Shocking solution to congestion: build more roads
Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on Britain's anti-travel transport policy.
I never learnt to drive a car. Long before anybody had heard of road rage, a wise friend advised that I was not psychologically suited to negotiating London traffic. But I must warn you that I may get behind the wheel, as a protest against the neopuritan crusade to drive motorists off the roads.
Every Bank Holiday is now preceded by warnings of ‘travel chaos’ and ‘motorway misery’. From Whitehall down, today’s consensus is that too many of us want to travel too far, too often. But what on earth is wrong with that?
If you want to know why you have spent the weekend stuck on a motorway, you could have spent that time reading the Government’s latest report, The Future of Transport. In his foreword, Tony Blair acknowledges that there is ‘huge room for improvement’. ‘But we also recognise,’ he declares, ‘that we cannot simply build our way out of the problems we face.’ In the preface, Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, warns us: ‘We cannot build our way out of the problems we face.’ Then the report itself tells us that – wait for it – ‘We cannot build our way out of the problems we face on our road networks.’
Message received. But why exactly can’t we build our way out of transport problems? That, after all, is what we have always managed to do, transporting ourselves out of the caves, along the Roman roads, on to the Victorian railways and our modern motorways. On Friday night, my wife drove us non-stop to Manchester, by using the new M6 toll road to bypass Spaghetti Junction – proof that it remains entirely possible to build our way out of a problem by making Birmingham disappear.
Cost cannot be the barrier. The Government takes more than £40 billion in motoring taxes, and spends about a tenth of that on the roads. As for claims that building better roads would amount to ‘concreting over the countryside’, research for the RAC Foundation suggests that roads take up 1.4 per cent of our green and pleasant land, and that building enough new capacity to contain congestion over the next 30 years would require another 0.05 per cent.
What is lacking is the political drive to try to build our way out of transport problems. There is a widespread sense that the solution must be for people to travel less, especially by car. Thus the Government suggests that, after ten more years of congestion, it could introduce a punitive pricing system – charging motorists up to £1.30 a mile to discourage them from driving at the times when they most want to. And there is no sign of bold investments in public transport to compensate.
The Future of Transport declares that the Government’s underlying objective is ‘balancing the need to travel with the need to improve quality of life’. But since when was there a contradiction between the two? Increasing our ability to travel has been the road to progress and freedom. In recent years, our quality of life has been improved beyond measure by everything from motorway-transported supermarket produce to cheap flights to the sun – both of which are now under threat from those who want to tax us to a standstill. It is a wonder the Government has not banned Bank Holidays altogether to curtail travel and thus ‘improve our quality of life’.
The discussion of transport and roads sums up the small-mindedness of our times, when the answer seems always to be lower horizons, when parochial Nimbyism is triumphing over ideas of universal provision, when giving people too much freedom is seen as a problem and the advice is to stay safe at home.
To see how low expectations have sunk, look at the ‘debate’ about how to improve traffic flow. Labour has the lunatic idea of painting in preferential lanes for people sharing cars. The Tories top it by proposing that car-sharers be allowed to use bus lanes instead. While they compete to come up with the most bonkers scheme, all agree that building bigger roads would be ‘madness’.
Ken Livingstone epitomises the mean spirit of the age. ‘I hate cars,’ he once whined, ‘I’d ban the lot.’ As Mayor he has set about driving motorists off London’s streets with congestion charges, bus lanes, and a list of ‘traffic calming’ measures as long as the M1. Like me, the Mayor of London reached middle age without learning to drive, but that is all we have in common. The political Left that I drive on is about raising aspirations and changing society to make people more free. Mr Livingstone belongs to that miserabilist British Left for whom socialism means (in the words of one 1980s London coumcil) ‘sharing out the misery’, now redefined as making everybody crawl along in the same malodorous, overcrowded bus.
This article is republished from The Times (London)