charges are a real way forward.

But even that solution is not without its problems. It is, for a start, regressive, making it much more attractive for the wealthy to use their cars than for the poor. And should the elderly, or women who are understandably loath to use public transport if they own a car, be penalised for doing so? Finally, without truly punitive congestion charges, the chances of finding enough for large-scale public transport use are slim. Nevertheless something, as the Government is at last collectively beginning to realise, will have to be done, and a real political will to impose congestion charging must surely be part of it.

Mr Prescott has at least had some ideas and has struggled to get them up and running. There are big, daunting problems. Heaping all the blame on John Prescott is just another means of pretending that there aren't.