On yer bikes (or yer feet)

Observations on transport

In the past 50 years, the total distance travelled by Britons more than trebled, but the time spent travelling every day stayed almost the same: one hour. This phenomenon is not just a British one. A recent report by international car companies suggested that, whether people live in a Tanzanian village, Japan, Norway or the US, they all travel about 60 minutes a day, though distances range from five to 60 kilometres.* It is almost as if humans have a primeval instinct that says they can't afford to take more time out from more basic needs such as feeding the family and sleeping.

The conclusion is clear: people won't travel further unless it is easy to do so. What we need, then, to curb the problems of congestion and unreliable transport is to reduce the demand on, rather than increase the supply of, transport. An anti-transport policy, so to speak.

Last month, Britain took a first step in this direction: a major report for the government's Orbit study into the future of the M25 motorway encircling London drew attention to the problems that would arise from encouraging an even greater demand to travel. The report blamed this demand on an ever-increasing, wealthier population, and the dispersal of households and jobs away from urban towns and cities to less congested rural areas.

The report went on to recommend that the M25 be widened, and tolls imposed. It also urged better matching of housing and jobs at both the quality and affordable ends of the spectrum; higher-density developments, which would mean that services such as post offices and hospitals were concentrated in one area; and focusing residential building near minor railway stations and offices and workplaces near larger stations. It also called for careful use of pricing to avoid encouraging people to move to rural areas, where they would grow more dependent on long journeys and cars.

Going beyond this report, a government anti-transport policy would support urban rather than rural growth because leisure, retail and other services can be consolidated where they are well served by existing radial transport links. Equally, according to Brian Smith, director of transport and environment for Cambridgeshire County Council, it would emphasise the need for better urban design to persuade people of the benefits of these higher-density developments.

Such ideas are winning support, albeit slowly. One way of forcing the pace of change is to use economic controls such as rail fares and motoring taxes, says Professor Sir Peter Hall, director of the Institute of Community Studies in London. Hall cites European railways, such as the lauded French TGV high-speed service, that put up the price of tickets at peak times to discourage people from using the system for daily journeys. In Britain, by contrast, commuters get discounts for buying season tickets, which, on the east coast mainline, encourage them to travel 400 miles a day from York to London and back. And when the west coast mainline is upgraded to 110mph or 125mph, passengers could live in Manchester and work in London on the same basis.

"I definitely wouldn't encourage people to travel 100 or even 200 miles at two miles a minute, but this is increasingly happening," Hall explains. "I tend to be a bit of a cynic-realist: if people have the means to travel - a car and the means to fill the tank up - they will travel, so there's nothing like economic instruments."

Another way to prompt change is to use targeted persuasion. A good example, according to Brian Smith, is Australian-style individualised marketing to educate people to minimise car trips. He argues that the government should balance the "economies of scale" of consolidating services from post offices to hospitals with the wider social costs of the loss of these local services and the need to travel greater distances to avail ourselves of them. "There are tensions within the government system," he says. "They are pulling in different directions."

At present, such is the political sensitivity of transport policy that nearly every means of reducing demand will prove highly controversial. And there is a risk that people would use the time saved on commuting to make other journeys, to visit friends, say, or to eat at more far-flung restaurants. These concerns, however, are overshadowed by the growing problems of providing for the inexorably rising demand for mobility. The government's current transport policy will exacerbate the country's long-term transport problems unless it is accompanied by an anti-transport policy, too.

Juliette Jowit is transport correspondent of the Financial Times

* Mobility 2001, published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (www.wbcsdmobility.org)