The end of the road: where now?

The demand for car travel appears to have no limit. Even in the United States, which may be thought to be close to satiation, both vehicle and passenger kilometres have increased in the last ten years by 40 per cent – a similar extent to the UK. Pressure for road building to keep pace with the demand continues, albeit in the face of ever more evidence that its growth is unsustainable and the absence of proof that it contributes to the nation’s prosperity or people’s quality of life.

However, most transport policy makers and practitioners in the field now accept that the arguments put forward for over 25 years by academics characterised as ‘woolly radicals’ or ‘car haters’, were right. Rather than freeing congested roads, increasing their capacity exacerbates the problem within a short space of time: a more substantial geographical base in which the car can be used is recognised. This then leads to the adoption of more dispersed patterns of activity for which it is the only mode of transport given its considerable advantages of speed and convenience.

Although those who have chosen extended travel patterns by car have disregarded, wittingly or unwittingly, the fact that every mile by it undermines the public interest objectives of environmental protection, danger reduction and resource conservation, they vehemently reject any proposals preventing them from maintaining the patterns on the grounds that they cannot make their journeys in any other way – as if it is now someone else’s responsibility to provide a matching alternative for them to consider – an alternative that rarely exists when travel time and fares are taken into account.

Public transport to the rescue?
Nevertheless, a consensus is now being reached that car use must be curtailed, with the key element of such a policy much improved bus and rail services and, of course, subsidised fares. In this way, it is thought, people can be more easily encouraged to transfer back to public transport – from which, incidentally, they never came in the first place.

These judgements about the future role of public transport as by far the most important substitute for the car are apparent in documents produced by transport institutions, commercial bodies and the European Commission (for instance in its recent Green Paper Thecitizens’ network), in papers by academics, in party political agenda-setting statements, in local and central government reports, in the media, and in public opinion surveys. So influential has been the support for public transport that it is rarely questioned. The sole problem is seen to lie with budgetary constraints. Many cities are investing in new quality systems in spite of their high capital and running costs.

Investment decisions in transport
Whilst all forms of motorised transport are the source of noise, pollution, danger and community severance, it can be shown that those for bus and rail are relatively low. Understandably, therefore, in supporting the case for them, ‘least-cost planning’ and an ‘integrated approach’ in policy decisions are recommended, and repeated calls are made for a ‘level playing field’ for road and rail investment. That case is strengthened by reference to the fact that bus and rail have a range of essential functions: catering first for the motorised travel of all adults without access to a car or who prefer not to use a car, and of course for all children allowed to travel on their own; second, for commuting in the rush hour when it may be necessary to oblige motorists to use public transport owing to problems of congestion and shortage of parking space in city centres (thereby rendering its services extremely uneconomic as vehicle occupancy, and therefore revenue tend to be low outside the rush hour); and third, for long distance inter-urban travel.

But, what sort of sensible policy can be determined when motorised transport modes incurring high economic, social and environmental costs are given preferential treatment to those incurring very low costs; and when investment in all the modes is not evaluated according to common criteria, and with the environmentally benign non-motorised modes largely excluded from any assessment?

Even discounting criteria other than the direct economic one, comparison between investment in networks for walking and cycling rather than public transport shows that the capital costs per kilometre for the new type of public transport systems currently under construction or being reviewed are many hundreds of times higher than those required to provide for walking and cycling – both modes which are much more effective in meeting travel demand. The total 2,000 kilometre cycle network for London would cost the equivalent of 2000 metres of the Leeds Supertram system, or 400 metres of the Jubilee Line Extension! In the Netherlands, with its high standards of provision both for cycling and for public transport, nearly a third of journeys are made by cycle and, in urban areas, 14 times as many are made in this way as by all forms of public transport combined.

Moreover, when large investment has been made in high quality public services, the outcome has been disappointing. On average, the best of new public transport systems cost far more than budgeted and then carry fewer passengers than predicted. In spite of their high capital costs, light rail systems, as in Manchester and Sheffield, add no more than a few per cent to public transport patronage for the whole city and have relatively little effect in terms of the objective of relieving road congestion by attracting car users. And the benefit of the small transfer to public transport tends to be overtaken within a year or two by the continuing rise in car mileage. Nor does the evidence support the case for subsidising fares if the intention is to attract car users. The most influential route in that respect – and a wide range of others – is to raise substantially the real and perceived costs of car travel.

Fallacious assumptions underpinning current policy
At the heart of the debate about the future of public transport policy and road building, and any balance which needs to be struck in that regard, lie three dubious, albeit unspoken, assumptions. The first is that people’s appetite for travelling ‘further and faster’ is insatiable and that longer journeys at higher speeds are the ‘important’ ones. This results in exaggerating the significance of longer journeys which then encourages solutions to be seen to lie in the area of investment in transport infrastructure – road building, rail electrification, and other improvements in public transport services to reduce travel times on these journeys, rather than on encouraging and enabling people to meet a rising proportion of their transport needs without travelling far, and making as many as possible of their journeys by cycle or on foot.

The second fallacy is that current and future demand for travel must be met, though perhaps in less environmentally-damaging ways than at present, because people have an inalienable right to have their wish to travel met, if not by car, then by some other form of motorised transport. But this approach ignores the aggregate harm of more travel – albeit less damaging per unit of travel.

The third and perhaps most dangerous assumption is that the accumulation of greenhouse gases from all sectors of the economy, including transport, can continue to rise without that putting at risk the ecological balance of the planet. However, the climate scientists now call for considerable reductions in the production of these gases, but average fuel consumption per passenger mile on bus and rail is only a third to a half lower than that of the car and moreover has only limited prospects of replacing current car use.

Thus, the major problem facing decision makers in the field of transport is no longer whether and where roads should be built but what are the most effective ways of reducing car use. Any evaluation of the different forms of transport, taking account of social, health, economic and local and global environmental criteria, is likely to reveal the non-motorised modes to be far more cost-effective than public transport for most journeys.

This analysis suggests that a transport strategy would best be directed to first, reducing the need to use a car through planning policy; second, providing safe and convenient pedestrian networks for short journeys; third, providing safe and attractive cycle networks and buses for other urban journeys; and fourth, promoting the non-motorised modes in combination with rail and coach for longer journeys. Such a strategy must take precedence over one aimed simply at trying to encourage significant transfer from the car to public transport for that is an ephemeral goal.


Published in Parliamentary Review, Conference Edition, 1996.

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