There’s been a lot of fuss in Oxford lately about Oxfordshire County Council taking £4m in bus gate fines. Even the RAC has waded in to suggest that the system of fining drivers is ‘broken’. The fines are an issue, but the bigger issue is the ideology that drives so much transport policy. “After all,” the argument goes, “bus gates are there to help keep the traffic moving…” But if that’s the case, why are congestion-busting motorcycles not allowed through? The answer is ideology. Buses and taxis are collective. Cars and motorcycles are personal transport. Public ownership (or regulation) good, private ownership bad?
But we need to ditch the ideology and get practical. ‘The Transport Debate’ is still a little like the trench battles of World War One. Both sides have dug in behind the wire and are busy shelling each other – even after years of it doing no good. Progress is being measured in inches, and no-one’s really winning the battle. It’s time to come out to kick a few arguments around in no-man’s land.
Is it all about cars?
It’s axiomatic that the car brings a huge degree of personal freedom – but it brings it at a cost. The cost is decreasing massively as cars and the fuels on which they run become cleaner, but it still needs to be addressed. The question is ‘how’? Is the best way forward to restrict, tax and impose or is it to improve, educate and empower? What’s the best way to give people viable, real-world transport choices?
So far, most of the solutions to pollution and congestion have focussed on making cars harder to use – either financially or physically. Most current transport policy appears to be negative and sometimes seems motivated more from an a priori ideological dislike of cars than a desire to change things for the better.
There is much talk of ‘restriction’, ‘management’ and ‘compulsion’. Looking at some of the concrete wastelands that have grown up to cater for the car, it’s easy to see why. But we need to examine the problem from a different angle.
Rather than emphasising what a bad thing cars are and punishing drivers, let’s push the positives of other modes and try to develop some affordable, efficient car alternatives. At the same time, let’s remove the restrictions and controls that have led to more congestion, more pollution and more pain for drivers as local authorities compete to make life harder for them.
The best tool for the job
There are some journeys where the car is the best tool for the job – generally multi-destination trips, or where public transport lacks flexibility, distances are impractical to cover on a cycle or there’s too much to carry. There are plenty of others where other modes are better and there are some journeys that don’t need to be made at all.
Do we need to commute?
One in every six journeys in the UK are to work, yet many employees do not have to be in the workplace every day, and could easily work from home. Assume they spend thirty minutes each way commuting and you’ve saved half a working day’s travel by sitting in the spare room with a laptop as well as slashing peaktime congestion.
When people don’t have to struggle through the daily commute they’re more efficient too. The Telework Association believes that productivity rises by 10-16% if people work at home. Unfortunately, many employers seem reluctant to give their staff the trust and flexibility teleworking needs and the Government offers them few tax incentives for doing so.
What is an ‘unnecessary’ journey?
Cars are an efficient method of getting around with large amounts of luggage to more than one place. For getting to the office two miles away, picking up a bottle of wine at the off-licence or a host of other in-town journeys they are usually more trouble than they’re worth. This is why – quite reasonably – there is a lot of talk about ‘reducing unnecessary car journeys’.
The problem is – who decides what’s unnecessary? There is no way I would take the car a the three mile round trip to the library, but I’d probably use it to collect a washing machine, yet the two journeys are treated as identical by local authorities and penalised equally. The alternatives – a small council-run fleet of Long John cargo bikes, more short term parking spaces or just plainly less onerous parking restrictions – never seem to occur to anyone. No-one seems to think of promoting motorcycles as a core commuter mode.
Instead, local authorities make it as difficult as possible for me to use my car, but only promote the alternatives half-heartedly.
Promoting the alternatives
We’re told to get out of the driver’s seat, but sadly, the alternatives are seldom promoted positively. There’s a distinct hairshirted whiff of ‘worthiness’ as we’re encouraged to cycle not because it’s fast, fun and efficient, but because we’re ‘doing our bit’
Then there’s public transport – slammed by the Audit Commission when John ‘Two Jags’ was in charge – as ‘expensive, unreliable…and that doesn’t go where people want.’ At the same time, it’s more expensive than in almost any other country in Europe. The Government spends less than £12bn a year on transport – yet somehow seems surprised when trains crash, roads crumble or there is tube chaos and people use their cars.
Rather than making the car as unpleasant and expensive to use as public transport we need to give people viable transport choices and allow them to choose the mode that suits their journey best. This means empowerment, education and investment not more restrictions, taxes and compulsion.
There was an interesting comment regarding public transport on Today this morning by Anne Power, professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. Unfortunately she was cut off before elaborating but her outline point was that urban population density in the UK was too too thinly spread for public transport to be run economically. I think what she was about to say was that cities in most other European countries have more apartments in both city centres and in the suburbs yielding higher concentrations of commuters as opposed to the suburban semi and detached houses built in their thousands during the interwar expansion following the slum clearances.
Our current inability to provide efficient social urban transit could be traced back to the industrial revolution and the drawing in of workers to the cities, the creation of slums and the subsequent aspirational flight to the suburbs. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fvlf5 @01:56:37
I’m not sure the British would happily take to the mid-level and high-rise apartment blocks that are commonplace in France and Germany where rental is the norm until late mid-life. We may be doomed to crap public service transport until the social stigma of the tenement and the sixties high-rise block is forgotten.
“The Government spends less than £12bn a year on transport – yet somehow seems surprised when trains crash, roads crumble or there is tube chaos and people use their cars.”
Point of order, Mark. Trains very, very rarely crash. I think it’s bee 7 years since there was a passenger fatality on the British rail system. This is the safest the railways have EVER been, and a whole planet away from the daily carnage on our roads!
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Fair point, Vince. Pretty much the safest form of transport outside flying.
Mark, add in the planning restrictions imposed by Oxford Council that push office rents to silly levels and you have a concise summary of why my new office is in Buckinghamshire and why my old office in Oxfordshire is closed.
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And perhaps the issue that OCC has talked about workplace parking taxes in Oxford?
Good piece, Mark, but left me wanting more. Vince, the reason there are so many “accidents” on the road is because the rule of priority makes roads dangerous in the first place. I put “accidents” in inverted commas because most accidents are not accidents. They are events contrived by the dysfunctional rules and design of the road.
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too many people, not enough space., too many clipboards, not enough good solutions…etc etc.
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And councillors with an agenda to push that’s not about transport as a tool to do a job.