Has local transport policy gone into reverse?

Claire Haigh
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D:Ream’s things can only get better embodied the aspirational tone of Labour’s ‘transformational’ 1997 Election Campaign. Britain was ready to reclaim the world stage, destined for a future of perpetual prosperity and progress. However, nearly twenty years on, despite a myriad of transformational technological and social advancements, it is clear that progress is not always straightforward or predictable and in some areas we have not only taken our foot off of the accelerator, we may even have slipped into reverse.  One area where we are seeing some worrying signs of regression is local transport policy.

The Integrated Transport White Paper published in 1998 represented a sea change in local transport thinking, and led to a series of measures which put sustainable transport at the heart of delivering on key policy objectives such as regeneration, growth and carbon reduction.  The current Government has demonstrated recognition of the link between investing in transport infrastructure and economic growth.  And it has built on integrated transport thinking through initiatives like the Local Sustainable Transport Fund and Better Bus Areas Fund. However, increasingly there are disturbing signs from some parts of Government this sound type of thinking is being undermined.

The population of the UK is increasing, and at 63.7 million we are now the third most populous country in Europe. Road space is a finite resource, yet much of current guidance champions the benefits of car parking as vital for town centres and rallies against ‘penalising motorists’, relegating the potential benefits of buses and the need for bus priority measures to the back seats.

The importance of local transport is repeatedly overlooked in the debate about how to reinvigorate our high streets.  This is in spite of the fact that more people access the high street by bus than car, and bus users make 1.4 billion shopping trips a year with an estimated retail spend of £27 billion.  Only last week the new High Streets Minister Brandon Lewis called on local authorities to risk legal challenges by offering motorists free short stay parking, and called for a change in the role played by parking wardens.

This type of thinking was very much in evidence at last month’s Conservative party conference when the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP unveiled plans for the abolition of parking charges. Undoubtedly a popular move, but a short sighted one that will not help to tackle congestion or promote sustainable travel choices. The difficult truth is that parking spaces in our town and city centres are finite. In August this year a parking space near Hyde Park in London went on sale for a whopping £300,000, nearly double the average house price in the UK. With demand exceeding the potential supply to such an extent we have no realistic alternative other than to promote more sustainable travel options.

And it’s not just in parking policy where there has been a recent regression. On 22 October 2013, the City of Liverpool embarked on a trial nine month suspension of bus lanes, a move which can only be described as alarming.  To make public transport a viable choice it needs to compete with the car as an attractive means of transport. Bus lanes enable buses to beat congestion and keep to timetable ensuring people get to work or education on time.  According to a 2011 survey more than half of car drivers would use the bus if bus routes were more convenient to them, and more than a third would use buses if they were faster. Take away the bus lanes and you reduce the appeal of buses as a mode of transport. And experience has shown that bus passengers once lost are hard to win back.

The suspension of bus lanes in Liverpool may be intended to ease congestion for motorists, but the only way to reduce congestion in the long term is by a more efficient use of road space.  Moreover the car is responsible for 67% of carbon emissions by domestic transport, and the quickest and most cost effective way to reduce these emissions is by encouraging behaviour change.  In a recent study by David Simmonds it is estimated that the best used bus services in urban areas may be reducing carbon emissions from road transport by as much a 75%.  And congestion costs time and money, an estimated £11 billion per annum in urban areas alone. High quality bus corridors generate significant economic benefits, as well as reducing congestion and carbon emissions.  Making bus travel slower and encouraging people to return to using their cars is truly a backward step.

The 1998 White Paper recognised the importance of reducing car dependency, improving public transport and establishing effective integration of transport planning and demand management. The best of transport policy since has been built on these solid foundations.  It would be a tragedy if this understanding were to be eroded.

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Photo: Jerm

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