Two wheels good, four wheels bad

Ministers drive through vision for green commuting as companies support bike loans, buses and car sharing
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The Independent Online
It was never meant to be a lengthy relationship, but the public's love affair with the motor car has hit the rocks. The reason for the falling out is the Government's insistence that people learn to use their cars less and public transport more.

Yesterday, Gavin Strang, the minister for transport, launched a number of schemes run by private companies designed to get commuters into work without their cars.

Seven firms, including household names such as Boots, NatWest bank and the Royal Mail are committed to implementing green commuter plans - packages of measures which will reduce the number of car journeys to work - and developing a target for reducing car use.

Among the suggestions are plans for interest-free loans for employees to buy bikes, the introduction of shuttle buses for staff and increased car sharing.

Staff at the Body Shop's headquarters in Littlehampton in Sussex can "hitch" lifts with colleagues by watching an electronic bulletin board which describes the journeys of all employees travelling by car.

Hewlett-Packard, the computer company, has already adopted targets for its staff in Bristol. Under the company's measures, 20 per cent of employees should be cycling into work, 7 per cent will use public transport and 70 per cent should be car-sharing.

Stephen Joseph, the director of Transport 2000, the transport think-tank which persuaded ministers and big business to link up to tackle congestion, said: "We are looking to the new Government not just to support and approve of green commuting but to make it happen."

Mr Joseph pointed out that the experience of other countries is that "green" plans work. "In the Netherlands, around 15 per cent of companies now have commuter plans, and the Dutch ministry reports a reduction in car kilometres at these companies of around 14 per cent."

Dr Strang also announced that motorists will face heavy fines and risk having their vehicles taken off the roads under radical plans to cut pollution.

The scheme, which should be in place within a year and will be developed by seven local authorities, will see cars suspected of exceeding legal pollution limits pulled over by police. If a vehicle is found to be breaking the law on emissions, the motorist could be told to remove the car from the road and fined.

Motoring organisations welcomed the new initiatives. "Our surveys have shown that 10 per cent of vehicles cause 50 per cent of the pollution and if we can target these cars then the Government will make a real difference," said Edmund King, a spokesman for the RAC.

This week has seen a spate of announcements from the transport team under the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, whom many had considered stifled by the dead hand of strict Treasury spending limits.

However the department has crackled into life. Earlier this week, Dr Strang announced a review of all speed limits, saying that "speed contributes to a third of all road accidents". Last month, Glenda Jackson, a transport minister, said the Government would welcome innovative local authority plans to tackle congestion.

Private firms warned that the Government needed to spend more to improve public transport before any sizeable shift from cars could take place. David Edmonds, a director with NatWest, said: "There has to be a reason for people to be persuaded to use their cars less."

The problem for the department is the lack of cash to support measures to reduce traffic. One cash cow yet to be milked is the company car - which, officials believe, could be used to raise cash. There are more than 900,000 drivers who receive free fuel tax-free as a company perk. This, ministers believe, not only encourages more driving but could provide cash for public transport schemes.

Another rich seam not yet mined is company car parking. Recent studies have shown that nearly half of all parking in urban areas is provided free to drivers of company cars. Four out of five cars coming into London in the hours of peak congestion are company-owned. A flat-rate pounds 500 tax on private, non-residential parking places would raise pounds 1.5bn. If free company parking were also treated as a taxable benefit, another pounds 500m a year could be raised from employees.

But the days of the company car already look numbered. Merrill Lynch, one of the largest City banks, has recently removed cars from its perks package. Its fleet has shrunk from 800 luxury vehicles to just three - two pool cars and a chauffeur-driven limousine.

Life in the slow lane for London's commuters

t In 1904 during "crush hours" motor omnibuses and cabs averaged 8mph;

t In 1904 during the crush period the average speed for horse drawn omnibuses and cabs was 3.5-6mph; in the "slack hours" the average speed was 7-8mph

t In 1936 the average speed on the North Circular was 23.6mph; the modern speed is 23.1mph with much higher traffic flows;

t Traffic speeds in central London have been virtually stable over the past 100 years with a peak in 1947;

t Horse drawn vehicles still accounted for 5 per cent of all traffic in 1937;

t Today the average speed in central London is 10mph.