Leading Article: Another wasteful trip round the roads debate

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The Independent Online
The metaphor may be hackneyed but it has a particular resonance. Changing transport policy is indeed rather like turning round a supertanker: it takes an apparent eternity to alter direction even after the decision to do so has been made. We are currently at the midpoint of such a U-turn. The old policies of massive road-building and promoting the great car economy may be in retreat, but so far nothing has been put in their place.

We are all familiar with the problems. Our cities are choking. Our children are dying of asthma. Our old folk are housebound because they cannot cross the roads. The rest of us have to go by car everywhere because public transport has been driven off the roads. And as we drive we complain continually about the damage caused by others' vehicles. Congestion and pollution are always someone else's fault. Get the lorries off the roads, say the motorists. Get the cars off, say the road hauliers: a line with which it seems the Government is disposed to agree, according to last week's consultation document on the M25 and other trunk roads.

Yet solutions are always presented as fanciful and impossible. The debate has been hijacked on one hand by the pro-road "let's concrete over Britain" lobby, and on the other by Swampy-type activists with hair-shirt Utopian visions.

In fact Professor Colin Buchanan got the measure of the problem three decades ago with his seminal study "Traffic in Towns". Ever since everyone has agreed on the need for action, but little has been forthcoming. The previous government, particularly its last but one transport secretary, Dr Brian Mawhinney, played a duplicitous game. "Let's have a debate," Dr Mawhinney said, and 18 months later a consultation paper was issued which added nothing to what was known at the start. Meanwhile he slashed the roads programme to save billions for the Treasury.

And now the new government is playing the same game. In opposition, Labour produced its own transport paper, "Consensus for Change", much of which echoed the Tories' effort, showing that there was broad all-party agreement on transport policy.

Now all this history has been junked. This week John Prescott is expected to issue a consultation paper on an integrated transport policy, with the promise of a White Paper in the spring. By the time any of the contents are ready for legislation, we will probably be too near the next election for the Government to dare to introduce any of the controversial measures that are needed to make a real impact.

All this is unnecessary and a waste of time. Politicians on all sides have recognised that we cannot keep on encouraging greater car use. Throwing money at the problem by building more roads is not a viable or sustainable policy. Traffic needs to be reduced, or at least contained. Better public transport systems and better facilities for cyclists and pedestrians should be provided. Residential areas should be traffic-calmed. And any new developments should be judged by whether they result in lots of extra traffic.

The situation at the moment is just about tolerable. On the whole, we can still get about, even though our journeys are often delayed by traffic or by the inadequacies of the transport infrastructure. But if the unrestrained growth of recent years is allowed to continue then we face nationwide gridlock - and yet more widespread frustration and rage of the type which last week saw a stockbroker justifiably sentenced to five months in jail after she wilfully tried to run down a cyclist.

Yet, as our Whitehall correspondent, Christian Wolmar, points out in a pamphlet, "Unlocking the Gridlock", published today by Friends of the Earth, solutions are to hand, despite the politicians' paralysis. Transport planners have long been familiar with the type of measures that need to be adopted. They organise themselves little Grand Tours around Europe to see the cycle facilities of Groningen in Holland, the public transport of Zurich, and the pedestrianisation schemes of Antwerp or Nuremberg.

There are, sadly, no British towns on this tour because we are 20 years behind most European nations in recognising that the primacy of the car cannot continue. York is probably our most advanced small city, while in Edinburgh there are exciting innovations under the inspiration of George Hazel, the local director of transport who is implementing a series of policies ranging from pedestrianising Princes Street to creating safe routes for children to walk or cycle to school.

This is the sort of thing that needs to be done on a national scale. Zurich's trams are popular because the operators guarantee that they run on time at regular frequent intervals, even resorting to having spare trams on standby should there be a breakdown or delay. Similarly, Groningen has 50 per cent of road users on bicycles because it has had policies for more than 20 years that are designed to encourage them. Every year that the politicians do no more than produce more hot air, we get less fresh air.

The problem is that many of the required policies involve causing discomfort to the motorist, and the motoring lobby remains very powerful. Yet we are the motorists, and it seems that we may finally be ready to kick the habit. If this new round of debate is not to end in tears, Labour is going to have to be brave and take the chance that we have really changed.

And there is one new policy which the Government should embrace if it wishes to make headway - road pricing. Not only will this encourage people out of their cars on to other forms of transport - and induce industry to re-examine rail and other alternatives - it will provide the cash to pay for better public transport.