Small interventions in transport often make the biggest difference but the talk has once again drifted back to big macho schemes

 

 

In July 2011, I visited York, one of 37 local authorities that shared £155m of funding as part of the first allocation from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund

 

If there is one lesson that I learnt very firmly in my three and a half years as a transport minister it is that the small, often quite inexpensive interventions can make a big difference and therefore represent very good value for money. I’m thinking of the road junction that causes long tailbacks every day, which can be solved by some simple and limited widening. Or the bus lane that when installed generates significant modal shift away from cars, thereby freeing up the roads. Or the safe crossing that enables all those children who wanted to cycle to school to do so, when before they were taken by car because it was unsafe to cross the road.

In other words, I think the Local Sustainable Transport Fund was very effective, and probably my best contribution to the Department for Transport. Yet we now seem to be drifting away from this approach, despite the evidence that it works. Once again, the talk is of big macho schemes, whether it is the biggest road building programme since Roman times (or at least since about 1990), the flagship HS2, or more runway capacity.

Now I am sure that a case can be made for some big interventions, and indeed I strongly support HS2 for example (though it should clearly have been called something else – the Great Central Railway?). But in the rush for the totemic schemes, the small interventions are being relegated once more.

Ministers may like to open big schemes (even if they were signed off by a predecessor) and may not find traffic reduction or a multitude of small interventions terribly satisfying, but it is the latter that provides the best return for the public purse.

A few years back I persuaded my local rail operator Southern to cut season ticket fares between Eastbourne and Lewes, given that the London trains had to be 12-car but necessarily ran half empty to Lewes. The result? A 35% increase in sales, Southern actually made a small profit from it, traffic was transferred off the parallel A27 and emissions cut. Everyone gained, including the car drivers left on the A27, and it cost the public purse nothing.

And as we move forward, I ask myself how long it will take until we bite the bullet and introduce road pricing. It has to happen, if only because Treasury income will dry up as we move towards hybrid and electric cars.

Ministers need to have the courage and creativity to shift away from the old-fashioned two-dimensional approach of wanting more tarmac, as if that were the answer to everything, when actually it can sometimes make the situation worse. They should start with objectives: facilitate movement, cut emissions, make transport socially inclusive, get best value for money – and follow the evidence. The evidence will take them somewhere different to where they are presently heading.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He has been the MP for Lewes in East Sussex since 1997.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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