We're on a road to nowhere

Yesterday's transport Green Paper fudged the key challenge: curbing car traffic, says John Adams
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Great news! Things may get worse more slowly. That is the limited ambition of yesterday's Transport Green Paper, a policy document that promised so much but has delivered little.

The disappointment that many will feel is in direct proportion to the time and consideration that has gone into finding solutions for the massive anticipated rise in road traffic in the next few years. The Government has spent a year and a half pondering ideas put forward by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (which had itself spent a similar period studying the issue). Brian Mawhinney has had his "Great Debate". Yet, what, at the end of all this, did the Government produce yesterday? Weasel words, plans to consult further and a fudge on all the key issues.

A glance at the Green Paper's most significant conclusions demonstrates how ministers have missed an opportunity. The proposals are indeed modest: better co-ordination of trunk-road planning and regional land-use planning; more powers for councils to manage traffic; promotion of bus use; new strategies for walking and cycling; talks between industry and the CBI to reduce transport intensity.

Yet, far and away the most important issue - car traffic - is inadequately tackled. This growth is making congestion and pollution worse, undermining public transport, promoting land-use sprawl, and making life more dangerous, restricted and unpleasant for all those without cars. So long as this growth continues, the Government's other relatively minor measures will be futile. Ministers know this: in every consultation exercise the Government has conducted, it has been strongly urged to set a national traffic target, to come clean about how much traffic it thinks the country can take. Yet this is the Green Paper's considered response: "There is a need for more focused debate on national targets. The Government will consider the need for further analysis."

Although the Government does not have a national traffic target, it does have a forecast. Its "best assessment" is that traffic will double by 2025. Such a figure - the implications of which are huge - demands leadership. Yet that is precisely what the Government - and Labour - is not giving.

Most politicians in Britain still believe that to lead a campaign against increased car ownership would be to commit political suicide. They are probably right. Most voters, if asked whether they would like a car, answer "yes". The Government's Environment White Paper of 1991 "welcomes the continuing widening of car ownership as an important aspect of personal freedom and choice". This welcome has not been retracted. Environmentally aware Labour supporters should not smirk. The Labour Party, in its environmental policy, "In Trust for Tomorrow", says, "We would like to see more people owning cars."

So what would a political party that aspired to get enough votes to form a government do? It should ask a different question. "Would you like to live in a dirty, dangerous, congested, bleak, socially polarised, fume- filled greenhouse?" Politicians have a duty to explain to the voters what they are voting for. No more research is needed. The consequences of allowing the Government's "best assessment" about traffic levels in 2025 to come true are already known in sufficient detail. What is need to more education of the public about the realities.

No one is better qualified for this task than the Secretary of State for Transport. In 1973, Sir George Young set out his concerns about the growth of tourism in a book, Tourism: Blessing or Blight?. He recognised that the tourist industry could not grow indefinitely; there would come a point when its costs would outweigh its benefits. He engaged in exactly the sort of educational exercise that is needed even more urgently now.

He argued: "Those who [seek to curb the growth of tourism] for the long- term benefit of society ... will stand accused of curbing man's freedom to travel. Such a criticism is shortsighted as it ignores the damage that unrestrained tourist development can cause and assumes that no price for freedom on movement can be too high."

Just add car traffic to tourism and you would have a credible transport policy statement.

The writer is a reader in geography at University College London.