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Westminster doesn’t understand how reluctant people are to use their car

Better public transport would be good for growth, good for net zero, and good for all those who drive only because they have to.

By Zoë Billingham

The government’s handling of large-scale public transport projects is under scrutiny again. Just when you think the debate about the – cancelled – HS2 train line between Birmingham and Manchester is over, it reopens. The findings all point in the same direction: more and better public transport is needed.

There is real resistance from Westminster decision-makers to invest in a properly functioning public transport system that is fit for the future. This resistance has a ripple effect. The latest Public Accounts Committee’s report on HS2 makes clear that the government’s decision to scrap the northern leg to Manchester means the initial London to Birmingham leg is “very poor value for money”.

Since phase two was cancelled, the government has proudly promoted the redistribution of the £36bn not spent in the Midlands and the north to fix potholes in the south. The HS2 decision also has wider effects. For close watchers, there has been a knock-on impact of scrapping HS2 North on Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed upgraded route stretching from Liverpool through to Hull. HS2 North, alongside many direct capacity benefits, would have underpinned tricky sections of Northern Powerhouse Rail. This is why the decision to cancel the high-speed line up to Manchester (or Leeds, as per earlier plans) was a double blow for the north.

It’s true that cars still dominate travel in many areas. In some regions car ownership is over 80 per cent. Growing up in rural England, my 17th birthday couldn’t come fast enough. I soon got behind the wheel and felt independent. There simply weren’t public transport alternatives.

The continued reliance on cars helps explain the ongoing freeze in fuel duty, and recent focus on potholes. An easy way for the Westminster bubble to show that it understands life “in the regions”. If only it knew that many of us are reluctantly dependent on our cars.

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We know that the future of transport, for the sake of our pockets, economy, health, environment and natural resources must be shared and public. And there has been some progress. Regional bus franchising, which enables metro mayors to join up local public transport networks and introduce single ticketing between different types of transport is promising. But lacklustre supporting investment in regional mass transit, despite the recently re-announced £5bn investment, will hold us back.

Even the most future-facing tech bods who are helping build electric vehicles seem to come back to the idea that automatic, electric transport might well be shared in the future. Just like a bus, you could say. The future is clearly closer than we think. The Institute For Public Policy Research has called for an affordable, world-leading local public transport system, to make it possible to choose public transport wherever you are in the country.

We are on a journey towards more and better public transport, and it will prove a good return on our investment. We’d get there sooner but government doesn’t seem to be along for the ride. We must bring forward the future of public transport.

[See also: “Austerity has returned”: The expert verdict on Jeremy Hunt’s Budget]

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