Roads to nowhere: why is transport policy getting lost in this election?

Do we really want more monstrosities destroying our countryside, costing huge sums that should be going into sustainable transport alternatives? The notorious M3 motorway cutting through Twyford Down, near Winchester, which gave birth to the modern road protest movement.

Rupert Read, Sandy Irvine and Bennet Francis

Only one party is challenging the mainstream concensus on transport, write Rupert Read, Sandy Irvine and Bennet Francis – massive spending on roads and HS2, and the little that’s left for everything else. It’s time to throw away the old thinking and commit to an effective, sustainable transport system that begins with local needs.

If you are looking for evidence of ‘green-washing’ in politics then look no further than the issue of road building.

The old political parties have been known to talk up their green credentials when there are votes to be won, but when faced with this opportunity for immediate and decisive action, they have all remained conspicuously silent.

The balancing of the public finances remains the hot topic as we approach May 7th. In these circumstances, if policymakers were serious about addressing climate change – which really is the most pressing issue of our times – it would seem that scrapping costly investment in the high-carbon economy would be a no-brainer.

Yet with the exception of one, the Greens no party has had the courage to oppose the government’s plan to invest £15bn on revamping and expanding the road network. Also, go 28 minutes into this video, to see one of us address this issue on BBC television.

The elephant in the room

Although never the most gripping topic, transport has traditionally been a worthy heading in policy discussions. This year, you will have to delve deep into most manifestos before you find it.

That said, we have been offered a few ‘promises’, with the Lib Dems and Tories making similar pledges on rail investment and Labour promising to freeze already exorbitant rail fares – for a year.

But given that all these parties are planning more austerity cuts, and given that they are all committed to wasting most of the public transport budget on the vanity-project HS2, it is inevitable the money set aside by them for public transport projects will be little more than a gesture.

It is simply not possible to support motorists, road freight, rail, cyclists, and pedestrians equally in one coherent approach.

If we want a real revolution in transport, so that public and person-powered transportation can become an effective replacement for carbon-intensive road and domestic air travel, we must direct our funds and political energies away from roads and into rail and local infrastructure for sustainable transport.

Cars needed for growth?

The age of mass motoring is coming to an end, whether we like it or not. The oil industry is becoming ever more costly and destructive as reserves dwindle, and several studies have shown that the car sales have steadily been falling, both in Europe and – strikingly – in the USA.

Flashy gas-guzzlers, once the ultimate objects of aspiration, have become a matter of indifference for the younger people – who seem much more interested in new-generation gadgetery like iPhones.

In the parallel universe of politics however, we see a growing fixation on roads as a driver of economic growth. It has long been known that road building encourages more road users and does not reduce congestion – it just makes more, somewhere else.

In other words, road building does not support the economy by making workers more efficient, or contribute to national well-being. Rather it just creates more economic activity as it increases consumption of natural resources like oil, rubber and steel.

In a world in which we are already exceeding the ecological limits of growth, this should be considered a danger, not an advantage, of road building.

Motoring costs more than it gives back

Clarkson-types talk of a ‘war on motoring’, peddling the story that motorists are the unsung heroes of the economy, contributing more through road tax and fuel duty than they take out as road users.

In fact, this is a myth: motoring is subsidised. If we take into account its impact on wider society, through external costs in the form of accidents, air quality, public health, greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, drivers do not pay for themselves. Accidents alone imposed societal costs of £15-32 billion in 2011.

Of course, it is not the economic cost, but the human cost of accidents which should be our main concern. Motoring organisations like to claim they could be avoided with better road maintenance. While repairs to remove hazards are of course essential, accidents are overwhelmingly caused dangerous driving.

Reducing speeds, and above all taking motorists of the roads, are the only sure-fire ways to reduce fatalities. Implementing a 20mph speed limit in all urban areas, as the Green Party advocates, would therefore be a positive step.

Another way?

There are indeed many positive signs that we have the tools and the motivation to move towards a more rational approach: the rise of the electric bus in many European cities, for example, shows that low-emission urban transport is within reach.

Denmark has made more progress than any other country in tackling emissions from transport, it has done this largely through ensuring cars are less cost effective than public transport.

As well as targeted use of indirect taxation, this means making sure rail is affordable. It is difficult to believe this is possible while the railways remain in the hands of a messy patchwork of private companies.

Government subsidies for rail companies go towards greasing the palms of executives, while the East Coast mainline, turning a profit in public hands, was sold off. Again, with the exception of the Greens, no party is supporting the common sense-policy of rail renationalisation.

The transport system in the UK is seriously flawed, and requires radical action if it is to serve the needs of communities. At present, policy tends to serve London-centric business interests, with HS2 again being the most egregious example.

If we want our transport networks to foster strong local economies, clean air, a stable climate and healthy people, then we need a complete change of tack: something to remember as you cast your vote on 7th May.

Originally published at 1st May 2015

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