If we want sustainable cities, we are going to have to put the brakes on car usage.
Taking aim at the family car may sound a drastic solution to increasing congestion and air pollution in Britain’s cities, but Steve Melia, author of a new book, Urban transport without the hot air, says 60 years of largely ineffectual government transport policy have shown that nothing less will do the job.
Melia, who lectures in transport and planning at the University of the West of England and advised the last Labour government on its eco-towns programme, says one of the biggest myths about transport policy is that there has been a “war on the motorist” – that successive governments have used fuel duties, speed cameras and road taxes to discourage car use and help fund public transport.
The coalition government promised to end such hostilities when it was elected in 2010. Even the shadow transport secretary, Michael Dugher, latched on to the idea last December, when he said he would champion drivers, and be a transport secretary rather than “train-spotter” if Labour is elected on 7 May.
But if there is a war going on, it is against public transport users, says Melia. According to the RAC Foundation, the cost of rail and bus travel rose twice as much as the cost of driving in the past 10 years, and public spending on roads over the past five years has been more than twice that spent on local public transport.
Melia says that imbalance has to be redressed if transport policy is to be truly sustainable. But the other great myth about transport policy is that investment in public transport is the only solution. He maintains that public transport improvements, on their own, will encourage additional trips and reduce walking and cycling, but make little dent in car use. “Based on typical behaviour changes”, Melia writes, “doubling bus use across the UK would reduce car driving by around 1.3%”.
So what can make a difference? Planning. Melia coined the phrase “filtered permeability”, an urban planning concept that discourages the driving of cars through residential neighbourhoods and rewards cyclists and pedestrians.
Combined with strategies such as car-free residential developments, where car parking is pushed to the periphery rather than outside homes, such planning has allowed many cities in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany to increase by a third the proportion of commuters who cycle. This compares with 2.8% of UK commuters.
But there are success stories in the UK, too. Melia points to Cambridge and Brighton as cities where car use for the daily commute, and car ownership, has dropped since 2001. While in Brighton commuters moved to trains, cycling and walking, a more concerted effort to promote cycling in Cambridge has resulted in continental levels of 29%.
What both cities have in common, Melia says, is a geographical constraint on expanding their roads to cope with increasing congestion. Brighton is sandwiched between the sea and the South Downs, while Cambridge’s roads network radiates out of the city centre. In the 1990s city planners were faced with either knocking down listed buildings or building a four-lane inner ring road to cope with gridlock. They chose to create the Cambridge core traffic scheme, a filtered permeability scheme on a scale never attempted in any British city before or since, Melia says.
He hopes London could be next. The capital has made huge progress under mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, bucking the national trend by doubling bus usage and cutting car ownership by 30% since 2001. Yet air pollution levels remain perilously high. “There’s a long way to go before air pollution reaches levels where it isn’t damaging human health,” says Melia.
Cycling, despite increasing popularity in inner London, still accounts for only 2% of journeys city-wide, and Melia sees getting those rates up as key. Boris Johnson agrees, and in 2013 promised that cycling [pdf] would become an “integral part of the transport network”. Transport for London has recently announced investment in segregated cycle lanes – a network of quietways [pdf], cycling routes that use existing roads with little traffic, and similar “mini-Holland” schemes, in the outer London suburbs of Enfield, Kingston and Waltham Forest.
Asked whether government plans to devolve power to Greater Manchester, allowing it to run its own integrated transport system, as London does, is a blueprint for greater sustainability, Melia says yes – with caveats. Smart ticketing, such as London’s Oyster card, and reregulation of buses will be key, but can’t be done on the cheap.
“You have to put up taxes if you want to reregulate. If you don’t, you will end up with a situation such as in Northern Ireland” – which has a state-run integrated transport system but suffers from chronic underinvestment. “It’s not a panacea, but done in the right way [devolution] could significantly improve public transport,” Melia says.