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We need to give the public a better choice of transport

Heathrow's terminal 5 is something to celebrate, but it is just one piece in our complex and deficient transport puzzle, says NCE's editor, Antony Oliver.

In a week that sees the long awaited opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 in front of the Queen, we seem to have got ourselves in a bit of a transport pickle.

Instead of celebrating news that the world's busiest airport finally has a world class terminal, the public, perhaps guided by the national media, appears to be focused on transport as the expensive destroyer of community and the environment.

It's a massive problem for civil engineering. If we are serious about our role as guardians of the built and natural environment we have to start working hard to turn this notion around. In short, if we do not, we will quickly lose the small amount of political - and Treasury - support for public transport infrastructure that has been so hard won over the last decade.

Fundamentally we have to agree the starting position - that as local authority engineers group CSS pointed out last month, "Transport is Good". It is good for the UK economy and it is good for society.

Unfortunately this is hardly the picture that is generally portrayed in the media, in the House of Commons or at the bus-stop.
Instead, in a world struggling to come to terms with pollution and climate change, transport is increasingly becoming public enemy number one.

For example, while of course airport operator BAA wants to expand its airport facilities, the critical challenge is to understand if that desire fits with the rest of the UK's transport policy or if it is just driven by the desire for corporate growth.

The point made well by CSS is that it is clear people are crying out to make sensible choices about transport without having to constantly feel guilty. They want to be able to travel but they also want to be able to travel without it "costing the earth".

The key question asks CSS, is "how we can continue to reap the benefits of travel with an expanding population and economy without damaging the environment and without doing social harm." And yes, it is a big challenge.

With one hand government policy continues to highlight that air travel and cars are bad for the environment, while on the other it appears to encourage airport expansion and road widening.

Meanwhile the public is told about the merits of train travel, public transport, walking and cycling yet the amount of public investment going into schemes remains low.

This big challenge is our big opportunity. But where are we in the debate? Our role is to not only offer the solutions but also provide the leadership that will help give society to the transport choices they crave against the backdrop of creating a sustainable future.

- Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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