Britain's Transport Problems

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Britain's Transport Problems

Wedd, George, Contemporary Review

IT has been very evident for a long time that Britain's transport system is in a mess. A Government report released at the end of last month claimed that it is the worst in Europe. The root cause of this is geographical. Great Britain, ie, England, Scotland and Wales, is a small, crowded, economically very advanced and active community. Sixty million people live in 94,000 square miles. If they were evenly spread, that would be a high density - 640 to the square mile, or one person an acre. But quite large parts of the island are very thinly populated. From the Scottish Highlands southwards as far as Dartmoor, there are extensive areas virtually empty, for good reasons. This means that the 60 million live, work and have their being in not much more than half the island. And in that half there is a great deal going on - the world's fourth largest economy (although there can be arguments about that, with many people saying that Britain's place is inflated by the high value of sterling; but certainly Britain is i n the largest ten). Such a country would be whizzing with traffic even if the distribution of people were even; but it is not. At the bottom right-hand corner is London, a 'world city' by any measure, whose population is rising again towards 8 million, and which is surrounded by satellites closely integrated with it with another 5 to 6 million - a city-region of about 14 million about 90 miles across. Those with an atlas may care to identify the corners of the quadrilateral which is the London city-region; Reading, Bedford, Southend and Brighton. Britain's economy is centralised to an extent which surprises Frenchmen, Germans and Americans. Going to London is a primary activity for people everywhere; and the London city-region generates flows of traffic which choke it and the area fifty miles and more beyond it.

We have not done with geographical quirks. To get to the Continent from anywhere usually requires going across London to the Channel Tunnel or the ports, or going to one of the main airports, all of them in the London city-region. If London were two hundred miles further north, in Yorkshire, say, how much easier life would be!

The movement of goods and people, which we call traffic, is a function of the economy, and behaves exactly as the wider economy does. That is to say, it grows - by 2 per cent in a bad year, by 3 per cent or 4 per cent in a good one. 2 per cent is a useful benchmark, because that is the rate at which productivity usually grows, and if economic growth is less than that unemployment will rise. At the other extreme, over 4 per cent growth usually means inflation and other problems. But fortunately the usual rate is between the two, without the Government or the Bank of England having to do much about it. Traffic follows the general growth pattern exactly. Do not exaggerate the amount we know about this; counting traffic is not an exact science. The best figures come from a few river crossings where tolls are collected and figures therefore exact, such as the River Severn bridges, where they bear out precisely this argument.

Some people argue, and more feel in their bones, that not all traffic is equally important, and that a lorry carrying goods for export to a Channel port is more deserving in some way than a traffic jam caused by people going to a football match or for a day out by the seaside. Secretaries for Transport are rather apt to feel this subconsciously when asked to approve the spending of large sums of the taxpayers' money, and to wonder how many of the journeys they will be facilitating are truly meritorious. It is difficult to sustain this view in an age when leisure and tourism are themselves large parts of the economy, and the proprietor of a guest house in a holiday resort is just as functioning a member of the economy as a steelworker or a coalminer. There is a second-order issue here, however, in that leisure traffic tends to be highly seasonal and to vary even during the week -- no-one has ever thought that it is even theoretically possible to build enough roads to carry all the people who want to go to Devo n or Cornwall on a summer Friday afternoon. …

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