Two wheels good, more wheels bad: Our cities cannot take the strain: we must act to reduce traffic, argues Christian Wolmar

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The Independent Online
WE ALL know the problem. In Kensington, south-west London, people come to blows as they find their cars hemmed in by others double- or even triple- parked. Every Friday night our cities' roads out to the countryside become so clogged that people question whether it is worth trying to leave. Gridlock threatens every time there is a major accident or roadworks, while support grows for protesters who are trying to halt road schemes. And asthma inhalers have become a permanent feature on every primary schoolteacher's desk.

Travel continues to grow each year, and that means car use, since three-quarters of mileage is by car. There is general agreement that such growth cannot be sustained: it must be arrested and reversed. That imperative will be hammered home this week, which is National Bike Week, and next, Green Transport Week. Belatedly, even the Department of Transport is beginning to be convinced that planning for traffic growth of more than 100 per cent over the next 25 years - its own forecast - is impossible.

The Government's policy on Sustainable Development, published in January, contained 10 pages on transport which did much to illustrate that the two words of the title are an oxymoron. The section starts: 'It is not the Government's job to tell people where and how to travel', but continues in the next sentence: 'But if people continue to exercise their choices as they are at present and there are no other significant changes, the resulting traffic growth would have unacceptable consequences for both the environment and the economy of certain parts of the country . . .' In other words, something has to be done, but we have no idea what.

There is no panacea, but examples from around the world show that growth in travel and car use need not be inevitable. The first step, however, is for politicians to accept that there is a crisis that needs urgent attention. If, as a transport correspondent, there is anything more depressing than listening to the Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, mouthing banal platitudes about everyone wanting more roads, it is hearing his opposite number, Frank Dobson, refusing to countenance a national transport policy because it is a hostage to fortune in the new policy-free zone the Labour Party has become. Political parties are way behind the public in recognising that we cannot go on like this.

Opponents of change argue that it is impossible to quantify the hidden costs caused by motorists and, therefore, to develop coherent policies. While it may be difficult, it is not impossible. A Swiss professor, Claude Jeanrenaud, of the University of Neuchatel, has examined costs caused by noise, damage to buildings and accidents and found that the external cost to society of each vehicle-kilometre is 7.7 Swiss centimes (3.8p). This does not include the cost of air pollution. Any coherent policy would begin by looking at ways of charging these costs to road users.

The pro-roads lobby argues that the continued growth in traffic is inevitable. But it is, above all, the pricing policy of the Government that has effected a massive shift from public transport to cars. The UK's high level of car ownership compared with other European Union countries cannot be unrelated to the fact that it also has the highest rail fares, the result of 15 years of above- inflation annual increases.

By contrast, in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, car ownership and use simply could not be allowed to grow to levels commensurate with local income per head, because of the lack of land. Radical measures have led to a stabilisation or even a reduction in car ownership. Singapore imposed heavy taxes on cars, particularly company- owned ones, and introduced road pricing in its central area. Hong Kong also imposed massive licence fees on cars, amounting to 10 per cent of the price of the vehicle, which led to a reduction in car ownership.

There are even some examples in the UK. In Manchester, the use of the Metrolink trams has exceeded expectations by 30 per cent, with about 13 million passengers expected to use them this year. Of those, about 40 per cent have access to a car for the journey, and it is estimated that at least 1 million fewer car journeys a year are being made as a result.

The Chiltern Line, running from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to Marylebone, London, was developed as a test bed for best practice on the railway, using new rolling stock, new infrastructure and more trains. Since the refurbishment was completed four years ago, commuters have flocked back to the line, increasing use by 25 per cent per year.

In various towns throughout Europe, car use has been reduced, while more environmentally friendly travel - walking, cycling and even bus use - has risen. In Copenhagen, which has a changeable climate similar to London's, cycling has increased by 80 per cent since 1980; in London it has fallen by 30 per cent in the same period. In Aachen, Germany, use of the humble bus rose by 50 per cent in the five years to 1992, thanks to a combination of carrot-and-stick measures, while in Britain bus use fell by about 20 per cent in the same period.

Such improvements require a deliberate strategy with aims and targets. The Government has made a start with its policy of increasing fuel taxes by 5 per cent above the rate of inflation every year and company cars are being squeezed. This week Robert Key, the roads minister, will launch a policy encouraging cycle use. But all these are fingers in the dyke, rather than a new dam.

It took the first oil price shock two decades ago to bring in the 70mph speed limit which has since saved countless lives. It took an earthquake in Los Angeles to prompt a substantial increase in telecommuting. And it took a bomb to convince the Corporation of London that keeping cars out of the City was both feasible and practical. Will we have to wait for another disastrous watershed before our politicians become convinced of what the public already knows: that we are creating a society fit for the motor car and unfit for people.

(Photograph omitted)