By John Ware
Presenter, Are We There Yet?
Road pricing proposals have provoked a storm of protest but what is the alternative in easing congestion?
Downing Street's website may have melted under the 1.8 million petitioners opposed to the government's national road pricing scheme for dealing with congestion.
Traffic in central London has fallen
But how would the petitioners stop the UK from being the most extensively traffic congested country in Europe?
Many argue for the traditional "predict and provide" approach to traffic growth: more road building, more parking and removing bus lanes.
But are these credible alternatives to dealing with our insatiable desire to drive more vehicles more frequently to more places? Indeed, there is credible evidence that such measures only exacerbate congestion by inducing extra traffic.
Certainly the decline of public transport - especially the bus in rural areas - has made people much more car dependent, a trend exacerbated by planning support for some out-of-town developments and the government's "big is beautiful" approach to the closure of thousands of post offices, scores of hospitals and hundreds of police stations, not to mention the scarcity of school buses.
But people have also become hooked on unnecessary car use.
The Department for Transport says a quarter of journeys under two miles are by car which may explain why in the last decade, the number of walking trips per person fell from 292 to 245 and why there are now more households with at least two cars than with no car.
The anti-road pricers make no mention of the pluses of road pricing claimed in the recent Treasury commissioned study by former BA chief Sir Rod Eddington: congestion cut by half, £28bn a year benefits to bus and rail users.
Unless demand is controlled, by 2025 the DfT forecasts that car use will grow by 40%. Computer modelling suggests that will double the time we spend in congested traffic.
All this is a very far cry from John Prescott's vision in 1997 in which he said he would regard himself as having failed had he not reduced car use within five years. The clear message was: our rapid growth in hyper mobility was unsustainable and major road projects were put on hold.
In December 1999 Mr Prescott promised: "We're going to have a transport system to rival the best in Europe" (only to telephone a senior official the next day for the facts and figures about how far behind Europe our transport system was).
But the following year his 10-Year Plan for transport restored the emphasis on mobility and revived road building. Motorists were promised traffic could grow whilst congestion would be reduced by up to 6% by 2010.
"The arithmetic didn't add up" said Professor Phil Goodwin, a key Prescott adviser. "The more traffic there is, the slower it goes. It's a fundamental law of traffic but it looked for a while as if the government had found a way to abolish it."
Mr Prescott did get powers for local authorities to introduce congestion charging at their discretion - provided they got approval from ministers. But a later transport minister John Spellar tried to sabotage London Mayor Ken Livingstone's plans to introduce the congestion charge.
The 10-Year Plan was effectively laid to rest within two years by the then Transport Secretary Alastair Darling announcing a 20% rise in congestion by 2010 rather than the 6% reduction that had been promised.
He also announced a new £3bn roads scheme: "The government is listening to motorists and is committed to getting our roads moving again."
Now the government has returned to where they started when they took office: that it's never going to be possible for road building to keep pace with traffic growth and that the only way to control that is through pricing.
Reductions in traffic will hit public transport disproportionately
Road pricing trials will take place in several urban areas in about five years, although the DfT appears to have excluded the most congested sections of the strategic road network from these trials.
Meanwhile, their target for reducing congestion - a 3.6% increase in journey time in the 10 largest urban areas by 2010-11 - is a "weak ambition" says the Transport Committee.
Road pricing, anyway, will not be "the silver bullet" which eliminates congestion. The public transport system will need to be hugely expanded. A 5% reduction in road traffic may equate to a 50% increase in demand for bus and rail services.
To absorb this extra demand - and ahead of the road pricing - public transport will need to be much more attractive. But by 2005 in real terms bus and coach fares were 42% and rail fares 39% higher than in 1980 whereas the overall cost of motoring is 9% below 1980 levels.
As it is the DfT is well adrift from its 2010 target to increase public transport by 12% compared with 2000 levels in every region of England, a target which itself displays a "lack of ambition" says the Transport Committee.
"Are we there yet?" on the roads? Answer: "not yet" and at this rate "perhaps never".
Are We There Yet? was on BBC Two on Tuesday, 6 March, 2007 at 1930 GMT.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I support it. I rarely drive but I punished with high road tax. Public transport needs to improve though in terms of network and price. Where I grew up in Oxfordshire the last bus was at 7pm. I saved all my money for a car from when I was 16 so I could be able to see my friends. Where my parent live now it cost £2.80 for a single bus journy of 6 miles. People that live outside of big towns do have an option with poor and expensive servies. The road prices need to target the right areas.
Why do we all think we have an automatic right to a driving licence? Rather than let the government sell off the right to use the roads to their rich croneys (tax and tax again until only the super rich can afford it) why not tackle the problem at source.
There are too many vehicles and too many people wanting to drive them.
If we had a cap on the number of driving licences issued we could increase standards. Lose your licence through bad driving and you'll have to go to the back of the queue.
A driving licence should become a treasured qualification rather than an automatic right.
Steve Brindle, Wimbledon, London, UK
I work 35 miles from where I live, travelling round the M25 every day, I want to move closer but it would cost about 10k to move into a house of similar price to the one I am in (but difference in prices would mean that it would be smaller). A serious alternative would be to help people move to reduce congestion - the money charged should be made available to people who would want move to cover fees and stamp duty.
Graham, Watford, UK
Yet another sickening example of the BBC pandering to the Government's agenda. Where's the journalism?
Trevor Cerbera, Ashford, UK
I accept road pricing as a good strategy, but I still signed the petition.
Why? I don't believe our London-centric Government will make proper allowances for rural users, where there is no adequate alternative. I don't believe our civil-service will be able to accurately administrate the system (it will be more complicated than anything the Child Support Agency had to cope with), and I don't believe the infrastructure will be put in place at a predictable and acceptable price (witness any large construction or IT programme in this country in recent years). If the Olympics and Crossrail come in on-time and within budget, a working child support system is put in place, and the Home Office becomes a model of efficiency, I'll rethink my position.
The main problem with the Government's Road Pricing Initiative is that it will be in addition to all the other costs associated with running a car. If it goes ahead, there will likely be a sharp increase in untaxed/uninsured vehicles.
If Road Pricing was in place of Road Fund Licence and Fuel Duty then it could be workable and reasonable. If not, then it is just another tax onthose whose needs are not served by Public Transport.
Rob Sandy, Wellingborough, UK
So cars are used too often for short and uneccessary trips. How is road pricing going to stop this? Road pricing places an incentived on short trips and discourages longer journeys. The very things we're trying to avoid! Cars are very efficient over long journeys ie going from A to B not going from near A via C to near B as for public transport. Road pricing will make long efficient car journeys expensive and will promote short inefficient car journeys
Why not get rid of the fossil fuels and make all transport green. Then make more improvements to buses, increase bus lanes and improve the rail system; then people can have a choice to either travel on environmentally friendly public transport or get stuck in an environmentally friendy traffic jam. The answer to the problem is green issue, not a tax and big brother surveillance issue.
To reduce travelling means a huge change in the way we live. Make business local, reduce house prices, make large cars a premium price to buy, i.e. anything over 1.6 add 35% VAT, stagger office working times, earlier the better, get large lorries off the road by forcing the use of rail [at reasonable prices]and introduce distribution centres then local small vans are to be used for delivery. Forget public transport it just costs far too much, its always late, its always dirty and its always cold waiting for it. Make park and ride compulsory for very large city centres, but make sure you have plenty of capacity. cpj
Chris Parker-Jones, Pontypool
i am disabled so have no choice but to drive everywhere, if i have to pay to drive i will be housebound.
jill stone, salcombe,devon
We pay tax at the petrol pump. This takes more money from those with bigger cars and more from those that travel far. Therefore, road pricing is simply another tax. Mind you why should the Labour chancellor worry. People have been sleep walking through all the other tax rises these last few years with barely a bleat. So, road pricing will not be stopped.
Bob Gardiner, Kirkbymoorside
Firstly you should see congestion on other European countries before criticising Britain!
I believe this country has an excellent road system and congestion is way better than countries like Italy (where I am from) In Italy there is an expensive road pricing scheme and congestion is appalling. France is not much better and roads are even more expensive that Italy.
As the vast majority of congestion is caused by people going to work, I believe we should look at a new, and more advanced working practice such as flexible working hours and working from home.
To the untrained eye the goverment appear to simply desire clear roads by taxing off the lower classes, i.e. those who just cannot afford it.
Mobility will become an issue of privelage. There are no credible alternatives at present nor could there be in any short term plan. Bus and Rail are woefully under-invested in. The Japanese have been running Bullet trains since before I was born, there's even a decommissioned one in York NRM.
Yet more lack lustre posturing to generate revenue for something else.
Simon Brookes, Leicester
Everyone complains about congestion, but everyone complains about the proposals, like road pricing, to address congestion; even when you go down the route of building enough road space to meet demand, everyone complains that we are "concreting over Britain" and "raping the countryside". The simple answer is for everyone to stop complaining and stop using their cars as much.
Matt, Bucks, UK
The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.