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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 13:58 GMT
Public transport vs the car

Labour promised there would be more people using public transport and fewer journeys by car. Did it succeed?

Transport is a devolved matter, except for regulation and some safety issues, dealt with by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. For details on the implications of the 2000 fuel protests, see separate brief in this section.


When Labour came to power it promised an integrated transport policy.

John Prescott, the Secretary for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, wanted to cut road usage by improving public transport and by encouraging walking and cycling.

"I will have failed," he wrote in June 1997, "if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it."

Four years on traffic jams are getting worse, the railway is in chaos and London Underground is mired in controversy.

And Labour has presided over a series of U-turns. It has revived the road-building programme and agreed to allow heavier, 44-tonne lorries on the roads.

Labour has been accused of failing to carry out a radical transformation of the transport system. Is this right?


The new Labour government believed it would be easy to blame transport problems on a decade of under-investment by the Conservatives.

But Labour has ended up being criticised itself.

I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car

John Prescott, 1997

The dilemma facing John Prescott was how to fund a radical transport policy designed to shift people from the roads to public transport.

To expect the motorist to pay looked like a guaranteed vote-loser.

Voters wanted a better public transport system and a cut in traffic - but few people appeared willing to accept any interference with their freedom to drive.

Last July, three years into office, Labour announced its 10-year transport plan - a public-private partnership to deliver what it said would be a "top class" road, rail and local transport system.

Labour has promised to spend 124bn of public money to reduce road congestion and to create faster, more frequent train services.

A further 56bn is expected to come from the private sector.

The plans also assume that road tolls will be introduced in eight large cities by 2010, with a further 12 imposing workplace parking charges.

The aim is to cut average traffic delays by six percent by 2010 and to double rail usage.


At the heart of the debate is use of the car.

Traffic levels continue to grow every year and roads are becoming more congested.

10-year transport plan: Spending
21.3bn: Roads
60.4bn: Rail
58.9bn: Local transport
25.3bn: London
Figures guaranteed for first three years
The average speed of vehicles in most city centres has remained much the same over the past few decades.

Congestion costs business an estimated 15bn a year in lost income, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

When Labour came to power it ended the "predict and provide" approach of the previous government - a policy which had become increasingly discredited by transport experts.

Indeed, Labour presided over a dramatic drop in road building during its first three years of office.

But the policy was reversed last July.

The 10-year transport plan set out a 59bn road-building plan, which claims to be the biggest investment in highways since the mid-80s.

The reason, said Labour, was that road use was forecast to grow by 29% over the next decade.

So there are proposals to widen 360 miles of motorway and trunk roads - along with building 100 new bypasses.

This, claims Labour, should ease traffic bottlenecks, smooth vehicle flows, create safer junctions and provide relief for towns and villages blighted by traffic.

But even Tony Blair's chief environmental adviser has been critical of Labour's record.

Jonathan Porritt believes that we are "moving backwards" not forwards on transport policy.

Labour promised a reduction in car use. Yet, traffic increased by 15% during the past decade.

Even if Labour's 10-year plan is implemented, a further 17% increase is expected by 2010, with 10% more congestion.

So even after all the money has been spent, critics argue that travel conditions will worsen.

Despite its renewed commitment to road building, Labour still recognises that more and bigger roads is not the answer.

A more strategic approach is needed.

Rising congestion needs to be tackled by increasing public transport use.


Labour inherited a privatised railway with fixed financial guidelines.

This was based on a decline in rail users.

No-one had thought that passenger numbers would actually rise by 17% over the past three years, as people fled congested roads.

Investment, however, stayed static.

Instead of responding to this increase by laying on more services, the train companies tried to discourage passengers by putting up fares, particularly during peak times.

Meanwhile, the performance of the railways deteriorated - particularly after the disaster at Hatfield.

Trains stopped running on time or running at all.

Passengers fled the railways in droves. Virgin Trains says it lost 40% of its customers.

Some industry analysts suggested it would be 2003 before passenger numbers recovered.

Labour has earmarked 60bn for the railways.

But this investment is dependent on a 50% increase in passengers and an 80% rise in freight. Only then might the City be persuaded to lend the many billions needed to improve the railways. [see separate brief]

The rail expansion should cut road congestion by at least 3%, says Labour.

But critics say that instead of offering incentives to use alternative forms of transport and disincentives to drive, the government is encouraging people both to take the train and the car.

"One half of the scheme neatly undermines the other," wrote George Monbiot, the green campaigner.


Bus use has been in decline for 50 years, though recently it begun to grow at around 1%.

Congestion on the roads remains a major cause of slower and less reliable bus services.

The Liberal Democrats say that even though bus use is currently increasing, some 20% of England is estimated to have a bus service below 'subsistence' levels.

This means there are fewer than four return journeys per day and no evening or weekend service.

Labour's 10-year plan aims to deliver a 10% growth in bus use over the next 10 years - compared to the 17% forecast for overall growth in road traffic.

Labour is also promising to provide 2000 new bus services and to improve punctuality and reliability.

Critics argue that Labour should have the same ambitions for buses as for trains.

Two out of three journeys by public transport are made by bus.

The only new money specifically for buses is 40m for an urban bus "challenge fund".


London has huge transport problems.

Three million journeys a day are made on London Underground - more than the entire rail network in the UK.

London Tube: Current plans
Public/Private partnership
8bn new investment
Money for other London transport policies
Reduced overcrowding
Improved reliability
Yet four years on, the Underground is still one of the most expensive, over-used and underfunded urban transport systems in the world.

But finding a solution has not been easy.

Labour came to power believing that the Conservatives' plan for the wholesale privatisation of London Underground was not the answer.

Its 1997 manifesto promised a public/private partnership to improve the Tube.

The operation of the Tube would be publicly owned, while the track, signals and stations would be leased to 3 privately-owned consortia every 30 years.

The private sector would raise 13bn to upgrade and maintain the infrastructure.

This, Labour promised, would deliver more capacity on the Tube and fewer delays.

But the plans became deadlocked - with the mayor's transport adviser, Bob Kiley, insisting that the Tube should be kept as a single integrated entity under public control.

London's commuters have repeatedly supported this option in opinion polls.

After spending 100m, the creators of PPP have come up with something which defies common sense and repeats the mistakes that led to Hatfield

Bob Kiley, London Transport Commissioner

Giving control of the Tube's infrastructure to private companies, Mr Kiley argued, would not deliver a safe underground.

Instead, he said the government's PPP was a "dumb proposal" which threatened to repeat the fragmentation of the privatised railways.

The government argued that the cost of reorganising the Tube system could run into billions of pounds and it doesn't want the taxpayer to be responsible for that.

London mayor Ken Livingstone, the Liberal Democrats and a number of independent academics all argued that bond schemes were a better way to finance the investment.

And the Conservatives have abandoned their own privatisation proposals.

As the arguments continue, Mr Kiley is taking the government to court over its imposition of the PPP.

The dispute could cause serious political damage as 11 of the top 30 Labour marginal seats are in London and the south-east.


So four years on, fewer people, with the exception of bus passengers, use public transport - and more journeys are being made by car.

Mr Prescott set himself a tall order in 1997 to reverse this trend - and his critics say that he had clearly failed.

If you look at the growth of [car usage] we never envisaged that there was going to be a massive decline. All you can hope to do is reduce the percentage of growth

John Prescott, 2001
But in a recent interview with the BBC's On The Record programme, Mr Prescott, denied this - saying that his 1997 statement had been misinterpreted.

The challenge he had set himself, he said, was not to deliver a reduction in congestion, but a reduction in its growth.

"My claim has always been to use public transport more and the car less," he said.

"But if you look at the growth of use of motor vehicles over this period in time, we never envisaged that there was going to be a massive decline.

"All you can hope to do is reduce the percentage of growth."

While Labour has denied raising expectations it could not meet, the question is whether the targets can be met over the next 5 years.

The Conservatives doubt whether they can be achieved during the course of another two terms in office, although they themselves promise to match Labour's investment.

Their remedy is to be pro-motorist, painting Labour as anti-car.

The Liberal Democrats support increased investment in public transport which they would fund through congestion charges.


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