At last, a clear way ahead: Transport policy has been shaken up by the Royal Commission, says Keith Buchan. Life could look quite different before too long

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If you've recently watched any television programmes involving cars they will have been one of two basic types. The first will have shown pictures of sleek, glossy, Italianate road machines speeding along surprisingly uncongested roads, or sentimental tributes to icons of a misspent youth such as the Cortina, the Mini or even the Transit. The second type will have set out an endlessly depressing list of how the car and the heavy lorry - and the roads they require - are destroying our health, poisoning our children, and ruining both our natural environment and our historic cities. What you won't have seen is any programme depicting a golden vision of a car-based future. That sort hasn't been around for almost a decade.

The report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, issued yesterday, marks a true watershed in transport policy. Behind it is a 10-year history of accumulating awareness that the prevailing thrust of policy was literally unsustainable. Yesterday's achievement was to begin to set out a framework to put a sustainable transport policy in its place.

Today, everyone at least talks sustainable: the desire to use cars must be 'managed' and 'restrained', the object of planning is to 'reduce the need to travel'. This is the opposite of predicting seemingly endless traffic growth and then building the roads to keep up. The change is from what is often described as 'predict and provide' to 'predict and prevent'.

Why is this reversal happening so quickly and why is it accepted by such a broad spectrum of decision makers? There are two reasons: first, it is abundantly clear that there is no room for the Department of Transport's predicted increases in traffic to take place; even a road-building programme many times bigger than the current pounds 20bn would offer no guaranteed relief of existing congestion, while promising vast increases in pollution and damage to our social environment. We cannot build our way out of congestion, and I know of no sane professional who believes we can. This was not so universally accepted 10 years ago.

The second reason is that there is no technical fix which can make a transport system based on car and lorry use acceptable in environmental terms. People may want to use their cars, but they also want their children to be able to breathe freely, to play and undertake social activity without the constant fear of traffic. 'Calming' the local street is not enough: despite the growth of pedestrian malls, shopping, education and leisure are still most usually concentrated in traditional high streets, which are also main roads.

Thus, both in traffic and environmental terms, there is no coherent vision of the future which follows through the logic of a continued growth of car and lorry traffic.

The Royal Commission's enormous report focuses on the environmental half of the equation, as it should, although it draws heavily on the new understanding that more roads mean more traffic. Without a massive road-building programme, the Government's traffic growth predictions cannot come true. This represents the most serious public challenge to the DoT's approach to date.

Its approach is particularly interesting because it departs from a policy assumption that has held back transport planning since the Sixties. This was the idea that everything could be given a monetary value, and then all the monetary values calculated for 20 or 30 years ahead and used to predict whether building roads was a good thing or not. Items which could not be costed, such as the environmental damage, were pushed to one side. They merited mention. But what was measured (in pounds) was saving motorists' time. Ever more complex computer models produced the statistical justification for more motorways.

The Royal Commission starts from a different point altogether, by asking what we are trying to achieve. What are our 'quality of life' objectives for transport? Once general goals have been set, targets for achieving them, together with a clear timetable, can be set out. It has set out a detailed and radical procedure for assessing the need and shape of new transport schemes.

Thus, targets are set to remove existing damage, as in the Commission's Target F1: 'To reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from surface transport in 2020 to no more than 80 per cent of the 1990 level.' They can be positive, as in D1: 'To increase the proportion of passenger kilometres carried by public transport from 12 per cent in 1993 to 20 per cent by 2005 and 30 per cent by 2020.' There are 'constraints' not to cause damage, such as Recommendation 37a: '. . . strict protection for the special areas of conservation to be designated under the EC Habitats and Species Directive.'

It is only after targets and constraints have been identified, the Commission says, that specific transport policies and individual local schemes should be developed and assessed. And only at this stage can a prediction of the effects and the costs of various options be undertaken.

The process ends with finding the most cost-effective way of getting where we want, not by starting with a collection of disparate schemes and trying to assess their value for money decades in the future.

Such a bold departure from current transport methodology is certainly going to arouse criticism, and suspicion. Understandably, anyone who makes a living from the road transport industry (including most of the Department of Transport) will want to know how they are going live in the new future. The answer must be that change creates jobs as well as taking them away. Goods will still be distributed, transport systems need design and innovation, trams and buses have to be built.

More complicated is how drivers will feel about having to restrict their car use. Cars are not simply means of travel: for young men in particular they represent social status, the arrival of adulthood, the opportunity for a private space in a crowded day. These difficulties are not insuperable, but they must be addressed.

On the other hand, very real improvements will be derived from the change in lifestyle. The shift in public attitudes on smoking shows how rapidly such changes can occur. Surveys show that the change in attitudes to the car culture has already started.

And how will the Government react? It has been sliding towards the objectives-based planning favoured by the Royal Commission for some time. It is also short of money. There is therefore some appeal in reducing road building, and increasing road user charges. Planners have been snapping at the heels of highway engineers for a while now: if we are to reduce our dependency on cars, we will have to stop the abandonment of our traditional urban centres.

There is always resistance to change, but politicians often mistake people's capacity to complain for their capacity to understand. The imperatives for change are very strong and widely known. For instance, the popularity of lead-free petrol exceeded all government expectations. It is worth speculating on what the impact of some the Royal Commission's proposals, and many others that will have to complement them, might be.

Do we really have to use the car to do the shopping and carry the kids? Do we have to make fresh sandwiches for our supermarkets in a single factory and send them in refrigerated juggernauts to every shopping centre in the land? Bulky goods such as tins of cat food or baked beans could be the real home shopping revolution: order by telephone/tv and get them delivered on the 21st-century equivalent of the milk float. For perishables (including newspapers) small local outlets within walking distance would be far more common than today, with a revival in local production.

Most important of all, in our towns and cities, the journey to the local shop or school could be almost car free. The streets generally would have more people in them, offering more opportunities for the basic currency of community life: talking to people face to face. And for this reason alone, they would become more secure.

There would even be new forms of car ownership and use: more car sharing, hiring for specific purposes instead of owning, and small 'runabouts' available for hire at rail or bus stations, or used in more rural areas.

There would still be popular town and great city centres, indeed they would share in the revival, as out-of- town facilities became less popular. The difference is that they would have public transport systems which were frequent, safe, reliable and cheap, (and the air would be breathable).

People will still go to work, but less often, working at home to a greater extent. Many business meetings will be in the form of teleconferencing, taking away the stress of motorway driving, or running for the last train home from the station or airport. People might actually prefer it.

The writer is Excutive Director of the Metropolitan Transport Research Unit.

(Photograph omitted)