You, your car and how to end the affair

Christian Wolmar, author of a new pamphlet on the car, on how to ease the gridlock

The search is on for alternatives to the motor car.

A pamphlet published yesterday by Friends of the Earth suggests that in many European cities, fewer people use cars to get to work or for leisure journeys because alternatives have been made more desirable.

Britain is now about to embark on a search for similar solutions. Later this week, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, will outline the Government's thinking on transport, which will aim to get people out of their cars and into other forms of transport.

If some of the more radical proposals - such as congestion charging or restricting the entry of cars to city centres - are introduced, then it will mark the end of a century-long trend in which governments have tried to meet the ever-growing appetite of cars for land space and natural resources.

Friends of the Earth reckons we need urban areas to have "the cycle networks of Dutch cities like Groningen, the public transport systems of Zurich and the pedestrianisation of Nuremberg."

It is a scenario that Mr Prescott would envy, but he does have one thing in his favour. Unlike other government initatives which are hamstrung by strictures on public spending, there may well be considerable sums of money available to improve transport. Lynn Sloman, deputy director of Transport 2000, said: "There's lots of ways that the Government can raise money from transport, as long as it manages to convince the Treasury that is should be allowed to recycle the money for transport schemes."

The most obvious source of revenue would be road pricing, charging motorists to enter city centres and charging local residents an annual fee for the right to have a car. But there are plenty of other potential new taxes. Car park spaces for employees could be taxed, both to deter their use and to raise money. Employers could be charged a transport tax, as in Paris, which will be used to fund new services. Out of town supermarkets could be forced to levy charges on their car parks, making it more desirable for people to shop in city centres.

The revenue from fines for speed cameras, which currently goes into the general fund could, instead, be used first to provide more cameras bringing in huge revenues which in turn could be used to fund transport schemes.

Although a paper on transport issued by the Labour party when it was in opposition last year ruled out many of these suggestions for extra taxes, Department of Transport sources now suggest that they are all being actively considered again.

Public/private partnerships will be encouraged as a way of funding new public transport schemes such as tram systems and possibly new London Underground lines.

Yesterday, Mr Prescott was at pains to point out that the Government is not anti-car, as suggested in leaks of his plans put out by the pro- motoring lobby, and he is keen to ensure that if curbs are put on car use, then improved public transport links must be in place to give motorists a viable alternative.

However, as he holds both the Transport and Environment portfolios, he is conscious that the damaging effects of the continued rise in car use cannot be allowed to continue.

The suggested ways of getting people out of their cars, many of which will be put forward in the Green Paper to be published this week, range from the small and cheap to the mega-project. In residential areas, traffic- calming measures and the widespread use of 20mph zones could lead to schoolchildren being able to walk or cycle to school again rather than having to be driven by parents.

Entry to busy motorways by private cars could be restricted, giving priority to trucks, while Mr Prescott is known to favour pedestrianisation schemes in town centres.

The Government is expected to endorse the targets for quadrupling the use of cycling by the year 2012, and a growing number of Labour MPs favour the setting of targets for reducing traffic, as put forward in a Private Members Bill by Welsh Nationalist and Green MP, Cynog Dafys. The previous government passed the Road Traffic Reduction Act, which requires local councils to examine ways of reducing traffic.

There could be a much greater emphasis on special lanes for buses, which are used by far more people than trains, but are considered the Cinderella sector of public transport because of their poor image. If buses were shown to be more reliable and punctual, then, according to surveys, many motorists would be prepared to forego their cars.

Roger Higman, transport co-ordinator of Friends of the Earth, said: "We know what needs to be done. It's a matter of the Government doing it."

tUnlocking the Gridlock by Christian Wolmar, Friends of the Earth, pounds 6 95.

The Manchester effect

The 19-mile tram system from Bury to Altrincham has succeeded in getting Mancunians out of their cars and on to public transport, a key aim in the Government's transport strategy.

The pounds 150m Metrolink (right) which goes through the city centre, has been very successful, with 13.4 million users last year. This is almost double the number who used to use the old rail service linking the two towns before the tram service was opened five years ago.

According to surveys conducted by Metrolink, about a quarter of those passengers would otherwise have used their cars for those journeys. Moreover, peak traffic on roads from Bury and Altrincham into Manchester has gone down by 6 per cent since the opening of the line.

The success has prompted expansion of the line, but the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority has had difficulty in obtaining funding. After a lengthy delay, work has just started on a pounds 130m four-mile extension to Eccles, via Salford Quays. The scheme is a public/private partnership. Planning approval has been obtained for two more extensions - 15 miles to Oldham and Rochdale, and 13 miles to the airport - but no money is yet available.

The Zurich experience

Unlike British towns, most European cities retained their 100- year-old tram networks, which are now enjoying a renaissance and play a key role in their transport systems.

In Zurich (above), the tram is king. When a tram approaches a traffic light, it triggers off a green signal ensuring it does not have to wait. The trams mostly take up road space which only buses and, sometimes, taxis, are allowed to use. They are always kept clean.

Strict regulations - and Swiss self-discipline - ensure that cars do not park in the narrow streets and block the rails. And most important, the trams always run on time. Most are scheduled to operate every 7.5 minutes, with 5 minute intervals at peak times. The whereabouts of every tram is monitored constantly through sensors, and if there is a hold-up, spare trams are kept in sidings to bridge the gaps, ensuring there are no delays to passengers.

According to Richard Heierli, the former municipal engineer of the city, the image of the trams is in sharp contrast to the British view of public transport. "Anyone who does not use the tram tends to be regarded as out of touch. Leading figures from economic and academic life would not consider commuting in any other way."

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