Motoring: Super car. But soon there'll be nowhere to drive it

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A celebration of car culture kicked off yesterday with the launch of the London Motor Show.

Unfortunately, it opened just as government figures painted a bleak picture of clogged roads and choking cities in the 21st century. Randeep Ramesh examines why little has been done.

The amount of traffic on the roads could increase by 51 per cent over the next 20 years and motorway journeys could take twice as long, according to the National Traffic Forecasts.

The figures, the first for seven years, show the scale of the problem facing the Government. However, the numbers released yesterday are considerably better than those predicted in 1989. Then, civil servants predicted that traffic would grow from 1988 to 1996 by 25 per cent. In fact, it only managed to rise by 17 per cent.

Officials point out the figures rely less on economic growth and have a new way of calculating congestion. This assumes that when roads become saturated with traffic, motorists are deterred from driving.

Transport forecasting is notoriously difficult. The M25 was built to handle 80,000 cars and lorries a day - but two weeks after it was opened the orbital motorway was carrying 120,000 vehicles every 24 hours.

The motor industry - which has been extremely critical of the Government's green pronouncements - attacked the figures. Walter Hasselkus, chairman and chief executive of Rover, Britain's biggest car manufacturer, criticised the report warning the Government not to use "a far-fetched scenario like this as a stick with which to beat the car industry".

Ministers are not afraid of talking tough. Gavin Strang, the transport minister, has made it clear that building new roads will be a "solution of last resort". As the new figures assume that no new roads will be built, the question remains whether the Government can cope with our apparently insatiable desire to drive.

There is little time left. Ministers need to come up with answers in just six months when Parliament receives the Government's White Paper on transport.

The radical measures required to curb traffic growth need the political will to tackle the road lobby and, more important, the public's addiction to the automobile.

The new administration is careful not to say that it wants to restrict car ownership. That would be deemed as unacceptable by the middle classes that Labour assiduously courts. Instead, ministers are considering a mixture of measures such as road pricing, parking levies and giving buses priority over cars.

It is not going to be easy. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has said that he would like to see the end of the "two-car" family. Unfortunately, according to his department's own figures, 25 per cent of households in Britain owned more than one car last year and, unless something is done, this will rise to 32 per cent in 2031 - fuelled by the growth in the number of women drivers.

The Government has also to deal with its commitment to cut 1990 carbon dioxide levels by 20 per cent by 2010. As nearly a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions - the biggest cause of global warming - come from road transport, ministers will have to persuade motorists to switch to public transport.

So far the Government has targeted short car journeys. But, as a recent report by transport consultants Colin Buchanan and Partners pointed out, "even when all journeys of up to 5 miles are included - almost 60 per cent of car journeys - these trips only account for 17 per cent of total vehicle miles".

As the amount of carbon dioxide produced is roughly proportional to the number of car miles, reducing these shorter urban trips will not affect carbon dioxide levels. Experts agree that less traffic would, however, alleviate the fumes that choke most urban streets.

Ministers could repeat the recent Parisian experiment of only allowing cars with certain registration plates to enter the city in order to reduce pollution levels. Alternatively, the Government could close the roads to traffic. An experiment in Edinburgh, which closed down one side of Princes Street, saw nitrogen dioxide levels drop by 40 per cent and road accident rates drop by 34 per cent.

Another option would be to introduce road tolls. The only way that this could be sold to a tax-wary public would be to use the money collected to improve public transport. However, in order to raise revenue ministers would need to keep charges low, while the only way to deter drivers would be set high tolls.

"One thing is certain, something has to be done," said one senior civil servant. "This is not a future that we would like to see."

Business Outlook, page 25