Is John Prescott on the right track by wanting to charge drivers to bring their cars into our congested cities? Kam Patel talks to academic experts about the first transport white paper in 20 years
At a recent gathering of transport experts, the leftwing Labour MP Ken Livingstone stood up and made a rather surprising statement. Livingstone - a frontrunner to be mayor of London - declared that his position on transport policy was closer to that of Tony Blair than to that of transport secretary John Prescott. Red Ken was, it turned out, worried - just like Mr Blair is - about Middle England. Would not charging car drivers to enter cities, as Prescott advocates, be a big vote loser?
At the same meeting was Tony Ridley, former managing director of Eurotunnel and ex-chairman and chief executive of London Underground. Ridley, who is now head of the civil engineering department at Imperial College and a firm believer in the need to reduce traffic congestion, was none too impressed by Mr Livingstone's comments: "I thought: 'you rotten sod'," he says, chuckling.
As it has turned out, Mr Prescott this week managed to ward off doubters like Livingstone and Blair. Charging for driving into town centres is high on the list of priorities in his transport white paper.
Ridley is delighted: "The white paper treats us as adults and avoids over-simplifications. The government has embarked on a massive exercise in changing public perception of the transport problem." Prescott's big triumph, he says, is that he has taken on the Treasury over congestion charging and won, extracting a promise from the chancellor that monies from congestion charging will be ploughed straight back into improving public transport.
So why is road pricing such a hot political potato? Well, there is no shortage of figures showing just how much Britons have fallen in love with the car. Data compiled by Stephen Glaister, of the London School of Economics, reveals that since 1972 the proportion of households with no cars has fallen from just under half to about 30 per cent.
Glaister, who will soon be joining Imperial College as professor of transport and infrastructure, says that only 7 per cent of single women over 75 have a car - many of them never learned to drive. But 70 per cent of women aged between 40 and 49 hold a driving licence and young women are learning to drive at the same rate as young men. As the decades pass, the older generation will own and use cars in much higher numbers than their predecessors. And official forecasts are that by 2025, road traffic will be nearly double its 1990 level.
But it would be wrong to lay all the blame for the ills of Britain's transport system on the car. A central objective of this week's transport white paper, the first for 20 years, is to formulate a policy to deal with the growing crisis in the transport system. The previous government relied on market forces to sort it all out. The result? The deregulation of the bus system and the privatisation of the railway network - a shambles.
The buzzword in the run-up to the white paper's publication was "integrated transport", ensuring that road, rail and bus systems are designed to "fit" into each other. But it is not easy to pull off.
As Ridley says, most transport professionals acknowledge the complexity of the issue. "We are all in favour of better public transport. I spent my professional career before becoming an academic on the development of public transport. I believe in it. I want to see more money spent on it. But it is naive to assume that you can solve all the country's problems by providing better public transport. Even if we put dramatically more freight on the rail network, for instance, that would still only make a small dent on the growth in cars on roads."
Such naivety is manifested in what Ridley calls "one-off" solutions - often advocated by lobby groups. Some say more roads will solve the crisis; others that no more roads will put a stop to all the nonsense; some want better public transport while others think road pricing is the only way forward. "It does not work like that," says Ridley. "The only way we can make a reasonable fist of improving our transport system is by drawing up packages of policies. The argument should be what mix of A, B, C, D, E and F is appropriate for particular circumstances. We need different combinations for different regions or cities."
While Ridley "profoundly" disagrees with road protestors, he says they are no worse than transport professionals who, for many years, thought building roads was all that was needed. "One of the major disservices my generation of transport professionals has done to society is to focus on wheels turning whereas the issue is getting people and goods from A to B. And that may include wheels turning but it might also include walking. If we made walking more attractive it could remove a lot of short car journeys."
But for Ridley, stopping people driving should not be the objective. For him, simple economic logic implies that if demand (for cars and car use) exceeds supply (enough roads to carry the cars), which it does in many cities, then something is "terribly wrong" with the pricing arrangement. This is backed up by other figures compiled by Glaister showing that in relation to income, motoring costs have plummeted over the past 40 years. It now costs half what it did in 1964 to buy a car.
Travelling by rail and bus has become relatively more expensive than travelling by car. And while cars have improved dramatically in quality in the past 40 years, few would argue that public transport has undergone a similar transformation. No wonder the car has cornered the market.
But it is too easy to just concentrate on the movement of people. There is also freight. Most people hate large noisy trucks, ignoring the fact that it is these monsters that enable them to shop in comfort. Yet for every truck that brings goods to the supermarket, 500 cars zoom in and drive the stuff away again: "The use of the car as it interacts with freighted goods is a much bigger congestion problem than the problem of the truck that brings it in the first place," says Ridley. He believes a solution might be increasing home shopping via the Internet coupled with home delivery. (The impact of electronic communications on transport will be an important feature of his department's research programme.) Ultimately the thorny issue is selling road pricing to the public. How would Ridley go about it?
He says he would first recognise that many people depend heavily on cars. "I would then go on to say: 'But we all want to live a civilised life.' And as people drive longer and longer distances, and roads become more congested and polluted, life is becoming less and less civilised. Cars will destroy our lives unless we bring their use under control. If people can agree on that, then at least you have a chance."
New Labour must back its transport secretary on charging drivers who take cars into crowded cities. Ridley says: "Prescott has done his damnedest to get a sensible transport policy going. We cannot judge him on this paper alone. We will shortly have policies on trunk roads, railways, buses, charging, freight and more - all to be set in the context of what money will actually be made available. Prescott shows promise in this first year examination. The big question is what he will actually deliver by the time of his finals."
WHAT THE TRANSPORT WHITE PAPER SAYS:
* Local authorities to charge for driving into town centres
* Company car parks to help ease congestion and pollution
* Pounds 700 million for local authorities to draw up transport plans with targets for improving air quality, road safety and public transport
* Pounds 300 million more for local bus services
* National minimum concessionary bus fares for pensioners - half price tickets for those who qualify
* A national public transport information system based on new technologies by 2000
A new Commission for Integrated Transport to advise government
TRAVEL CARDS FOR CARS
Every day 75,000 pedestrians, two-thirds of them Londoners, pass through Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square.
Not surprisingly, several schemes have been proposed to pedestrianise these areas, overrun as they are by traffic. But, as economist Stephen Glaister at the London School of Economics points out, there are several problems. One is lack of money to carry out the work needed to transform the area. Another is that if traffic is diverted, it will only build up in other areas. And, despite evidence that car ownership in London has grown less quickly than in other parts of the country, the city is still getting more and more clogged.
Glaister believes a special congestion-charging scheme for London could help, cutting down pollution and raising revenue for investment in public transport. He advocates making car drivers buy travelcards covering the zones they wish to go to, just as those travelling by bus, rail or Tube have to now.
During defined hours vehicles would have to display a valid travelcard. The zones would be those for London's Underground. At its simplest, there would be no difference in price between travelcards for those using just rail, tube and train and those driving cars; indeed both groups would purchase the same cards, saving on admin costs.
Crucially, the extra money would accrue to London Transport (not the Treasury) to be reinvested in public transport. "At the moment people travelling by public transport are paying for the privilege, while those using their cars to travel into town pay nothing apart from their petrol cost and at the same time use up valuable road space. This scheme would redress the imbalance in cost between the two modes of transport."
Glaister believes his scheme could enable parking charges to be abolished, allowing traffic wardens to concentrate on violations of parking regulations in bus lanes and at places where traffic flow is being slowed down. "The car user would have to pay a charge but in addition to receiving the benefit of clearer roads, they would gain the freedom to use the public transport system. This in itself would be a positive move towards a park-and-ride-type of behaviour."