The car can be curbed

With a little imagination we can be free of traffic jams and road rage, says Ben Plowden
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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT gave a typically robust performance on Radio 4's Today programme the morning after the Queen's Speech. It wasn't convincing, however. Pressed on his failure to secure time for a transport Bill in the new parliamentary session, the Deputy Prime Minister said that most of his transport plans didn't need primary legislation.

Meanwhile, as he pointed out, the Greater London Bill was in the Queen's Speech, and there will be provisions in that Bill for charging motorists for entering London at peak times. From next year the new mayor of London will, in theory at least, be able to reduce the number of cars using the capital's roads by "congestion charging".

That's fine for London, but what about other cities? Alas, they will have quite a bit longer to wait before they are able to introduce congestion charging. This delay is significant because it denies local councils vitally needed cash to improve public transport. Better bus, train and tram services are seen by many as the essential component in strategies to reduce the dominance of the private car. But is improved public transport the golden sword that will cut the Gordian knot of rising car use?

Not on its own. Providing reliable, better-marketed public transport is of course vital if we want to coax motorists from their cars in the first place. Councils such as Oxford, Leeds and Manchester, working with private operators, are achieving big shifts from car to public transport by improving the quality and reliability of services. And Mr Prescott has made clear his determination to improve the attractiveness of Britain's railways. But the fact remains that we cannot reduce car use by any significant degree unless we have a clear understanding of why people love their cars, and why they believe that they cannot have a reasonable quality of life without them.

The huge increase in car use over the past 40 years is not primarily the result of declining enthusiasm for public transport. The total distance travelled by bus, coach and rail has declined by about 40 per cent since the mid-1950s. The distances travelled by car and van have increased ten- fold over the same period. Most of this new car travel is not former public transport travel. It is the result of new, longer car trips. What's more, many of these trips are complex, multi-destination trips that are difficult, if not impossible, to make by bus or train.

At this point, seasoned transport campaigners smile knowingly and produce their secret weapons - walking and cycling. "Don't worry about the limitations of public transport," they say. "Three-quarters of all journeys are still under five miles. The flexibility of walking and cycling make them perfectly suited to replace many car journeys."

This is true. Many more journeys would be made on foot and by bike if conditions were safer and more attractive. But this still won't be enough. No matter how many people walk or cycle, and no matter how good public transport is, there would still be too many cars in use, at least under present circumstances. The fact is that people are wedded to their cars. Britain's 16.5 million car-owning households each spend an average of pounds 52 a week on motoring, making the market in "car services" worth a staggering pounds 44.5bn a year.

For most people, the allure of the car is not the myth of empty country roads that are peddled by car advertisements. The attraction is more prosaic and stems from the car's role as a household appliance - like a fridge or a washing machine - that does many jobs very well. Think of all the tasks performed by the typical household car. It gets Dad (and increasingly Mum) to work. It takes the kids to school, gets the shopping and takes the family on holiday or for a pub lunch on Sunday. The list goes on.

And it's not only what the car does that matters. How it does it is very important, too. In a car, we set off when we want, travelling from our front doors to our destinations unhindered by the vagaries of public transport. We can travel long distances at high speed, visit different places en route and carry heavy shopping. We can do all this in a private, climate- controlled environment, singing along to our favourite CD, free from anxieties about personal security. Traffic jams, parking controls and road rage can make these advantages of driving more perceived than real. But it's perceptions that count, as demonstrated by the millions spent on car advertising.

Walking and cycling have the same "door-to-door" flexibility as driving and can give more reliable journey times. But it's not much fun cycling or walking in bad weather and you can't carry a fortnight's shopping for a family of four on foot or by bike. Buses and trains are good for longer journeys, but you can't travel "on demand" or go door to door on a bus and you can't sing along to the Spice Girls on a train - or at any rate not for long. And public transport, walking and cycling all suffer from what transport policy wonks call "a severe status deficit".

None of this should be seen as a homage to the private car or a denunciation of green alternatives. But if we are serious about prising Essex man and Worcester woman from their cars, we will have to see that they are offered services as close as possible to those that their cars provide.

Take shopping, which accounts for about 12 per cent of the total distance individuals travel each year by car. To counter the use of the car for shopping there needs to be a massive increase in the opportunities for home shopping. People should be able to do all their bulk shopping by telephone or modem link, with local "teleshopping" centres set up for those with no access to computers. Delivery times, like supermarket opening times, should reflect the needs of consumers, not suppliers. For fresh food and other purchases that consumers want to see and handle, there will have to be more late-opening specialist greengrocers and delicatessens. Town centres and high streets should provide street trolleys which can be taken from shop to shop. People shopping on foot or by bus should be able to leave their purchases at a central location for later delivery.

Or what about the school run, which accounts for a fifth of morning peak congestion in urban areas? Every UK school needs a network of "safe routes" (a legal requirement in Denmark since the 1970s) and a walking bus, in which adult volunteers accompany groups of children to and from school.

Some journeys can only be done door-to-door in a car. For these, tailored taxi services may be required. For example, we already have wheelchair accessible cabs and cabs for women only. It might therefore be an idea to set up "Kids' Cabs", using a fleet of large cars with children's seats as the standard mode of travel for family outings. Car hire companies might find it worthwhile to offer deals in which customers rent at a preferential rate for part of the year. Every neighbourhood could have a car-owning

co-operative, where, say, 100 households own 10 cars and use them when only a car will do.

Some of these things are already happening on a small scale. Most big retailers are experimenting with tele-shopping and home delivery. Tesco, Sainsbury and others are rediscovering the attractions of high street locations. Wheatfields junior school in St Albans runs the UK's first walking bus and many councils are working on safe routes to school. Edinburgh, Camden and now Southwark councils are setting up car co-operatives.

So what can we expect over the next few years? Despite the delay in new transport legislation, Mr Prescott is clearly determined to give local councils more powers to curb car use and more money to encourage alternatives. Meanwhile, the abandonment of much of the roads programme will make rising levels of car use increasingly untenable as capacity constraints and the resulting traffic jams start to bite. The Government needs to keep calm in this febrile environment and avoid being panicked into a new, self- defeating spate of road-building. If the Government keeps its nerve, all sorts of imaginative, commercial alternatives to private car use will flourish. In 30 years, we'll wonder why we held on to our cars for so long.

The writer is director of the Pedestrian's Association.