Government plans to reduce traffic congestion are doomed to fail because of a widening gap between motoring costs and public transport fares, according to the government's top transport adviser.
Key targets will be missed warns the report
The central target of the 10-year transport plan - to get people to switch from cars to buses and trains - will be undermined by a 20% fall in the cost of motoring and an equal rise in public transport fares, said Professor David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport.
Transport secretary Alistair Darling, who will address the House of Commons on Wednesday about the transport plan, said it was expected that as the country becomes more prosperous, car ownership and car usage would rise.
"I have said on a number of occasions that as a country we can't build ourselves out of the problems we face.
Predicted missed targets
Reducing traffic congestion to below 2000 levels
Increasing rail passenger growth by 50%
Improving train punctuality
Increasing rail freight by 80%
Tripling the amount of cycling
Improving bus reliability to 99.5% of scheduled mileage
"We do need to ask ourselves how we can better manage the use of road space as well as putting more money into the railways and buses so that public transport is a reliable alternative," he told BBC's Radio 4 Today show.
Launching a new report which assesses the progress of the 10-year plan, Professor Begg warned: "The government will not be able to achieve a change in the way we travel against these price trends."
Congestion to worsen
The report predicts the government will miss a series of key targets for 2010.
Congestion will continue to worsen, train passenger growth is running at only one tenth of the target rate, and rail punctuality has fallen.
Mr Darling said existing road space needed to be managed better, new construction was required to deal with bottlenecks and motorways "under severe pressure", and continued investment was needed in public transport.
He also said road pricing, to be introduced for lorries from 2006, "is one of the things I think we need to look at".
"Whether or not it is technically feasible... remains to be seen."
Professor Begg said ministers must show far greater support for a national system of road-user charging, when they publish an update on the 10-year plan next year.
The plan assumed 20 English towns and cities would introduce congestion charging or a workplace parking levy by the end of the decade, but only London and Durham have launched schemes, while Nottingham could follow.
Widespread protests against the rising cost of fuel helped blow the government transport plan off course between 2000 and 2002, according to Professor Begg.
Ministers scrapped the 6% escalator on fuel duty, which acted as a fiscal brake on traffic growth.
Cars are becoming cheaper, and road tax has been reduced for less polluting vehicles.
The Strategic Rail Authority announced last month that regulated train fares, such as commuter season tickets in south east England, would rise by 1% above inflation, scrapping a formula which since privatisation has capped increases to less than inflation.
Many unregulated fares - especially long distance tickets at peak times - have risen significantly in real terms.
The government had also become "downright negative" on plans for congestion charging in cities, said Professor Begg.
Even if transport targets look set to be missed, Professor Begg welcomed a big rise in government spending - more than ministers had promised.
He said capital investment in railways had increased from £19 million three years ago, to £1.3 billion this year.
Read a selection of your comments
These targets were never going to be met. They were dreamt-up in a frenzy of 'do something' thinking and reflected the narrow perspective of a specifically anti-motorist lobby. Moreover, the views of an urban and typically London and SE based lobby at that. Talk of improved public transport, quite apart from the time and cost does not and cannot meet the needs of people who don't live and work by a major hub. I travel 11 miles to work, by car - in 15 minutes. That journey would take 3 buses and over an hour on a good day by public transport and would restrict me to my office base all day. How on earth could public transport deal with that?
People who need to commute to work will only choose public transport when it is reliable, clean, fast and cheap. Right now it is none of those things!
Why not plan our towns and cities so that people can live near where they work? I consider that 1 hour spent in a car per day as rather a waste of time, but I do car pool the majority of the time - so I'm doing what I can to reduce my car usage. I would much rather be able to walk or cycle to work. There's too much centralisation of jobs, which forces people to travel.
It is not possible to build a train system that will take people in all possible routes between their homes and work places, especially not in outer London/home counties. It is time the government started thinking how to get us all into electric cars (that work!) rather than fanatically fight car drivers and make our life miserable.
The government consistently fails to accept that people seek out things which are attractive or pleasurable. Public transport is often not punctual, frequently dirty, there is a risk of personal attack and to cap it all it is expensive - in short - it is appalling value for money. Legislation is NOT the answer.
Geoff Bellingham, UK
Better traffic management is one answer. How much traffic is generated by parents taking one child to school in the morning, when a US-style school bus would replace a couple of dozen cars at least? Badly designed traffic signals mean that when a light goes green nobody can move because beyond the light is solid traffic leading to the next light which is red.
When I see roadworks on the M3 where miles of motorway is coned off but no work is being done, when bus pull-ins are closed thereby turning buses into mobile obstacles, and when more and more road space is cordoned off for the exclusive use of the one bus every 30 minutes (assuming it turns up), it is hard to believe the government wants anything other than to make it impossible to get around the country.
John B, UK
Fuel is far too cheap. Make it 10 quid a litre and see how much 'essential' car usage there is. I use a car, I am lazy and I drive too much. I do it because motoring is too cheap.
A Car User, GB
Stop just talking about cars as the only alternative to public transport. In the UK only 13% of the population use cars to get to work. 87% use other forms of transport, like walking, cycling and using public transport. The sooner we recognise that cars, lorries etc are the minority, the sooner we can start finding solutions that work for the majority of us.
Road charging only deals with the symptoms, not the root causes. People need to travel increasingly greater distances to work - and this should be tackled by encouraging work-at-home/telecommuting schemes, providing greater incentives for companies to relocate outside cities and making flexible working hours (allowing and encouraging people to commute at different times ending the "rush hour") compulsory on firms.
Mark Pavlou, United Kingdom
Privatisation was a sham to offload the costs of updating Victorian train and bus systems from the public sector, who don't make enough money to increase the standards. What can be done now?
Tony James, England
Can Professor Begg please tell me how I get to work via public transport in the depths of winter on trains that either do not exist or never turn up on time when I live 35 miles away? The only traffic governments should be interested in is data traffic. It should be encouraging companies to allow their staff to work from home for two or three days per week in rotation. The communications network infrastructure to allow this to be done efficiently should be developed as soon as possible. This is a much more viable alternative to building more roads and rail links especially in view of the point made above about our climate.
The best thing to do would be to put all goods on the trains, reducing congestion; that's how it used to be. Then the rail network wouldn't have to worry about delays, because there's yet to be a UK manufactured part that arrives on time!
Road congestion charging is a road based poll tax - it will hit poorer people much harder than rich people.
The government will never solve the country's transport problems until it faces up to the road lobby. It is currently too afraid of upsetting the Road Haulage Association, the AA and RAC,. There are simply too many passenger and freight journeys made by road, and we must begin to use the spare rail capacity to improve matters.
Road charging is the only answer as we're all too selfish and lazy, and I include myself in this, to respond to a carrot or for the public good, only the stick will work. The only alternative is to lose more of the precious and unique natural beauty of our Island, which surely few would openly advocate?
Greg Brown, UK
We need more innovative thinking that looks at the reasons for people to move. Let's introduce tax breaks for home-working, introduce buses to pick up school children and generally move away from the 9-5 delivery of services like GPs which "concentrate" demand for services and therefore transport into peak hours.
Kevin Peacock, England
The government is already changing the way I travel but not for the better. Having paid just under £50 for a return to Cardiff from London this weekend travelling off peak, I will certainly be getting a car as soon as possible. The option of making adhoc journeys by train is prohibitively expensive and the return journey was delayed by 40 minutes. I see today there has been another tragic fatal train crash. Performance related pay to management for train times to within a tolerance of 15 minutes on the timetable might sort things out, but I have my doubts.
John Conod, UK