Policies which prioritise car transport will increase inequality

As the government unveils more proposals to "end the war on the motorist", is a healthy dose of cynicism required to see through all the smoke and mirrors?

As the list of interventions which aim to ‘end the war on the motorist’ continues to expand, is a healthy dose of cynicism required to see through all the smoke and mirrors? There is no doubt that transport policy to date has resulted in a transport system in the UK which depends on the use of private motorised transport for some types of journey, particularly those made by children.

That said, over the last decade transport policy has been developing with a more sustainable focus as part of a wider initiative to improve the health of the nation and address pressing environmental concerns. So why, in the space of two days, has an administration committed to:

“Addressing at a local level the urgent challenge of climate change and the commitment made in the Coalition Agreement to promoting sustainable travel initiatives…”

…in their provision of a ring-fenced Local Sustainable Transport Fund, simultaneously disincentivised sustainable transport by substantially increasing the cost of public transport and promoted private car use by abolishing restrictions designed to “encourage the use of alternative modes of transport”?

Although the rail fare increases have been well-documented over the weekend, and are unlikely to significantly increase levels of car use for the journeys concerned, the planning bombshell dropped jointly by Philip Hammond and Eric Pickles was made very quietly on bank holiday Monday. Their statements describing the motives behind the abolition of 2001 national planning restrictions including guidance encouraging limits on car spaces for new homes and higher parking charges focus on:

“…increased unsightly on-street parking congestion – putting the safety of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians at risk.”

Yet another coalition stab in the dark. Where is the evidence that on-street parking has increased, is unsightly, or, far more importantly, impacts on road user safety. If on street parking was of such great concern to the safety team at the Department for Transport, is it not likely that it would have at least got a mention in the 205 page road safety analysis of 2009 casualty data?

Even if we ignore the lack of evidence behind policy, a more sinister outcome is perhaps the joint impact of both interventions – transport poverty and access inequality will increase. By penalising those less able to choose alternatives, the government is backing the public into a corner.

By increasing the fares for those commuters who have very little choice about how they travel, they are being penalised without being able to ‘opt-out’, thus restricting freedom of choice and potentially excluding lower earners. The changes in planning guidance not only incentivise personalised car transport but may continue to influence land use planning – pushing local resources out-of-town – and ignore the fact that half of low-income households do not own a car.

Whilst it certainly has a clear political ring to it, the government’s commitment to “end the war on the motorist” both implies that motorists are against the rest of the population and suggests that motorists are not also cyclists or pedestrians at other times. In reality, policies which prioritise personalised motorised transport will not only have a negative impact on health and the environment but will also see inequality increase yet further.

The end of the war on the motorist may well mark the beginning of the war on the commuter and suggest a disregard for the needs of low-income households. Is it wrong to look for hidden motives?

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