Leading Article: Four-wheeled menace can be overcome

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Successive governments, most notably recent Conservative administrations, have ignored the incompatibility of civilised life with the proliferation of private petrol-engined cars in cities. Sir Colin Buchanan's prophetic report on traffic in towns, published in 1963, warned of the threat, and during the past decade business has inveighed against the financial costs.

Commuters and inhabitants are increasingly angered by the congestion, noise, danger, filth and ill health associated with vehicles that often bring misery even to their drivers. Yet ministers are still stalling. The best they have offered to the tyranny of the car is more red routes to speed up rush-hour traffic.

The international 'Car Free Cities?' conference in Amsterdam is providing ample evidence of how this country lags behind it neighbours. Whereas Britain largely upholds the unfettered right of cars to enter cities, other European countries are experimenting with tolls, vehicle bans and the promotion of public transport. Groningen in Holland, which claims the highest proportion of cyclists in Western Europe, has eliminated cars from the city centre while boosting the profits of traders.

It would be unwise to impose sudden change in British cities by administrative diktat. Where pedestrianisation has proved successful and popular, in York for example, it has usually followed democratic consultation. This is the best way to focus general disenchantment with the status quo and generate a popular alternative.

Participation is vital also because there is no blueprint for removing or reducing the use of private cars. Each urban area is different and changes must be designed around existing patterns of land use. The Government should encourage experimentation so that cities can mix and match the solutions best suited to their circumstances.

If charges for entry are to be introduced, revenue raised should be earmarked to be spent on improving alternative transport for those who live in and commute to cities. The price of one person's peace and quiet should not be another's immobility. Earmarking revenues could oil the wheels of change. It would help win over the many people likely to benefit from car restrictions. Their support will be vital if fearful opponents are to be convinced of the case for radical changes in city traffic policies.