Minister denies plan to charge city drivers

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The Independent Online
MOTORISTS WILL not be charged for driving into congested city centres in the near future, Gavin Strang, the transport minister, said yesterday.

Dismissing newspaper reports that drivers would face charges of pounds 10 to use urban streets, Dr Strang said that road pricing was a "medium-term" measure that would require substantial changes to existing laws.

"The priority in the short term is to give drivers more options and that means more public transport," Dr Strang said at the launch of the Government's survey into "travel trends".

The move marks yet another a retreat for transport ministers, whose original plans were vetoed by Downing Street as "anti-car". The Government's own surveys show Britons are increasingly dependent on the car for travel.

On average each person in Britain travels more than 5,370 miles per year in a car - up a third over the past decade and more than 10 times further than in 1952. According to the statistics, the volume of car traffic has increased by 14 times in the past 45 years, and by 1996 there were 22 million cars registered in Britain.

The study also shows that the richer people become the more mileage they clock up. Those who find themselves in the top 20 per cent of the income scale drive five times as far in a year than the poorest fifth of society.

However high-earning car owners, said Dr Strang, need have no fear from the forthcoming White Paper on transport. "I really don't think we are targeting any particular group according to their income."

One group that will be targeted by ministers is the "many-car family". Figures show the growth of two- and three-car households will ensure that more vehicles will be on the nation's streets. Many of these will be bought by young women - who are less likely at present to hold driving licences.

"If a two-car family choose to come down to one car, then we want it to be because we have supplied good public transport," said Dr Strang.

Ministers acknowledge that they face a "huge challenge" to change the culture of car use. The research points out that the average Briton manages only 348 miles a year on a bus and a little over 300 miles by train.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of transport, has made it clear he wants drivers to use their cars less. His department's White Paper, due out next month, is still likely to introduce "sticks and carrots" to get motorists out of their cars.

Other plans that have yet to be discounted include parking taxes to raise money for public transport and a permit scheme, which would limit traffic levels in busy areas.

Road pricing is, at present, considered too complicated to implement in the next few years, although it has not been ruled out and many experts say millions of pounds could be raised with congestion charges. Researchers in Leicester - which is experimenting with a electronic tolling system - say a pounds 1-a-day charge for motorists entering the city would raise pounds 70m a year.

"There are a number of options which we are still discussing. The 7,300 responses to our consultation were overwhelmingly in favour of our objectives," said Dr Strang.

The White Paper is likely to concentrate on "small scale" measures that will reduce car mileage. Ministers have been advised that if one in every 10 car trips made for "leisure" could be made on public transport the rise in traffic levels could be halted. But yesterday's report highlighted how difficult the aim of reducing car mileage will be. Nearly 70 per cent of shopping trips in rural areas are made by car.

Persuading people to switch from their cars to trains and buses is driven by the Government's desire to meet tough environmental targets. Road use accounts for nearly a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions - which must be cut by 2010.

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