Leading Article: A bypass around the road zealots

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The Independent Online
At last the Government has responded to public disquiet at the extent of its road-building programme. Yesterday's announcement by the Transport Secretary, John MacGregor, that 49 schemes are being dropped from the trunk road programme - and many others delayed - marks a turning point.

It was prompted by heavy pressure from several sources. These include Conservative MPs whose constituents were furious about schemes seen as damaging and unneeded; environmentalists and lovers of the countryside campaigning against the insatiable demands of the 'great car economy' and in favour of improved public transport; and the Government's own recent commitment to sustainable development. Among the schemes shelved are the Headington and north Oxford bypasses that have so enraged the great and good in Oxford, and the M12 to Chelmsford.

Mr MacGregor's announcement will not satisfy those seeking a bigger transfer of resources from roads to public transport. To them the Transport Secretary likes to point out, as he did again yesterday, that 50 per cent of his department's budget goes on roads, which account for 90 per cent of all journeys; and 40 per cent goes to public transport, which accounts for 10 per cent of journeys.

Mr MacGregor is one of the most decent men in British politics, but his refrain is disingenuous. He fails to mention the high costs - to the environment, health and much else - resulting from road building and road usage. He ignores the reality that new roads fuel demand. And he glosses over the extent and duration of under-investment in public transport that has helped to drive people on to the roads.

His department's bias in favour of tarmac could be diminished by the creation of the Highways Agency that will manage and maintain the trunk road network from tomorrow. With luck, the road zealots will be removed from the front line of policy-making. But if the new agency has no specific obligation to relate to other modes of transport, the prospects of a coherent transport strategy will be diminished rather than enhanced.

Conflict between public and private transport is inherent in a smallish, crowded and prosperous country. The national trunk road network, once a disgrace, is now passable. The same cannot be said for wide swathes of public transport. By cutting back on an excessively large roads programme Mr MacGregor has taken a step towards correcting this imbalance in investment. Moves to encourage road users to adopt other forms of transport should now be expedited.