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24 July 2000

Don’t let the train take the strain

Ben Plowdenargues that more road humps would be better value than Prescott's big schemes

By Ben Plowden

John Prescott’s ten-year plan, published on 20 July, aims to give Britain a transport system to rival the best in Europe. Strip it of the hype, however, and the plan is based on old-fashioned and un-joined-up thinking. While ministers are wrestling with the problems of urban regeneration and out-migration, Prescott is spending billions on urban rail schemes, new bypasses and widening motorways. Investment on the scale promised – £100bn over the next decade – risks providing a way for people to escape towns and cities, rather than a means to create delight within them.

Most of the new money will be spent on large capital projects. A major programme of investment in rail aims to expand the national rail network in anticipation of rising passenger numbers; to create light rail systems, like the Docklands Light Railway in London, in several cities; and to pay for perhaps as many as 25 new tram networks.

The political appeal of big public transport projects such as trams is obvious. They show that the government is finally doing something to provide alternatives to the car, and they fit the “big is beautiful” culture that pervades Whitehall and local government. Construction companies hit by cuts in road-building get lucrative contracts, and – lest we forget – new trains and trams provide a chance for ministers and mayors to snip ribbons before the cameras.

But how well do urban railways relate to the public’s travel needs? Not very. Most travel in Britain is local: 70 per cent of all trips and 56 per cent of car trips are shorter than five miles, and the trips are complex and individualistic. Drivers use their cars to travel door-to-door and often visit several destinations in a single journey. In cities, where lots of people want to travel to a city centre, a tram or light rail scheme may be a good bet. Elsewhere, people need to be offered more diffuse and flexible travel options. This points to a step change in investment in walking, cycling and road safety.

To see why walking and cycling are central to solving Britain’s transport crisis, we should look to the Netherlands. Dr Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute has analysed travel in Holland. His research shows that, although the Dutch enjoy superb public transport, they choose walking or cycling over buses and trams for all but the longest journeys. Overall, walking and cycling account for seven times as many trips in Holland as public transport. The reason is obvious: walking and cycling are flexible and door-to-door. Even in Britain, when conditions for pedestrians and cyclists are safe, attractive and convenient, people do walk or cycle: in inner London, 40 per cent of all journeys are on foot; in Bath, 25 per cent of residents walk to work.

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Extra cash for walking and cycling in the ten-year plan will be channelled through local transport plans – five-year transport investment strategies being prepared by local authorities. Unfortunately, the record of councils on planning for local, small-scale transport improvements is not good. Oxford Brookes University recently examined local authorities’ treatment of walking and cycling. The researchers found that “pedestrian planning is in its infancy”, with the performance on cycling “only a little better”. This is not surprising. Most senior highway engineers made their careers building roads and bypasses, not putting in zebra crossings, wider pavements or cycle lanes. With road-building out of favour, building tram networks seems a logical and career-enhancing alternative.

Yet will major public transport projects provide value for money? In some towns and cities, local conditions will make light rail or a tram network a good buy. But consider the following arithmetic. A tram scheme costs anything up to £350m. Providing safe walking and cycling routes to a school costs an average of £100,000. A pedestrian crossing costs around £18,000 and a road hump costs £1,500. So, for the price of one tram scheme, you could buy safe routes to 3,500 schools, more than 19,000 pedestrian crossings or 230,000 road humps. It is not hard to see which investment would benefit more people.

In the end, however, greatly to benefit the greatest number, Prescott should be putting his money into improving the quality of urban life. Richard Rogers has already signalled his frustration (as has the relevant parliamentary select committee) at the government’s failure to follow up the report of his urban task force, Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999). This identified “poor environmental management and insecurity” as reasons why people leave towns and cities. Rogers was talking about mean streets that are full of litter and dog shit, badly lit, poorly maintained, under-policed and deserted after 6pm.

Prescott could tackle the mean streets by investing in traffic-calming, pedestrianised areas, cycle lanes, wider pavements, seating, toilets, public art, trees and better signing. Serious money for maintaining public spaces is also essential. Street-sweeping, footway repairs, graffiti-removal and lighting are all too often cut back in council budgets. These are false economies.

More money for transport is a good thing; but more money for a better urban life would be a far greater good.

The writer is the director of the Pedestrians Association

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