The Government issued ‘The Plan for Drivers’ in October 2023. Since this document lacks timescales, costings clarity and sometimes accuracy, then it’s a plan not unlike my shopping list – lacking long-term relevance and depth in many respects. A major problem is that this Plan is directed at car drivers only. To deal with all forms of road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, a holistic approach is needed which recognises how different stakeholders have their own agendas and preferences.
The current context is that there are 40 million vehicles in the UK, and this could rise by 8%, 22% or up to 54% by 2060 according to different Department for Transport (DfT) scenarios. Since the DfT and its appointee National Highways tend to ignore or downplay ‘induced traffic’, it seems likely that traffic increases could be at the higher end of the scale. Induced traffic refers to when additional road capacity is added and how new roads specifically create more and longer journeys – see Litman 2023. MPs have told the DfT to concentrate resources on pothole and road repair and not new roads. Also, the Plan does not consider the exceptional physical limits within our settlements.
The Plan alleges that the government has made significant improvements in our road network since 2010. Road repairs, potholes, noise, air pollution, traffic’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, deaths and accidents and time wasted in slow or not moving traffic are major features of the malfunctioning road network, also worsened by under-investment in bus services, active travel and failures to upgrade existing rail lines. The Plan side-steps the issue of subsidies from general taxation to driving. By 2009, these had reached about £26bn a year from general taxation on top of what motorists were paying, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research, and then in 2011 fuel duties were frozen. The Plan supports road transport which is the major source of carbon emissions in the UK and against theoretical commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. The billions in subsidies to the motorist together with those to fossil fuel corporations in the UK amount to some £10-12 billion per year.
The government claims a commitment to road safety and addressing accidents, but ignores the importance of 20 mph limits as a key factor in accident reduction. Evidence suggests big casualty reductions when 20 mph limits are introduced on the previously fastest roads. There is growing support for a ‘Vision Zero’ approach to traffic accidents, supported by Transport for London, Brake, and by local groups in Oxford like leading cycling campaign Cyclox.
Another claim made by the Plan is that the Government has made “substantial investment” in public transport and ‘Active Travel’. Really? Buses remain limited in geographical coverage and frequency of services. The cut in fares to £2 is temporary. There has been no recognition whatsoever that the comparatively low cost of an entirely fares free bus system under public ownership is both affordable and consistent with meeting climate goals and reducing air pollution, including from non-exhaust emissions.
Active Travel has been cut by the Government to a derisory amount per year. Sustrans notes:
“Funding cuts announced in a written ministerial statement on 9 March mean that capital investment for active travel will plummet over the next two years. These cuts represent a two-thirds reduction from £308 million to £100 million over two years. Active travel funding for 2023/24 is likely to be reduced to £50 million, and the same for 2024/25. The cuts mean the Government’s own target of 50% of urban journeys being walked, wheeled or cycled by 2030 will be impossible.”
Factoring in the known health benefits of cycling and walking would demonstrate that the actual net costs of investment in Active Travel are lower. The government has actually noted various sources which support active travel modes as a contribution to health improvements. The Plan’s suggestion that measures are being taken that favour non-drivers is inaccurate; the levels of active travel spending are relatively tiny.
Constraining future bus lanes does not help bus usage; giving local councils a larger role in road repairs implies a substantial growth in their funding, particularly when re-surfacing needs to consider the greater weight of Electric Vehicles (EVs) added to the need for staffing of pothole and resurfacing quality checks.
Despite evidence in support of 20 mph limits, the government opposes “inappropriate blanket use” of them. But each school needs ‘school street’ status to cut traffic movements and every residential area is entitled to protection from speeding and rat running, making many areas suitable for 20 mph.
Sadly, the Government has catered to the conspiracy theory of ‘15-minute cities’. They wish to “stop local authorities using so-called 15-minute cities to police people’s lives”. But this is utter nonsense as no local authority could afford the camera systems to detect vehicle movement, nor do they have staff for enforcing confinement of millions of people.
Government claims that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have not secured public support. This is actually not true either in Oxford or in London, despite inflated versions of minority opinion in local and social media. A recent survey by the Coalition for Health Streets and Active Travel (CoHSAT) suggests substantial support for LTNs. A survey carried out by YouGov on behalf of CoHSAT member group, Oxfordshire Liveable Streets, showed that 56% of respondents supported LTNs, while only 29% opposed them. The London LTNs are strongly supported by those who live in them, as are the Oxford LTNs.
The government plans to introduce “fair fines”. But fines are not unfair and may well be in the interests of society. Quieter and cleaner neighbourhoods will be achieved by more LTNs and a roll out of electronic road pricing, to encourage fewer journeys, to replace fuel duty losses as EV growth continues. It is very difficult to see how the prolific activity of roadside littering is going to be stopped, but the Government will “clamp down” on it using unexplained means.
One of the few specifics in the Plan is government claims of investing £24 bn in the Strategic Road Network. But this is for all surface traffic including delivery vehicles and HGVs, and the network is prone to congestion in rush hours in many locations. Reducing numbers of vehicles on some routes and at some junctions through the use of electronic road pricing is more prudent for improving conditions. Claims of projected pothole repair and road surface renewal beg the question of why the government has chosen to permit a backlog of road repairs stretching back more than a decade.
Bus lanes are already in use by cyclists should certainly accommodate motorcycles. This means that bus lanes only being needed as bus lanes during periods of bus services is simply wrong.
Enforcement needs to ensure that the most congested, most polluted areas attract electronic road pricing at levels sufficient to deter most of those who could use other options. ‘Unfair enforcement’ sounds like dignifying griping by drivers whose behaviours may need correction.
Easier parking would follow from reducing total vehicle movements within settlements. The government should introduce a pavement parking ban, electronic road pricing to substitute for fuel duties as more vehicles are EVs, and use other traffic calming measures such as pedestrianisation, LTNs, more cul-de-sacs and reducing car parking in central areas. Inconsiderate driving certainly needs attention through driver training and re-training where necessary. As a cyclist, it’s difficult to avoid seeing some drivers on any journey showing signs of anger at other road users. There appears to be a small minority of drivers who are aggressive, impatient and unrealistic about rush hour or school run conditions.
In conclusion, it can be reiterated that ‘The Plan for Drivers’ is not a plan, or a strategy, or an effective discussion document. An unwritten assumption that car drivers all want the same things runs through this Plan. But car drivers may well want quiet, low traffic residential neighbourhoods where they themselves live; school streets to help protect their children; ‘Vision Zero’ for traffic accidents; reliable, timely delivery of goods from online businesses by e-cargo bikes; no SUV or other parking obstructions in their neighbourhood; no pavement parking cutting off the pedestrian routes they use. No one is a car driver 24/7. Of course, if the intention of the Plan is to try to foster more culture wars around traffic issues, then its shallowness may be thus explained.
Ed: The views in this article are those of the author. We would like to hear your views. Please send any comments to [email protected]
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