If you want to know why Britain’s transport policy is a mess and how to put it right, you have to study history and learn from it


One of my favourite tricks during my 20 years or so as a transport journalist has been to ask newly appointed ministers and shadow ministers a very simple question: ‘Do you want more transport or less transport?’. Generally, it results in the collapse of stout party as they have never much thought about it.

That is the problem. Over the past 100 years, since the appointment of the first transport minister, Eric Geddes in 1919, no government has actually developed a transport policy with clear goals and aspirations.

This became the theme of my new short book, entitled playfully Are Trams Socialist?, Why Britain has no Transport Policy as I looked into the history of transport in this country.

Understanding this history is essential for transport planners and politicians today. Without a knowledge of why ‘we are where we are’, that favourite expression of policy-makers who wish they were somewhere different, it is very difficult to work out a future coherent strategy. And the key lesson of history is that we have to be brave and confront the mistakes of the past.

Leave aside the rail-dominated 19th century, and we start with the interwar period which is when the car began its inexorable ascendancy. It is one of the quirks of history, actually, that it was cyclists that, quite literally, paved the way for the car as they were the earliest campaigners for macadamised roads as they wanted a smooth surface for their country rides. Their organisation, the Roads Improvement Association, even sued, at the end of the 19th century, local authority highway engineers for failing to provide them.

The cyclists were to regret their all too successful efforts. In the years that followed the First World War, a succession of legislative and administrative decisions gave precedence to motor vehicles over the railways. Road traffic legislation already gave car drivers an advantage, as obstructing the highway was already an offence and the continued lobbying by the Roads Improvement Association ensured that by-passes and dual carriageways were soon springing up around the country. For a time, too, speed limits were totally abolished but this led to such enormous carnage on the roads with a staggering 7,343 deaths in 1934 (when there were fewer than one tenth the number of cars today) that even the pro-roads lobby became alarmed and they were reinstated. Nevertheless, the attitude that cars had priority and that roads were built for them remained.

By the late 1930s, a motorway network was already being envisaged, and after the war it was not long before the Preston by-pass, the country’s first section of motorway, was being built. It was, though, in urban areas where the ‘predict & provide’ policy of successive governments, imposed as a default than out of any considered choice, did the most damage. The guilty man, here, was Colin Buchanan, author of the 1963 Buchanan report who really should bear far more infamy than his near contemporary Richard Beeching whose report, incidentally, was published in the same year.

Buchanan’s vision did much to destroy more cities than the Luftwaffe ever managed. The context was that by the mid-1960s, even relatively small towns were suffering from the congestion, noise and accidents that were the inevitable result of unfettered motor vehicle use. Buchanan’s report, commissioned by the government, was an attempt to adapt towns and cities to what he saw as the inevitable growth of car use. While he was not wholly positive about this development, showing that he did understand some of the negative impact, his view was from the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ school of thinking.

The key recommendation was that pedestrians and cars should be segregated. Think London Wall through the Barbican but on a far larger scale. There was no thought of trying to limit this influx of vehicles but, instead, they had to be accommodated. The best illustration of the implications of this policy was Newbury, a town of just 30,000 people. Buchanan argued that the number of cars driving into town would increase from the then level of 3,000 to three times that number, and that since the road network, in its current shape, could not cope, the whole town had to be rebuilt to accommodate this growth.

In larger towns, urban motorways and feeder roads would be needed to cope with this increase in numbers. Everywhere, in other words, would become a bit like Los Angeles. Yet, nothing in the report considered the needs of other means of transport, such as buses and trains. The Buchanan report was highly influential and damaging because the Ministry of Transport presented its findings in roadshows across the country to local government officials and consequently greatly influenced urban planning of the time.

It was in London, though, where the tide was turned. In the early 1960s, a huge chunk of Hyde Park was appropriated by the Ministry of Transport to create the wide dual carriageway that runs the three quarters of a mile between Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch. It was, in the words of John Boyd Carpenter, the minister at the time, so important because “no single road development scheme could make a greater contribution to the relief of growing traffic congestion”. It was, in fact, to be the precursor of the motorway boxes that would have turned the centre of London into a rat run of elevated highways and feeder roads, but the plan, in what was an important turning point in urban transport, was scrapped by the incoming Labour GLC administration in 1973. Possibly the clearest illustration of the philosophy of the time was the installation of Britain’s first – and possibly only? – drive-in bank in, of all places, Trafalgar Square, in 1961. It has, fortunately, not survived.

To some extent, the philosophy espoused by Buchanan has been ditched. There is a recognition that there must be restrictions on cars, whether that is through parking restrictions, or speed limits (though remember Philip Hammond’s desire for an 80mph maximum), bus lanes and facilities for cyclists. However, the notion of accommodating for the car at all costs remains among many local politicians and their engineers. ‘Smoothing the traffic flow’ was part of the philosophy of Boris Johnson’s first administration and only changed when his transport adviser, the hapless Kulveer Ranger, was replaced by the excellent Isabel Dedring who understood the need for a more sustainable agenda.

Take the story of the car park in Leicester which could accommodate some 50 or so cars. The mayor, and long time local politician, Peter Soulsby, decreed that it should be replaced by open space, improving the local environment. Shopkeepers (or at least some of them) were predictably up in arms arguing that their business would be ruined and so on. In fact, thanks to the better environment, more people are visiting the city centre and it is a far more attractive place.

There are countless other such examples around the country with rearguard actions fought by people with little understanding of the urban realm. Remember that Somerset House and Horse Guards Parade in London were both car parks until a decade or so ago – would anyone advocate reversing that policy or, indeed, putting cars back in Leicester Square? There is, in fact, a constant battle between those with some understanding that car growth must be limited or indeed reined back, and those who are fearful that any restrictions on cars will be both electorally unpopular and economically damaging. The evidence, post facto, invariably points the other way, showing that places that have constrained car growth have ended up thriving and resulted in a far better environment for both people and business. All this is without even considering the far bigger issue of climate change which clearly ought to push people into understanding the need to focus on sustainable modes. Or indeed the medical issues that are now being revealed which suggest that those reliant on their cars are damaging their health.

The kneejerk allegations about being ‘anti-car’ completely miss the point. Cars have their place but should be kept there. That is probably the biggest challenge of the 21st century and one which an examination of history will make clear.


Christian Wolmar’s new book, Are Trams Socialist?, Why Britain has no Transport Policy is published by London Publishing Partnership, £8.99.



This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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