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Monday, July 20, 1998 Published at 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK


Challenging car culture

The BBC Transport Correspondent, Simon Montague, analyses the government's new plan's for tackling traffic.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, calls it "the most radical reform of transport policy in a generation...the day transport policy bursts out into the light of a new dawn."

But how practical are the government's new plans for tackling traffic congestion, and persuading more people to public transport?

Power to local councils

The success or failure of the White Paper hinges on its most radical measures: powers for local councils to charge motorists for driving into city centres and to impose a parking tax on employers.

The money raised would be reinvested in better buses and trains. But there are still substantial technical and planning hurdles which could take five or 10 years to overcome and even then many authorities may be reluctant to impose extra financial burdens on local businesses and voters.

If local councils shy away from charging, then it's hard to see how any substantial progress can be made in reducing urban traffic congestion.

Motorway tolls

Surprisingly, Mr Prescott also suggested new trials of motorway tolls, despite the recent failure of experiments on the M3. No-one is seriously expecting rapid progress towards French-style tolled autoroutes.

But the creation of a network of regional traffic control centres is more practical and welcome, if it means better information for motorists about delays, and quicker handling of accidents.

On the buses

Despite earlier promises of re-regulating the bus industry, Mr Prescott has now opted for more of the already successful "quality partnerships", under which councils commit themselves to new bus priority measures in return for operators agreeing to buy new buses.

The results are proven: more bus passengers, and less traffic.

New technology at work and at home has also given Mr Prescott the chance to promise a national public transport information system by the year 2000. The facility shouldn't be too hard to develop and is vital to attracting new passengers to buses and trains.

Mr Prescott added some flesh to his plans for a Strategic Rail Authority. It will remove the current confusion over having two regulators, but at the same time some rail managers also see the authority as a tool for Labour to reinstate a degree of state control over the now privatised railway industry.

Concensus for change

Transport groups of all colours have generally welcomed the White Paper, confirming Mr Prescott's belief that there is a consensus for change.

But having taken 40 years to develop a culture of car dependency, then altering current social behaviour could take a generation too.

John Prescott is perhaps the first transport secretary in a generation with a true passion for his brief.

His White Paper signals a new direction and long term progress now depends on finding new revenue streams, and sustaining the commitment through future governments.

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20 Jul 98 | UK Politics
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