NEW LABOUR'S announcement of a £7 billion road building programme last week was a U-turn of dramatic proportions. It is one for which people and the environment will pay dearly. The plan marks the final abandonment of New Labour's pledge to solve Britain's transport crisis.
When Tony Blair first came to office in 1997 his government announced a moratorium on road building, arguing rightly that building more roads was 'not an option' in tackling transport chaos. Instead it argued that what was needed was a strategic transport plan which was centred on shifting passengers and freight from roads to rail and other forms of transport.
In 2000 the government announced that 'building more and more roads is not the answer'. Yet last week transport secretary Alistair Darling turned such talk, and all logic, on its head. New Labour's plans will see the M25 London orbital motorway widened to four lanes, similar schemes on parts of the M1 and M11 motorways, major programmes on the A12 and A120 in Essex and other smaller schemes.
Bodies like the Freight Transport Association, representing the giant haulage companies, the private motoring firms the AA and RAC, and the CBI business body welcomed the new plans. Sections of the press who pose as 'the motorist's friend' did the same. The Sun proclaimed, 'With a squealing of tyres the government does an almighty U-turn. The John Prescott policy of 'no new roads, they cause jams' suddenly becomes 'bigger roads free up the jams'.
'Instead of treating drivers like the enemy, their lives are going to be made easier.' In fact the opposite is the truth. Every study has shown that building more and bigger roads does NOT ease traffic congestion. The M25 around London didn't exist 20 years ago. We were told it was needed to ease traffic congestion around the capital.
It has become the world's busiest motorway and at times is so choked it resembles a giant car park. Tackling transport chaos and congestion on the roads can only be done by making alternatives accessible and affordable. Some argue that congestion can only be tackled by building more roads and then charging people to use them because people are addicted to cars.
They suggest people want to drive cars as an expression of their individualism or virility. This is a silly argument. Every study has shown that if public transport was reliable and cheap people would use it for many journeys they now make by car. What 'choice' is there for someone, as I did, having to go from London to Durham last Friday and return on Sunday?
The return cost by car worked out at around £60 for two people. The cheapest the same journey was available by train for two people was £325.60! It would have been far more pleasant and quick to travel by train. It was not some addiction to a car that led me to sit in a traffic jam for hours, but a simple matter of no affordable alternative.
The government seem to be edging towards extending congestion charging and road tolls across Britain as the way to curb car use.
They point to the success of Ken Livingstone's scheme in London - forgetting that they didn't support it when he proposed it. This has had some limited success in cutting peak time traffic congestion. But this form of road pricing pushes the poorest off the roads, clearing the way for the better off.
Rationing should be on the basis of need not wealth. All the technology used in the London scheme could be used to run a system in which pensioners or people with young children, for example, were allowed to drive freely but others were restricted.
Many of those now driving into London from Kent, Surrey or Essex would use public transport if the trains were not so expensive, overcrowded and unreliable.
The same applies in most other cities. In rural areas it is the lack of buses, and the axeing of local rail lines, that has pushed more people into cars. Reregulating buses so they ran where people needed them - and reopening rail lines - would transform transport. Instead New Labour's transport plans will mean Britain will continue to have the most congested roads in Europe.
BUILDING MORE roads to accommodate more traffic will be a disaster for the environment and people's health. Road transport is responsible for around 21 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions - a key cause of global warming. The government admits this will rise to 26.3 percent by 2010. The 1990s saw a doubling of asthma cases in children under five, with one in seven now suffering from the conditions. There are complex causes of asthma, but no doubt that increased traffic is a key factor.
More road traffic means more children killed or seriously injured. In 2001 3,144 children were killed or seriously injured by cars while they were walking, and 674 while cycling.
Rail must replace road and air travel
THE GOVERNMENT is giving in to pressure to extend airports, either building new runways at places like Heathrow and Stansted or building whole new airports. Bodies like the British Airports Authority, the airlines and business groups all say it is needed.
Britain must remain 'competitive', they say, by attracting ever more flights to land here, including a growing number using Britain as a transit point for connecting flights onwards. To satisfy this hundreds of thousands more people must have their sleep ruined by noise and be affected by pollution. The truth is we need less air travel, not more.
One in five of all people flying into or out of Britain is a businessman or woman. Air freight into Britain is also forecast to rise by almost 500 percent by 2030. The fastest growing area is flying fruit, vegetables and flowers into Britain. Much of this is simply unnecessary. Air travel is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Much air travel within Britain and Europe could and should be replaced with far more efficient and less polluting high speed rail travel. The air transport industry gets huge tax breaks and subsidies. It does not pay any tax on aviation fuel. That would raise £9.2 billion a year, which could be put into developing efficient and affordable alternatives. The government has long abandoned its pledge to bring the railways back into public ownership.
Instead New Labour pours billions of pounds into subsidising the private companies which have wrecked the rail network. Things are set to get worse. The road-building plans included several schemes in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. The government rejected a plan last week for new rail services between Bedford and Northampton.
The Strategic Rail Authority plans to axe 180 rail services and up to 500 trains a week! Any rational transport policy would see a major shift of freight from road to rail. Yet the opposite is happening. Royal Mail is abandoning using trains to put at least 500 more lorries on the roads each day.
A successful scheme that should be used
THERE IS a far better alternative to road pricing as a way to shift people from cars to public transport. Ken Livingstone, when he was leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the early 1980s, put it into practice. His 'Fares Fair' policy slashed tube and bus fares in the capital by 25 percent.
The result was dramatic. In 1982 car use in London dropped by over 10 percent. An extra £48 million in fare revenue came in from public transport, despite the lower fares. London Underground usage went up 44 percent and bus usage by 14 percent. The policy was a brilliant success. It was hated by the Tory government of the day, and Margaret Thatcher ensured the policy was ruled illegal and then abolished the GLC.
Ticket prices on public transport doubled, car journeys rocketed and there were an extra 6,000 serious accidents on London's roads. Alistair Darling, now New Labour transport secretary, was a leading figure on Lothian Regional Council in Scotland at the time and hailed the GLC's policies as 'a model for others to follow'.