Single Issue Politics and the Green Agenda

By Burchell, Iona | Contemporary Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Single Issue Politics and the Green Agenda


Burchell, Iona, Contemporary Review


The United Kingdom is fast becoming a concrete monument to the motor car, at least according to Friends of the Earth. There are currently over 26 million motor vehicles in this country alone and numbers are increasing all the time. The Department of Transport (DOT) has offered estimates that traffic on our roads could double in less than thirty years. The Government response is to accommodate this traffic growth with an ambitious road building programme, and the occasional proposal for a consideration of possible options in the future. According to Friends of the Earth this is not the solution to the UK's transport problems. They want to see significant movements away from the road-building mentality towards a transport policy with increased government investment of money and resources into public transport, cycling and pedestrian facilities. The announcement by the Environment Secretary in August of a plan to reduce traffic pollution to minimal levels by 2005 is a welcome measure. He admits the new regulations will add about [pounds]90 million a year to the costs of road freight.

One of the busiest travel routes in this country, the Midlands section of the M6 motorway was first opened to traffic in 1972. Since then it has played a vital role in the road network, connecting the north-west to the south-east of England. The M6 was originally built with the aim of managing the increasing numbers in road traffic. During the past twenty years however, problems have been occurring, resulting in a far from free-flow traffic system.

Due to increasing numbers of vehicles on the road, congestion has become a regular feature, bringing traffic to a standstill and creating long tail-backs. It is estimated that around 170,000 vehicles use the M6 in the Midlands alone every day. This is over half the recommended average number more than should be using this stretch of motorway. The result is serious congestion causing unpredictable journey times, increased fuel consumption and higher emission levels into the atmosphere. Discussions on widening the M6 to eight lanes have only recently been postponed due to the financial problems of raising the possible cost of as much as [pounds]1 billion pounds. In order to relieve the congestion problems on the M6/M5, the DoT has put forward money to build the Birmingham Northern Relief Road.

It should never be suggested that society should do without the car or the lorry. What needs to be encouraged rather is a more sensible approach to transport, one that takes account of both people's needs and their environment. For too long road-building has been the dominant theme of UK policy with successive governments accommodating increasing car use rather than trying to control it. But it doesn't necessarily have to be this way. Less environmentally damaging ways of transport do exist and, with adequate and more imaginative investment, could provide a real alternative.

Walking and cycling do virtually no damage to the environment. However, facilities - such as cycle lanes - are often very poor or non-existent. Walking and cycling around our towns and cities when there is so much traffic is extremely unpleasant at best and extremely dangerous at worst. The view that city and town centres should be for people not cars is shared by a number of local authorities such as those in York and Oxford. York City Council have pedestrianised a large central area of the city and have designed special bus and bike routes. Oxford is on the verge of introducing a large annual fee, said to be [pounds]50, for anyone who wants to park in the street, even in front of their own house.

There are also some very encouraging signs for cyclists. The inaugural National Cycle Network Conference took place in Birmingham almost a year ago. Its aim is to campaign for the creation of a network of cycle routes passing through almost every major town and city in Britain. The project, sponsored by the civil engineering charity SUSTRANS, aims to create a 5000 mile network composed of traffic-free paths, traffic-calmed country roads, on-road cycle lanes and protected crossings. …

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