There is a lot of fuss being made in the UK at the moment about transport policy. The government wants to reduce the traffic on the roads, and is therefore increasing taxes on fuel and on the cars themselves. They have also made moves to tax the benefit of a parking space at ones place of work. The roads lobby - particularly keen motorists, and the AA and RAC - are protesting about this. They want to retain the right to run a private car, they claim that the public transport system is inadequate to replace the convenience and practicality of motor cars, and they plain don't like it. They're not prepared to share a bus with a mad tramp when they could feel safe and comfortable in their BMW.
Now here's the rub: both sides are right. Let me illustrate this with some extreme examples: I'll compare London (the main thrust of transport policy is aimed at such urban areas), Singapore and Hong Kong, and Bangkok.
Firstly, let me describe the current situation in these various places. All are cities of several million souls, with central business districts where a large number of the workforce are based, generally in office buildings. In London, there is an outdated and underfunded underground train system - some of the infrastructure is over 50 years old. There are some overground trains as well, similarly crowded and underfunded, and a number of main roads leading into the city centre, all of which are absolutely jammed at rush hour. It is common for people to live outside of town, in the countryside or 'green belt', and to spend more than an hour travelling to work in the morning. Parking costs are extortionate, unless you are a senior executive whose company pays for a parking space.
In Singapore and Hong Kong, there has been huge investment in public transport infrastructure over the last 20 years. These systems are air-conditioned, fast and efficient, and cheap. Private cars are relatively few, because of the high cost of owning and running a car, although this is less of a problem for those living in rural areas.
Finally, Bangkok. Anyone who's been there will tell you that the constant cacophony of traffic, the dirt and fumes, make the streets unbearable. Public transport is minimal: like Britain, the government stopped investing in public transport during the 80's boom: everyone bought cars instead. The road congestion is so appalling that it is literally faster to walk, although few do this because of the dirt and fumes from the traffic.
Now the roads lobby in the UK will recognise the problem in Bangkok as being one of a lack of roads - the government should have invested more in infrastructure. Yes they should, but not in roads: to have enough roads for all their cars, they'd have to pave half of Bangkok. What is needed there, and in London, is a world-class public transport system. One that is clean, air-conditioned, fast, and cheap.
Now I love cars. Look elsewhere on my web site and you'll see that. They're terrific for touring the continent, for the weekend, for visiting friends out of town, even (with the obligatory designated driver) for visiting a country pub. They're good fun, empowering and independent. What they're not, is a good way to get to work in the West End. That's the job of the tube. Now I admit that the tube, even more so than the buses, is not currently a pleasant place to be. And that's where the British government is going wrong: serious investment in public transport is needed before you can start bullying people into using it.
And that must happen: people must be persuaded to use public transport for commuting. This is so blindingly obvious that I can't believe people can argue with it. But for those BMW-driving executives who are about to get taxed on their free parking space, let me add one more little fact which may catch their attention. It is estimated that, if it were not for the constant gridlock on the capital's roads, the GDP of Thailand (yes, the whole country) would be something like 1/7th higher. If London grinds to a halt in a similar way, are you prepared to give up that much salary? Where will the next BMW come from?
Put that in your exhaust pipe and smoke it.
Alan Moore, Hong Kong, 2000
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