This is only the latest evidence of the misguided thinking that has steered roads policy for countless governments. Its central tenet - that we must increase road capacity in order to build ourselves out of congestion - is revealed as fatally flawed.
Last year several events, from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report to new Department of Environment planning advice on out-of-town shopping centres, made the previous policy appear totally impractical. The most recent was the publication of a report by an advisory committee of the Department of Transport which found that new roads generate extra traffic - axiomatic to most of us.
But how should we go about replacing a road-building policy with a transport policy? Brian Mawhinney, Transport Secretary since July, is giving it a go: already there have been concrete signs of a shift in policy. Road schemes have been scrapped, more i
s being spent on bus lanes and, amazingly, £3m is being spent to start work on a 1,200-mile cycle network in London.
In a speech last month to a conference on air quality, Dr Mawhinney said he wanted to break through the entrenched positions which the two sides in the transport debate - broadly, the environmentalists and the pro-roaders - had reached.
But there are no easy answers and no easy votes to be won - indeed, Dr Mawhinney is hamstrung by his own party's ideological obsession with the car. In fact, the solutions are so difficult that it must be tempting for transport ministers to throw up their hands in the air and do nothing. As David Mackenzie, regional director of Transmark, which has studied transport problems around the world, put it: "It is extremely difficult to get a sensible transport policy based on what the community at large is prepared to accept. Most solutions put forward by governments are nibbling at the edges of the problem."
As Dr Mawhinney pointed out in his speech, the anti-roads lobby can be just as facile and wrong-headed as its opponents. The constant cries for "more and better public transport" or for "putting more freight on rail" are often as irrelevant as slogans such as "we need roads to keep industry moving".
The awful truth is that a coherent transport policy, with set objectives, requires an answer to the question: "What sort of society do we want to live in?" Take leisure. Cars have made it much easier for people to visit national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. But their presence reduces the aesthetic appeal of such areas. Introducing high charges to drive on local roads has obvious appeal, but that will only deter those new to car ownership. The rest will stump up with bad grace. What looks like a transport issue is actually a much more profound political and social question.
We know that most people are profoundly dissatisfied with an environment dominated by cars and yet are unprepared to make the sacrifices needed to solve the problem. A recent survey by SAA Market Research of about 1,000 car owners found that while 86 percent thought that cars were the main cause of air pollution, only 16 per cent would be prepared to use their cars less if public transport were improved and made cheaper. This is the frequently identified "Ptook" syndrome - Public Transport for Others, OK.
It is possible to break this syndrome by concerted and - it must be said - sometimes undemocratic action. For example, many continental cities have far larger pedestrianised areas in their centres than in the UK. Almost without exception these schemes were vehemently opposed by shopkeepers - and often residents - but most have been stunningly successful, boosting the local economy as well as improving the environment and increasing public transport patronage.
On a national scale, breaking the Ptook syndrome will be more difficult. In large towns and city centres there are a host of measures that can be taken to rein back the car, but many of them are contentious. Car-park charges can be increased dramaticallyand car parking restricted, bus lanes created and improved, with heavy sanctions for using them; many roads can be closed to traffic, cycle lanes created, residential traffic calming introduced and, above all, public transport can be improved and made cheaper. But all this needs planning and a coherent strategy, concepts that are taboo in Dr Mawhinney's party.
Outside major conurbations, the problems are even more intractable. It would be extremely expensive to create public transport good enough to persuade people living in rural areas and the suburbs to forgo their cars. It is fanciful to suggest that peopleliving on modern housing estates on the fringes of cities would ever be able to cope without their cars for all their shopping, jobs and leisure. They have been trapped by the post-war planning criteria of an age in which unlimited use of cars had no downside. But there are planning and transport policies that can help to reduce their car dependency. .
Dr Mawhinney is right to counsel against sentimentality, but wrong to be too prosaic. Some of the vision is achievable and worth battling for. Imagine Trafalgar Square without cars - maybe just a few red buses - a wonderful cityscape that would give millions of tourists a far better view of the capital. Extend that a bit further: cars could be virtually dispensed with for much of the area from Park Lane to Holborn, bounded by Euston Road and the Strand. That will probably happen some time in the next century as the unfettered use of motor cars becomes more and more unacceptable.
Environments without cars are extremely attractive. It is one of the great ironies that millions of people flock in their cars to shopping malls every weekend to savour a car-free atmosphere of shops and restaurants.
Dr Mawhinney needs to retain a sense of optimism to take some brave decisions. After decades of decline, even a small improvement in the environment of our cities and rural areas would be a tremendous start.Reuse content