Contrary to claims by transport ministers and motoring organisations that car drivers pay more in fuel and vehicle taxes than they receive back in spending on roads, the 'true' cost of motoring is more than double the tax revenues - pounds 32.5bn as against pounds 13.8bn - according to Transport 2000, the environmental pressure group.
The image of the hard-done-by motorist - perpetuated by, among others, Michael Portillo, the new Secretary of State for Employment and leading right- winger - is one of several 'myths' that Transport 2000 claims to debunk.
Other myths 'commonly peddled' by the Department of Transport, says the group, are that British roads are among the safest in Europe, that building roads relieves congestion, that people will not use public transport because the car is too convenient, that car-free areas are bad for business and that bus deregulation has been a success. The 'debunking' is based largely on official statistics.
Lynn Sloman, assistant director of the group, said government thinking on transport was 'a catalogue of myths, misconceptions and mistakes. The biggest myth of all is that the Government has a balanced transport policy - yet the Department of Transport spends pounds 3 on the roads for every pounds 1 it spends on the railways, and no more than pennies on walking and cycling.'
In 1990 Mr Portillo, then minister responsible for public transport, told the Commons that road users paid about three times as much in direct taxes as was spent on roads. However, Transport 2000 says this ignores the real external costs and says that fuel taxes, currently netting around pounds 11bn for the Treasury, should be at 'least doubled' to reflect these costs.
The costs include, for instance, pounds 15bn in congestion - a CBI estimate - nearly pounds 5bn on deaths and injuries, pounds 400m in policing and pounds 1.5bn lost to the revenue in subsidies to people with company cars. Transport 2000 claims the Treasury's effective subsidy to road users is pounds 20bn a year, about pounds 1,000 per car.
However, a spokesman for the British Road Federation said that quantifying the external environmental cost of cars was a 'dubious' exercise, as there were not hard and fast figures. 'If you count the external cost of cars you have also to take account of the external benefits that accrue, like people being able to use their cars for leisure. The two may well cancel each other out.'
On other myths cited, Transport 2000 says that even current high levels of spending on road building will add only 2-5 per cent to total road space, against a forecast doubling of traffic in the next 30 years. Investment in public transport such as light rail have quickly brought big increases in passengers.
Pedestrianised areas have increased retail turnover by an average of 25 per cent, despite business worries beforehand. Bus deregulation has led to less investment, a 25 per cent fall in passenger mileage and to companies doing 'more mileage in pursuit of fewer passengers'.
And for all the supposed safety of British roads, the group points out that the country's child casualty rate is one of the worst in Europe, while cycling in Britain is seven times more dangerous than in Holland and ten times more dangerous than in Sweden.
Myths and Facts: Transport Trends and Transport Policies; Transport 2000, 10 Melton Street, London NW1 2EJ.
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