Transport has become a key political battleground and one that seems unlikely to go quietly away, given the high taxation on road use and seeming lack of investment. The congestion on today’s roads has many causes. Primarily two decades of planning mainly concerned with predicting and providing based on estimated future car usage, has resulted in massive road building and consequently encouraged more and more cars to appear, e.g. M25 (intended for 80 000 vehicles now has over 200 000 vehicles a day).
Secondly, deregulation and privatisation of public transport services, allegedly to regulate and ensure continuity to encourage competition and innovative transport forms and therefore increase passenger demand, has had completely the reverse effect, forcing the travelling public back into their cars! The present thrust of Transport Policy thus comes at a time when in the UK there are too many cars on the road, resulting in gridlock and increased air pollution, and when public transport has undergone serious neglect and decline. Also as Britain is getting richer and we expect to travel where we want when we want and complain when congestion means we cannot!
Why are we acting now?
Principally because world traffic is expected to grow by 30% in the next 20 years. Policy is also aimed at halting the increasing lack of use of public transport: today, in excess of 80% of UK motorists never use a bus. Further, over the last two decades or so, less than 1% of GDP has been spent on transport. But also there is concern that the economy will suffer and votes in future elections will be lost.
What is happening? And how will the money be used?
The immediate change is that transport spending is increasing from £5 billion to £9 billion in what is a 10-year plan which will, it is promised, ‘transform the continued transport network’. The success of solving the congestion problem will obviously hinge on how effectively and where money is spent on transport. The extensive park and ride schemes and light transport schemes, in addition to the obvious input into more public modes of transport, are areas that one would expect to be at the core of policy. Additionally it’s expected that schemes will be established that rapidly reduce the numbers of cars on the road. By increasing the real cost of car usage, through tolls, taxes and cost increases on parking etc., improving the motorways with closures of motorways to those making short journeys, through variable speed limits and the extension of crawler lanes. Alternative methods of transport will also be highly subsidised and encouraged, e.g. bicycle lanes. One of the first steps at identifying priorities has been the requirement on local administration areas to draw up Local Transport Plans, money will undoubtedly be allocated based on such plans.
CASE STUDY - The best light rail system in the world? - Metrolink opened in Manchester in 1992 at a cost of around £152 million. A fleet of 26 trams operates over the 31 km network. Metrolink has now reached 13.9 mn passengers a year and 65% of Metrolink passengers have a car that they could have used instead of Metrolink. Between 14% and 50% of car trips to destinations served by Metrolink have been switched to Metrolink.
Why is it so successful? - The system is simple and easily understood. Quick journeys and citycentre track gives good access to the main attractions and work places. The service is frequent and reliable. The system is safe to travel on. Extensions through Salford Quays have been built running along Eccles New Road, and will serve a significant residential population. Four further extensions to Oldham and Rochdale (cost £137 million), Manchester Airport, Trafford Centre and East Didsbury, were approved by the Government.
In a very short time Metrolink has established itself as a very successful transport system, tempting people out of their cars in a deregulated bus environment and without subsidy. It is part of any integrated transport strategy for Manchester. It is a clear indication that investment in good quality public transport works.
In the short term the measures that are being undertaken will mean that the jams go. But beyond this period, transport investment invariably means that the jams will get worse; but at a different location and in a different town to that hit now! Let’s just hope that the £700 million pledged to the Channel Tunnel link (in a £5.6 billion project) does not result in nothing being on offer to other priority projects!