The White Paper — Providing or Preventing Choice?

 

A response by the Association of British Drivers

Far from being the engine of choice that it claims to be, the Integrated Transport White Paper will simply push up taxes on drivers with the aim of forcing them onto inadequate trains and buses. It completely fails to recognise the importance of the car to our economy our freedom and our quality of life. It tries to "integrate" various forms of transport whilst excluding the one which most people find the most efficient most of the time. In short, it fails to properly analyse the problem, relies on weak thinking and trendy "solutions" to distorted or imaginary problems.

The extra taxes proposed by the ITP will hit the elderly, the disabled and the poor who are unable to afford the high prices or tolerate the inconvenience and discomfort of public transport. This is far from an equitable solution to the UK's transport needs — for the ABD it is no solution at all.

The Case For the Car — The Great Enabler

First, it is vital to remind ourselves that transport is the lifeblood of the economy. Development has always followed transport infrastructure, starting with the great sea and river ports which were the centre of activity in our country for centuries. That prosperity only spread inland with the advent of the eighteenth century canal system, and really took off when the rail and tram network brought more rapid access to places where canal construction was impossible, allowing the movement of goods necessary for centralised production.

But development in the last 30 years has been largely based around the assumption of car use and the road network. This is described as "car dependency" by anti-car campaigners, but is in reality the third great leap in prosperity that has been made possible by successive revolutions in transport.

Whichever view is subscribed to, the fact remains that much of our modern infrastructure has developed without being served by a remotely adequate public transport system. To return to public transport dependency for such an economy would involve our cities being entirely replanned at huge expense around vast new mass transit systems, a return to the decline and dereliction of the rural economy and would probably be impossible without displacing vast quantities of property built on former railway land. Such an undertaking would make the channel tunnel rail link difficulties look like a tea party.

Much of modern life involves the kind of multi purpose journey that only the car can deliver in an acceptable time frame. The car is thus a key enabler for improving our quality of life.

So most people have little choice about car use. Viewed in this context, the White Paper and existing fuel tax rises seem just a cynical attempt to raise money from a politically soft target.

Public Transport as an Alternative

A return to dependency on mass transit systems is not only impossible and uneconomic, it is not even desirable. Public transport is simply not the most efficient means of transport for the diverse journeys found in a modern economy — it is incapable of handling the multiplicity, flexibility, and orbital/radial nature of journeys which may be unpredictable, time critical and multi purpose. To even attempt it would mean public transport running at overall utilisation rates which rendered it less energy efficient and more polluting than cars — at 20% full, buses and trains are no better than single occupancy cars on these measures, and many public transport networks struggle to exceed this level overall even when they cherry pick the most efficient — from their point of view — services.

Travel into town centres is one area where public transport can and should be a preferred alternative for many — single purpose journeys with large numbers of people are the natural habitat of mass transit systems; if they can't compete here they can't compete anywhere. Vast numbers travel into London on the train, which, for a single purpose radial journey is still by far the best way. As soon as any orbital component comes in to the equation, though, the train rapidly becomes hopeless as one has to go in, change stations and go out again.

But public transport has failed too often to offer a credible choice — lack of investment has left it crowded, unreliable, and expensive. Too often it has failed to compete positively for custom due to a "public service" take-it-or- leave-it mentality in place of customer focus — and people have left it, they have been forced to.

It is deeply worrying that the mass transit companies involved with the pressure groups in drafting Mr Prescott's White Paper have connived to produce a negative document aimed at taxing, obstructing and generally forcing motorists onto their existing outdated infrastructure. The only positive offerings are vague promises of the co-ordination between various transport companies that should be routine if they are trying to offer a decent service.

How much better it would have been if they had given some thought to how to integrate the car into their networks rather then excluding it — then people might have had an easier time actually accessing public transport for the city journeys which are the only ones where it can compete with the freedom, flexibility and efficiency provided by the car.

As it is, the average driver already pays more than £1,200 in car taxes with the Treasury set to take around £31bn from drivers in 1998/9, whilst the roads are falling apart and rail fares are double the international average. If parking taxes and road tolls are imposed, the burden on drivers will be even greater, and no-one will believe that this extra money will go on transport — the motorist has been lied to too often in the past — remember "Road Fund Tax", parking charges to pay for car parks and tolls to pay for bridges — all have simply become revenue streams.

Getting To Grips With Congestion

Despite impressions given to the contrary by proponents of the ITP, most roads in Britain are free of congestion most of the time. Where congestion does happen, it is usually related to peak time commuting, often into city centres and on certain motorway routes, and it has mostly been caused by inadequate government policies over the years.

On motorways, congestion is made much worse by the mixing of long distance and commuter traffic around major conurbations, combined with the absence of good alternative routes causing the sucking in of traffic which completes three sides of a square.

But the real reason is the growth in commuting — there has been a 50% increase in commuting distances in 20 years. Some of this is due to greater specialisation in the job market leading to more distant opportunities and more frequent job moves. Some is brought about by both partners working in opposite directions and living in the middle. Some is from choice. But much is due to poor planning of housing and industrial/office development. This has been topical recently with the row about the proportion of new homes being built in the countryside, but it has been going on for years — all too often a housing estate is built at one end of a new road and an industrial estate at the other — and then everyone wonders why the road fills up with traffic. It is too often impossible to find suitable accommodation close to a place of work.

The answer is to balance the jobs and the housing more effectively in suburban areas, giving people the opportunity to live within the short distance most of them crave, and to reduce the outrageous cost and hassle of moving house. The government are making encouraging noises about the hassle, but have made the cost worse by increasing stamp duty — making long distance commuting more attractive.

Even with increased commuting, the traffic growth forecasts constitute ridiculous scaremongering. The current maximum forecast is for 76% growth. This would require every person in Britain over 17 to have a licence, own a car and do the average mileage currently achieved by today's drivers. Since most of the future licence holder growth will be amongst female pensioners, this scenario is, to say the least, unlikely. How the previous forecast of 149% growth, on which the change of policy against the car was based, could even be entertained is difficult to understand.

None of this takes account of the huge impact that information technology will have on transport. If canals, railways and cars constituted the three great transport revolutions, it is probable that teleworking will be the fourth. In fact, the Henley Centre predicted that new technology would reduce the number of car journeys by 28% by 2010 — almost exactly cancelling out the probable mid point growth forecast based on current trends. It is therefore probable that the major road traffic increases are behind us, not ahead, which is a good job, because we are shackled by an inadequate, badly maintained and archaic road system.

The Air Quality Issue Debunked

The issue of air quality and car exhaust emissions is also used as a stick to beat the motorist.

We are told by the anti car lobby that "Govt. figs. suggest that up to 24000 people may die up to three weeks earlier as a result of short term air pollution incidents." (Italics ours). Of course, they know full well that, when this gets to the press, the "suggestion" becomes "fact" and the headlines scream that "Cars Kill Thousands". Propaganda at work.

The ABD has obtained a copy of the Committee of the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants report from which this information is quoted. What this report actually says is very different from what is implied by green campaigners. In fact, it gives the petrol driven car a clean bill of health:

 

  1. Sulphur Dioxide is an industrial pollutant, with only 3% coming from transport.
  2. Ozone is not produced by exhausts but by complex reactions in the atmosphere. There is no positive relationship between levels of Ozone and levels of car pollutants.
  3. Particulates come mainly from industry, but the main town centre source is large diesel engines in the very buses that the ITP proposes more of.

 

The plain fact is that levels of all the main pollutants associated with car exhausts are well within internationally recognised safety limits almost everywhere almost all the time, and emissions are falling steadily, being projected to reach only 20-40% of 1990 levels by 2010 by the Government's own air quality strategy figures.

Moreover, mainstream scientific opinion has long moved away from air pollution as a causal factor in the increased incidence of childhood asthma. This does not prevent anti car groups clinging to this discredited link to justify their views.

The Rape of Road Safety

Perhaps of more concern than anything else in the white paper are the implications for road safety.

Bad enough are the unnecessary deaths which will result from cancelling most of the roadbuilding programme, as new and upgraded roads are invariably safer than their predecessors. Much needed bypasses have been shelved, leaving traffic thundering through small towns and villages quite unnecessarily.

But the Government is now threatening something even worse - policy on setting speed limits and controlling vehicle speeds in other ways will now no longer be based on safety alone, but on "environmental" grounds, with full consultation for anti car groups who know nothing about and care less for safe driving, by their own admission only looking to find new ways of making driving less attractive.

This change in central government policy only formalises what has been going on at a local level over the past six years anyway, years in which the previous trend of falling road deaths has come to a halt and begun to reverse itself.

This rape of road safety is a national disgrace, and should by rights do more than anything else to discredit the thinking behind the White Paper.

The White Paper — a Whitewash

The proposals in the White Paper are ill thought through, and, if implemented will cause huge damage to the economy, together with damage to the liberty, opportunity and quality of life of the British people unparalleled in post war society. Almost without exception, they reduce choice, fail to recognise what people really want, and will harm most the interests of those who have benefited from the revolution in personal mobility the car has brought about - working mothers, those on lower wages, young families, pensioners - as well as many, many working people.

There is a real danger that it will be looked back on with the same disdain as 1960s education policies and high rise developments. But that is not surprising since it was drafted by anti car pressure groups and intellectuals, vested interests in public transport and certain commercial organisations who are too short sighted to see that clearing the roads for their companies will bring them little benefit if the whole economy suffers. The intelligent objections placed by many in the consultation exercise were, of course, ignored, but that is the nature of a whitewash.

 


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