Modal shift to a revitalised public transport system is the way to deliver our social, economic and environmental objectives

Road traffic levels increased by 29% between 1990 and 2018 while over the last five years the number of bus journeys taken has plummeted by more than 300 million


Modal shift is the concept that dare not speak its name within government circles. And yet it is the answer to the central transport challenges the government says it is committed to tackling.

Let’s go back to basics, to use John Major’s once famous phrase. The central objective of transport policy has to be to facilitate the movement of people and goods for social and economic reasons. Or to put it another way, imagine a country where such movement was difficult to the point of being well nigh impossible.

Living in Lewes, I was captivated by a book called The Recollections of a Sussex Parson, written in about 1810, when roads were terrible and railways yet to appear. Just to visit Hastings, now less than an hour in the car, took our parson a full day, with the necessity of forward planning to arrange for changes of horses. Nobody in those days ventured even a few miles unless they had to, and many never ever left their village. The range of goods to buy was severely limited by geography. Not much chance of fresh fish in Tunbridge Wells.

To the central objective of facilitating movement has in more recent times been added the need for mitigating measures to limit or prevent the downsides of transport, principally the environmental damage it causes: air pollution; emissions of carbon dioxide; and loss of countryside.

Forgive me if this all sounds rather obvious to you, But it does not seem to be very obvious to government, central or local, judging by the policies pursued. Logically, the elements of a sensible transport strategy should hit all three buttons – meet social objectives, help the economy, and be at least neutral and ideally beneficial for the environment.

That requires the government to calibrate its interventions, to favour or relegate particular modes as the need to hit all three buttons demands. This was in fact the rationale behind the coalition’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund which I introduced as a minister and which was (if I say so myself) hugely successful.

Yet what we generally see from government is a continuum of haphazard and often contradictory measures across the transport landscape. In particular, this government has been supporting unsustainable private road transport at the expense of public transport while endorsing the need to tackle the very environmental damage this support for private road transport generates.

The government may say it is not in favour of modal shift but that is what it is achieving. The problem is that it is modal shift largely in the opposite direction to that which is needed.

The government may say it is not in favour of modal shift but that is what it is achieving. The problem is that it is modal shift largely in the opposite direction to that which is needed.

The average person is going to react to the price signals they are sent. Since 2011 there has been a freeze on fuel duty for private motorists while bus and train fares have risen inexorably above inflation. It is really no surprise therefore that people have been drawn to the car and away from public transport. Road traffic levels increased by 29% between 1990 and 2018 while over the last five years the number of bus journeys taken has plummeted by more than 300 million. The 2014/15 figure of 4.63 billion was down to 4.31 billion by 2018/19.

This in turn has had the following consequences which are the opposite of the ones the government says it wants. First, social mobility has worsened as the bus has become less attractive than the car. Second the shift to the car means that congestion has worsened. Third, as a result greenhouse gas emissions from transport remain stubbornly high while they are falling dramatically in the energy sector.

Moreover the stupid changes to vehicle excise duty introduced by chancellor George Osborne near the end of his term, which broke the link between emissions and annual duty charged has encouraged a splurge of Chelsea tractors in our towns as macho men hog the road and mums in ridiculously large vehicles jostle for road space so they can drive Tristan and Emily the 500 yards to their school. This has been a fiscal change that truly reflects the Latin origin of the word, from fiscus, which might be translated as “basket case”.

Then there is the equally stupid re-establishment of the link, broken in 1938, between the road fund licence and money spent on roads. Road-building is now at least in part based on an arbitrary income figure rather than any proper assessment of need, and as more roads are built, so more switch to roads, which in turn leads to more income and so on.

So in the chancellor’s statement this week, we learned that £25bn is to be spent on more tarmac. “And won’t it be grand, when the whole of the land, is one big motorway,” as the very early anti-road building pop song, The Joy Of Living, dating from 1970, put it. The unlikely singer of this song, by the way, was Cliff Richard. Check it out!

Has everyone forgotten the seminal 1994 SACTRA (Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment) report for the Department of Transport (as it then was), which demonstrated conclusively that building more roads simply attracts more traffic. We cannot build our way out of congestion.

Both the prime minister and the chancellor have made a big play about the need to promote buses, and this is of course very welcome. This may come, respectively, from Johnson’s exposure to the issue from being mayor of London, and from the fact that the chancellor’s father was a bus driver. Or it may be part of some deep and devilish plot to capture the working class vote, courtesy of Johnson’s Svengali, Dominic Cummings.

Either way, the list of commitments sounds impressive. The government has accepted the need for a national bus strategy. BSOG (Bus Service Operators Grant) is going to be reformed, presumably to reflect mileage rather than fuel used, which will help low and zero emission buses. There is money for bus priority measures in the West Midlands (ie in marginal seats), and £50m to deliver Britain’s first all-electric bus town or city. Most strikingly, all new road investments will have to address bus priority measures, though what this means in practice remains to be seen.

The £220m allocated to buses is less than 1% of that allocated for new road building. It also pales by comparison with the £500m allocated by the Scottish government for bus priority infrastructure measure

I do not want to sound churlish, for these measures, and others I have not listed, are genuinely welcome. But as the Lib Dems pointed out, the £220m allocated to buses is less than 1% of that allocated for new road building. It also pales by comparison with the £500m allocated by the Scottish government for bus priority infrastructure measures, which if mirrored in England suggests the chancellor would need to find £5bn for buses.

More pertinently, it does not make sense for the government to incentivise the private car and van, which will worsen congestion, air pollution and the level of greenhouse gases emitted, and then to assert that its investment in buses, such as it is, shows it is serious about tackling these problems.

Let us come back to the three prongs that should inform transport policy and interlink coherently: social, economic and environmental.

A progressive and inclusive social policy should ensure that as far as possible and practical, everybody is able to access a means of transport to enable them to participate in what society has to offer, and to avoid isolation. Not everybody has access to a car or indeed a train, so that suggests the need for a good bus network, a flexible form of transport open to all.

It also means ensuring that bus travel is affordable. There is an hourly 98 bus service throughout the day from the East Sussex village of Herstmonceux into nearby Eastbourne, but the one-way fare is £4.50. Even with a weekly ticket, that is a big chunk of money for someone on low wages.

An effective economic policy is one that enables people and goods to move freely, which means tackling congestion. That is done, not by interminable road-widening and road-building, but by providing attractive public transport alternatives.

I hope, for example, the government will give serious thought to the proposal developed by GB Freight Route. Their scheme creates a freight-friendly rail route from the Channel Tunnel up as far as Glasgow which they suggest would take five million lorry journeys off the roads annually. It uses existing underused lines, with just 14 miles of new track, with trans-shipment terminals provided next to motorways. The total cost, they estimate, would be £7bn, or less than a third of the latest road-building allocation from the chancellor.

A sound environmental policy requires a shift across the transport landscape from petrol and diesel to electric and hydrogen. Again, there is limited gain for the government in greening buses if cars are left untouched. Just 0.5% of licensed vehicles on the road in 2018 were in the ultra-low emission category. The Labour party came forward at its recent conference with a number of interesting and welcome commitments to green the car fleet, including a £60bn fund to facilitate interest-free loans for electric cars. Yet these initiatives, while helping the environment, would do nothing to tackle congestion, and would in fact make it worse.

This is why any transport intervention must deliver on all three fronts simultaneously – social, economic and environmental. There is no point in robbing the transport Peter to pay the transport Paul.

And that is why the government needs to accept that embracing the concept of modal shift to a cleaned-up and revitalised public transport system is key to achieving this. Getting people and goods onto low emission public transport reduces congestion, reduces air pollution and carbon emissions, and the increased frequencies that would naturally flow from greater use means the bus cuts of recent years can be reversed, so generating social benefits.

As a start, it would help if the government stopped calling money spent on roads investment, and money spent on public transport subsidy.

About the author:
Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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