Why we need a transport revolution

By Malcolm Buchanan

Director, Colin Buchanan and Partners, London.
Chair, Transport Research Institute, Napier University, Edinburgh


The 1998 transport White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport- Better for Everyone", has alas not lived up to its title. The government's own statistics show that since 1998 average journey times by all modes of transport, except motorcycles and London buses, have lengthened. Transport has become Worse for nearly Everyone.

The academics and pressure group representatives who were appointed to advise the then Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions must take much of the blame for this failure. They were too concerned with knocking over Aunt Sallys such as "predict and provide" and gave insufficient thought to what the policies they advocated would cost and whether and in what circumstances they would deliver what the government was seeking.

Most of the Aunt Sallys were just that. There had, for example, never been a road construction policy of "predict and provide". The idea that the roads programme was being run in some mindless way in which investments were not adequately appraised was a myth deliberately created in order to discredit the programme. The fact that new road capacity would enable people to travel faster and that they would therefore go further had been understood since the earliest transportation studies (eg the 1965 London Transportation Study (LTS)). Insofar as road construction plans failed to take account of this effect, the policy had anyway been "under-predict" and since the road programmes had lagged far behind the growth of traffic it had certainly been "under-provide".

The early transportation studies had also confirmed the conclusion of the 1963 report "Traffic in Towns" that in most large cities it would prove impossible to adapt the streets and buildings to accommodate the potential demand for use of the car. LTS had, for example, demonstrated that even had London built its three rings of motorway, traffic restraint would have been needed across the whole of the Central Area. Restrictions on or charges for the use of cars would therefore be needed in many city centres. And it was in this that the 1998 White Paper did produce something of real value by empowering local authorities to charge car users at times and in locations of their choosing. Disappointingly, however, these powers have so far been employed only by Durham, which needed to stop drivers "mobile parking" by driving up Saddler Street and round the cathedral close while their partners visited the cash point at the bottom of the hill, and Central London,  to get to which only 13% (now 11%) of people used cars. It may be deduced from this that road pricing will be effective and politically acceptable if  motorists do not really need to go there in the first place (the 90% reduction in cars achieved in Durham) or if there are good public transport alternatives available from all directions (the 17% reduction in traffic to Central London).

 The 1998 White Paper announced that there was "a consensus for radical change" and committed the government to "giving transport the highest possible priority". It was not entirely clear what this radical change was to be but it was apparent that investment would be switched from road to rail, integration was much talked of, and the White Paper promised that new technology would have a significant role to play. The announcement, later in the White Paper that "the bus is to spearhead our transport revolution for the twenty first century" gave the reader pause for thought as to what this espousal of new technology was really going to amount to.

And now only six years later we have a new Transport White Paper with introductions by both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. The former describes it as a "vision for the next thirty years" and warns that we "cannot build our way out of the problems we face". He writes optimistically of the need to "tackle climate change" and warms to idea of congestion charging, sweetening the pill by adding that it is "how, not how much we pay" that matters. The Secretary of State also warns that "we cannot build our way out of the problems we face" and focuses on "sustained investment for the long term". Transport it seems, in the wake of the collapsed ten year plan, is to be put on the back burner.

So how did transport go so quickly from being the "highest priority" to becoming something the Prime Minister himself has to come out and bury at least until after the next election? The answer to this question again lies in the muddled thinking of the 1998 White Paper, which unrealistically raised hopes, but did not put forward a set of policies capable of meeting them. This situation arose because the authors failed to analyse the nation's transport problem in terms of the different travel markets, each of which needs different policies. Had they done so, they might have distinguished five proto-typical markets, which between them account for most of the travel in the country:

          inter-city long distance travel

          travel to city and town centres

          travel to other major trip attractors; hospitals, airports, shopping centres, etc.

          intra- suburban travel

          rural and semi-urban travel

Such an approach might be thought too analytical for a White Paper, but following it would have obliged the authors to consider the scale of the different markets, their respective contributions to the UK's traffic problems, the different policy mixes which might be appropriate to each, their likely effectiveness and the cumulative impacts which might then be achieved.

This more analytical approach would have soon revealed that we are already, in some places, quite good at limiting the traffic problems created by two of the five travel markets. Public transport (rail and air) can already easily out perform the car for longer distance, inter-urban travel and that is true even without the TGVs we are continually being advised we need. And for travel to city and town centres we now have all the policy tools we need (buses, bus lanes, park and ride, parking control, road pricing, etc.) to significantly cut the use of the car without destroying the vitality of the centres. Several cities, now including London, have demonstrated what can be achieved, and even better examples can be seen in Europe, so for the city centre travel market it is really a question of getting on with it.

The same policies can in principle be applied to other major trip attractors such as airports and hospitals, but providing the public transport alternatives is generally more difficult and consequently there is greater reluctance to apply the disincentives to car use such as parking charges.

However, in the other two travel markets, suburban and urban fringe travel, the only thing one can at present be sure of is that public transport, as we currently know it, will always be very much slower and far less convenient than the car. And unfortunately it is these two travel markets which account for the greater part of the traffic on our roads. Moreover in these two travel markets restrictions on car use and road pricing are unlikely to be politically acceptable since there is no reasonable public transport alternative. So the conclusion the policy makers should have reached is that if we are to address the serious and related problems of traffic congestion and global warming we face a choice in these two travel markets between, on the one hand, expanding the road network, while further cleaning up the motor vehicle, or, on the other hand, finding some new forms of public transport which out-perform the motor vehicle both in terms of journey speeds and emissions. Here one might have expected the government's espousal of technology would have something to deliver. But neither of the White Papers does much more than pay lip service to the idea of new technology.

Fortunately, however, some far-sighted researchers appear to have both understood the problem and developed solutions. In Cardiff, Professor Lowson has understood that in urban and suburban areas public transport does not need to be very fast in order to out-perform the car. Average suburban traffic speeds after all are commonly only 20-30kph. What is therefore needed is a quite dense public transport network, conveniently located stops, no waiting for the vehicle to arrive and no stopping en route for traffic lights, congestion or to pick up or set down other passengers. The automated 4 seat vehicles on Lowson's ULTra networks wait for passengers at the many stops, rather like taxis, and then they join the through track and proceed non stop to the destination stop at 40kph. This gives journey (door to door) speeds twice as fast as a bus or tram and just about as fast as a car on uncongested streets. Lowson has thus developed a form of public transport which should provide a good alternative to the car and one which will therefore be freely chosen for many suburban journeys, without the need for punitive measures to make the car less attractive or more expensive. And early evaluations clearly suggest that unlike the trams, beloved of public transport authorities, ULTra will largely pay for both its operating and capital costs out of the farebox.

But ULTra will compete with the car only in urban and suburban areas. It will not compete with the faster roads that serve the urban fringes and outer suburbs. However, for these travel markets a similar and equally ingenious invention is now running on a test track in Germany. The inventors in this case are a group of professors who come from the automotive industry, the railways and the German high speed Maglev train (now sold to Shanghai). This group is applying the ULTra concept to the railways and is aiming to offer passengers (and freight), on any regional or suburban network, non-stop travel between any pair of stations (or goods yards) at 160kph. Such a system would clearly out-perform the fast car on the fast motorway for many journeys and could also transform the finances of the ailing rail networks to be found both in Germany and the UK.

The new technology, promised but not elaborated on, in two White Papers could thus soon become a reality and ride to the rescue of the government's floundering transport policies. The first commercial ULTra network seems very likely to be built in the UK within two years and once one exists it will not take long for its potential to be recognised and commercially exploited. The German “Railcab” system is slightly behind ULTra in its development but, with the 1:2.5 scale tests successfully completed, work has started on the first full scale trial system. So far the idea has received no support from Deutsche Bundesbahn, which probably perceives it as a threat to its own high speed train plans. The UK with Network Rail being responsible for making the best and most commercial use of the huge and under-used rail network we have inherited, might be expected to provide more a more fertile ground for such innovation, but it too at present has other priorities.

During the last war, when the need for radar was identified, the government quickly threw its weight behind the scientists able to deliver it. Today, when we face equally threatening difficulties, when any systematic analysis of our transport problems clearly demonstrates the need for new forms of public transport, and when promising prototypes are available; neither the government nor its research committees seem capable of directing the resources to where the greatest advances are needed and possible. Instead public money is spent on yesterday’s technologies and on the so-called “soft factors”, which it is hoped will make us use them.



Last modified: August 15, 2005