Integrated transport white paper

A memorandum for the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee.

This short Memorandum represents a commentary on the Government’s White Paper on the Future of Transport. After highlighting radical elements in the White Paper which provide grounds for optimism, it briefly raises nine inter-related and critical themes in the Paper: the justification for traffic restraint; the breadth of modal choice; the balance between persuasion and coercion in practice; the dangers of exaggerating the role of public transport; pricing, subsidy and hypothecation; health promotion and danger reduction; the scope of technology in energy conservation; limits on demand for travel; and the response to the threat of climate change. These, particularly the last, provide grounds for serious concern about the direction the Paper proposes for the first decades of the next century.

At the outset, it would be churlish not to acknowledge encouraging statements in the White Paper such as:

  • the need to reduce the current growth in road traffic (1.35)
  • local authorities required to set out their strategies for doing so and providing them with the opportunity for using taxes on car use for other transport purposes
  • integrating transport policies with those for education, health and wealth creation (1.22)
  • recognising the links of ill-health with less walking and cycling (2.6)
  • declaring the intention of encouraging healthy lifestyles through transport decisions (2.12)
  • and increasing provision for safer routes to schools (1.38)
  • acknowledgement of the significance of walking and cycling (3.7)
  • support for the National Cycling Strategy (3.9)
  • and support for local facilities (1.41)
  • a major review of speed policy (3.227 and 13.8)
  • research into measures to improve vehicle safety and to ensure that they give maximum protection to occupants and minimise injury to pedestrians and cyclists (3.220)
  • a wish to see aviationmeeting its external costs (3.191)
  • requiring airport policy to ‘reflect our strategy for sustainable development’ (3.191)
  • pursuing the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) so that an environmental tax is levied on aviation fuel (4.155)

and, most importantly,

  • a major effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (1.36)
  • the need to respond to the challenge of climate change (2.25), which represents ‘the greatest global environmental threat facing the international community’ (1.8 and 2.22)
  • recognition of ‘our obligation to meet targets on climate change’ (John Prescott’s Foreword)
  • and ‘recognition that emissions from road traffic are the fastest growing contributor to climate change (1.8).

However, the White Paper can be challenged on many key issues. The following are notable:

  1. Congestion and pollution as primary factors justifying restraint of choice of travel mode.
    – The origins of this viewpoint are the problems posed by rush hour commuter traffic. They therefore tend to be only applicable in urban centres where public transport can provide a realistic alternative to the car – but only 1 in 7 journeys are to or from work and only a minority are to these centres rather than elsewhere. Such a viewpoint implies that there are no important reasons for limiting choice in areas and at times not subject to these problems. It also provides no indication that traffic reduction policies may be justified to achieve other social, economic and environmental gains. This also raises issues relating to choice.
  2. The appropriateness of referring to choice given the limitations on exercising it.
    The White Paper argues that ‘people want more choice’ (1.3) the aim is to increase personal choice (1.21), including its expression in terms of increasing ownership and use of cars – ‘we expect more people to be able to afford a car’ (1.2) and ‘people want more choice on whether to use their cars’ (1.17).
    – However, there is a never-ending scope for this, unless account is taken of the economic and environmental implications. Moreover, what is implicit in this is the inadmissibility of denying people the opportunity of using their cars – or flying – if amatching alternative cannot be found. One can infer from this a judgement that if people cannot ‘reasonably’ make their journeys without the car or aeroplane, they have an inalienable right to go on doing so by these means.
    – Given the wide disparities between the characteristics and attractions of the different modes both from a self-interest and a public interest viewpoint, real choice rarely exists: for example, comparison of the great majority of door-to-door journeys reveals that, in most instances the car takes far less time than does public transport. In any case, ‘choice’ is very limited for people who do not have access to a car when they wish to travel.
  3. The adequacy of persuasion rather than coercion as the motivator of travel mode.
    Remarkably, the White Paper indicates that, over the next 20 years ‘we face dramatic increases in traffic. In our vision, more people will be able to afford a car’ – ‘the number of people owing cars will continue to increase – so we also need to make life better for the motorist’. It also wishes to ‘persuade people to use their cars a little (sic) less and public transport a little (sic) more’ (John Prescott’s Foreword) – but ‘we are not forcing people out of their cars’ (p.18 of the White Paper Summary) and ‘great sacrifices aren’t called for’ (1.48).
    – There are distinct dangers with this palliative, softly, softly, rather than holistic approach. In particular, the import of an adequate response to the problems of climate change is that coercion may be necessary and that the premises of 20th century thinking in the transport domain – the ‘further and faster’ syndrome – will need to be stood on their head very soon. Allied to this is the related fallacious assumption about the prospects of public transport.
  4. The dangers of exaggerating the role of public transport as a substitute for the car.
    Prescott’s Foreword states that we ‘need to improve public transport and reduce car dependence – everyone shares that analysis’. ‘Better public transport will encourage more people to use it’. ‘People want a better public transport system as a real and attractive alternative to using cars (1.3); ‘People will not switch from the comfort of their cars to buses that are old, dirty, unreliable and slow; motorists will not readily switch to public transport unless it is significantly better and more reliable’ (3.14).
    – Throughout the White Paper there is a distinct emphasis on public transport as the principal means of substituting for car travel (hence thecited attractions of ‘seamless journeys’ and ‘park and ride’ to enable people to continue to live in low density energy-intensive settlements whilst at the same time benefiting from access to urban facilities). This emphasis is misplaced.
    – The prime reason for the vast increase in car use in recent decades is, in the main, not because public transport has been insufficiently attractive. The confusion arises from the fact that, inthe great majority of cases, journeys by car have not substituted for those previously made by public transport – over the last 30 years, the number of car occupant kilometres has increased by 400bn., but the number of bus passenger kilometres has decreased by only 30bn.. Indeed, the number of car journeys exceeds the number of the combined public transport journeys by a factor of eight, and even those on foot and by cycle exceeds it by a factor of four.
    – Moreover, public transport too is polluting, dangerous and, per passenger kilometre, highly energy-consuming, especially in off-peak hours. The White Paper acknowledges that buses only ‘usually’ emit less CO2 per passenger kilometre than does the person travelling by car (2.22). This may prove to be ‘often’ if public transport is increasingly used in off-peak hours with its associated low seat occupancies.
  5. The pricing mechanism, subsidy and hypothecation.
    It appears that John Prescott won his battle with the Treasury in obtaining permission for the hypothecation of taxes on car use to be spent on improving the quality of public transport.
    – However, there is a strong case for questioning the wisdom of subsidising public transport. rather than making private transport more expensive to use in order to better reflect its local and global environmental costs. The case for subsidy has its origins in a never-ending goal of enabling people to travel further and faster – without regard to the social, economic and ecological consequences. It is clear that transport makes a significant call on the public purse – £1.6 billion on rail / £3 billion on local transport / £1.3 billion on roads (4.7). All of this investment subsidises more geographically spread patterns of travel and therefore promotes their adoption.
    – Indeed, the rhetoric in John Prescott’s Foreword stating that ‘This White Paper reflects the Government’s commitment to giving transport the highest possible priority’ sits uneasily with the Prime Minister’s often repeated statement that the Government’s top priority is ‘Education, education, education’!
    – Investment in public transport is not evaluated on a level playing field with investment in provision for the non-motorised modes. Insufficient account is taken of the far more cost-effective ways for investment by promoting walking and cycling, in particular. The present wording in the White Paper ‘we want buses to be first-class transport’ points to the likelihood of the funds being invested in Manchester’s ‘Metrolink’ type solutions – where the expenditure of £150 million on its first stage only carries 14 million passengers a year and moreover only achieves ‘some’ switch (i.e. disappointingly low) from car use (3.37).
  6. The roles of health promotion and danger reduction in transport policy.
    Although the importance of health and safety is acknowledged in the White Paper, and the case for safer routes to school and safer cars is clearly set out, this represents a very limited perspective of what needs to be achieved in this area of policy.
    Why not safe routes for children rather than just ‘to school’? Far more of childrens’ journeys are made for purposes other than going to and from school. Why should their safety on these other journeys be considered less relevant, particularly as only about 1 in 10 of their fatalities occurs on the journey to and from school combined?
    -Given the fact that the volume oftraffic represents perhaps the most obvious factor contributing to danger on the roads, yet the White Paper’s statement that ‘we are faced with dramatic increases in traffic’ (1.10), including the diagram of the substantial road traffic forecast increases accompanying the paragraphand the stated ‘need (only) to reduce the rate of road traffic growth’ (1.35), the goal of danger reduction seems unlikely to be met. It is salutary to note that even if a pedestrian is hit by a car travelling at 20mph – the lowest speed limit currently allowed to public roads – serious injury is likely to occur.
  7. Conserving fuel through technological improvement, rather than limiting its use.
    Clearly the authors of the White Paper are dazzled by the allure of technology, citing its role in enabling the capacity of the existing transport infrastructure to be increased, obtaining more vehicle miles from a gallon of fuel – ‘greener, cleaner vehicles’ (1.34) and ‘encouraging people to buy more fuel-efficient cars’ (2.56).
    – In the White Paper, the thrust of policy on this subject is on increasing efficiency far more than on the more effective means of reducing fuel consumption, namely by reducing vehicle mileage.
    – The same holds true with regard to the White Paper’s reference to the environmental costs of air travel in its reference to carbon emissions per passenger kilometre from air travel as higher than those from most other means of travel (1.48) – as if conscience can be salved by using high-speedrail instead of flying whenever possible, again ignoring the more effective means of reducing fuel consumption, namely travelling shorter distances. It is noteworthy that carbon emissions per passenger kilometre by high speed rail is only about one-third lower than that by air.
    – Moreover, there are distinct dangers in aiming to achieve reductions in fuel consumption through the medium of greater efficiencies, for instance, in obtaining more miles from a gallon of petrol: the effect of that approach in the last two decades has been to lower the unit cost of car travel thereby generating more car travel. From this it may be construed that it is necessary to pursue the goal of reducing the need for motorised travel before pursuing the efficiency goal.
  8. The absence in the White Paper of a goal to achieving significant limits on growth of road travel and of any limits on the growth of air travel.
    The White Paper notes that ‘new policy will take account of the demand for airport capacity (3.192). It argues that we need to ‘make it easier to get to airports by public transport (2.19 and 3.42). It also states ‘We will continue to promote the interests of our successful UK aviation industry’ (4.42); and ‘encourage international flights to regional airports where consistent with sustainable development’ (3.197).
    – The premise of policy in the White Paper, albeit unwritten, is to facilitate the objective of enabling people to travel ‘further and faster’. Only in circumstances in which the demand cannot be met owing to limited capacity, does the White Paper propose restraint. This also holds true for public transport – witness the implied view that public transport is all ‘good’ – ‘we will continue to work with the EU on the development of TENs’ (3.213) – the Trans-European Networks.
    – As quoted earlier, the White Paper refers to the need to reduce ‘the rate of growth’ in road travel (1.35) but not inthe much faster growing area of air travel (one-sixth of transport fuels – and rising – being used for air travel).
    – Indeed, the principle of ‘predict and provide’ for road travel has been abandoned – but apparently not for public transport or, particularly, air travel, in spite of the unsustainable levels of energy use that this entails: for instance, a round flight from London to New York per passenger produces carbon emissions equivalent on an equity base to the annual total that can be allowed for eachperson living on the planet for all their fossil fuel using purposes if the climate is not to be destabilised.
  9. Responding to the imperative of climate change in transport policy.
    In the Foreword to the White Paper, John Prescott calls for an urgent new approach to the problems posed by climate change, citing it as ‘one of the greatest threats to civilisation and therefore requiring a ‘framework to respond to the challenge’.
    – Whilst acknowledging the relevance of this aspect of transport policy, the primacy it must have is not reflected throughout its contents. Yet, research over the last ten years has revealed beyond reasonable doubt that the planet has a limited carrying capacity for greenhouse gas emissions if serious destabilisation of its climate from human activity is to be prevented. In light of this, there must be a substantial reduction of these emissions.
    – In recognition of the need for urgent international action on this, world leaders
    met in Rio in 1992 and again, five years later, in Kyoto. Whilst the negotiations that took place at these two venues can be seen torepresent important staging posts on the road to achieving that reduction, both the inequity and insufficiency of the targets set on each occasion are all too apparent.
    – Translating the overall reduction of 50% to 70% of the emissions called for in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Working Group reports over the last eight years onto an equity base – it is becoming ever more obvious that not only is this the moral approach but also the only politically feasible one – the average annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Western European countries will have to be at least 90% below their current level. Only a system based on a ration of ‘carbon vouchers’, some of which would be tradable, has a realistic prospect of success[1]. That represents a fall from about ten tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per annum to just under one tonne. Against this, the agreement reached in Kyoto, including a UK target of 12.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions) by between the years 2008 and 2012 can be seen to fall far short of what is needed. Nevertheless, whilst targets are set in the White Paper for many goals, no target is set for reducing emissions from within the road or air transport sectors.

The magnitude of the problem is daunting. But, if we do not deliver our fair share of the reduction, there can only be two outcomes: either those who do not yet use their share – mainly people living in developing countries – must be prevented from doing so or, together with future generations, we must witness and bear the costs of escalating damage from climate change – as well as the burden on our consciences. Road and air transport policies must be determined with far more attention paid to the obvious routes that will have to be taken to protect the planet from climate change. Transport cannot be excused from making its contribution to this imperative. The White Paper fails lamentably in this regard – other than in terms of rhetoric.

1. Michael Carley, Ian Christie and Mayer Hillman (1991), Towards the Next Environment White Paper, Policy Studies, Vol.12.1, Spring.

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