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Rethinking transport

Comment

Let's face facts;

transport is not going to be an issue in the run up to the expected general election next May.

No matter how disastrous - or successful - government efforts to cut congestion and ease public mobility since 1997 are judged by the public, it simply is never going to compete with the big guns of health, education and crime.

The government's current lack of commitment to transport infrastructure projects in the UK underlines this point.

It is perhaps little wonder that half the delegates in a straw poll at NCE's Interchange conference this week said they had perceived no real improvement in their transport experience since the Labour government launched its much trumpeted assault on transport in 1998.

And perhaps little wonder that, as Imperial College's Stephen Glaister and Buckinghamshire County Council's Garrett Emmerson highlighted to the conference, the government's latest transport policy published in the summer is now bereft of targets and funding predictions.

Labour, it seems, has decided that that the low number of votes at stake means the donothing option for transport is the best way forward.

There is still, of course, a considerable amount of cash going into transport projects across the UK and, as many delegates pointed out to the conference, there are many examples of very real transport and integration successes as a direct result of the government's recent policies.

But five years since the launch of integrated transport, it is clear that there has been a shift in government thinking over its role in the nation's transport policy. The emphasis has now shifted away from transport as a discreet service, to transport as just one strand of a wider social policy.

And as a profession we need to be aware that the political environment has changed. We need to rethink our approach to the problems of transport to ensure our solutions meet the new needs of our political masters. We need to ensure our transport solutions are not just about creating new infrastructure but also new services and new opportunities for travel, business or leisure.

But we also need to lobby for a new funding environment to go with the politics. For while government will have to continue to pump cash into the railways and road network to keep the vital transport assets running, Glaister points out that there will simply not be the cash in future to pay for anything new.

We need a new mechanism to allow the successes that the transport professions have started over the last few years to continue. Successes such as the bus schemes, light rail projects and interchange improvements which have made very real improvements to local communities.

So, if central government feels transport is not a big enough issue to really worry about or invest in properly then that's a shame. But choices have to be made and we should accept it. On a local level different choices may well be appropriate. It is therefore unacceptable for central government to hang on to control.

If local people believe their transport system is important and are prepared to pay for - via local taxation or otherwise - central government should stand aside.

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