The transport portfolio is known as the graveyard of ministerial ambition; the conflicting demands of public versus private, Green versus lifestyle, and the enormity of the costs of implementing any radical transport policy have proved too demanding for most transport ministers.
The conflicts are very real. As our wealth increases, so our lifestyle expectations increase. This usually means a desire and ability to travel further and more frequently and an increased expectation of the comfort and convenience of that travel. The provider of comfort and convenience is perceived to be the private car. Car travel is flexible, comfortable and provides door-to-door convenience at what is perceived to be a reasonable cost. As our affluence grows and car-ownership increases, it will be a brave government that will dispossess or seriously inconvenience such a powerful electoral group.
But, conversely, governments are keen to support environmental initiatives. In January 1994, the UK Government published Sustainable Development, the UK strategy covering environmental issues following the Earth Summit in Rio. The publication summarised the main goal for sustainable development in the transport sector as: “to meet the economic needs for access to facilities with less travel and in ways which do not place unacceptable burdens on the environment”. The Government’s stated action plan was to:
Influence the rate of traffic growth;
Provide a framework for individual choice in transport which enables environmental objectives to be met;
Increase the economic efficiency of transport decisions;
Improve the design of vehicles to minimise pollution and CO2 emissions.
It is perhaps a bit short on passion and vague about implementation, but it shows nevertheless some sort of commitment.
In reality, to make any impression on the heart of the problem – the private car – a number of things have to happen:
The relative costs of public versus private transport have to alter. This is almost entirely dependent on Government tax policies;
The reliability, convenience and accessibility of public transport systems has to improve dramatically;
The design and comfort of vehicles and environments has to improve;
The perceived safety of public transport must improve (I say perceived, because there is a much higher risk of death or injury resulting from travelling by car, nevertheless the image of public transport is of muggings, assaults and a general lack of personal safety);
Government planning policy must discourage development which can only be reached easily by private car.
A start has been made. Buses are gradually switching to ultra low sulphur fuel, which dramatically reduces the level of sulphur dioxide in exhausts.
The Government is encouraging the idea of light rail (trams) beween population centres, although it is reluctant to provide the funding.
Planning policy has swung away from unserviced out-of-town shopping centres back to town centre regeneration, and the design of public transport vehicles and environments is now taken seriously.
More is planned. The increasing use of smartcard technology will make intermodal interchange much easier, and there is now real pressure to make public transport accessible to all (good economic sense with an aging population). Design has a major role to play here.
If this piece suggests that I am anti-private transport, then I have given the wrong impression. I believe that there is a place for all forms of transport – including walking – to combine and provide the freedom and convenience we have come to demand, but they must be planned and designed to be complementary not competing, and with all modes given equal importance and resources. That way we might retain our quality of life without destroying our children’s future.