Our traffic reduction laws don’t work, but a small amendment could change that

This post is by Roger Geffen, policy director at Cycling UK.

The UK government’s recent transport decarbonisation plan (TDP) has had a mixed reception. The consensus seems to be that it contains plenty of positive ideas but that it is very weak on a clear overall direction for the transport sector. Commentators have voiced frustration at its lack of a plan to reduce the demand for travel, so that the UK transport sector can play its part in averting the unfolding climate crisis.

This ambivalence is evident in the secretary of state’s foreword to the plan. At one point he says, “We must make public transport, cycling and walking the natural first choice for all who can take it”. Yet, elsewhere, he says, “It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently … We will still drive on improved roads, but increasingly in zero emission cars.”

This mixed messaging does nothing to help councils, businesses and others know what kind of low carbon future to plan for.

England is lagging behind Wales and Scotland
The TDP’s main weakness is its over reliance on technology to decarbonise transport, rather than reducing demand for motorised travel. Specifically, critics have pointed to the lack of targets to reduce road traffic, and that there are no measures such as road pricing to achieve this. We need fewer cars, not just newer cars, and we need shorter trips as well as cleaner trips. England’s plan is a stark contrast to recent policy developments in Wales and Scotland.

The Wales Transport Strategy 2021 sets a target to increase the proportion of trips made by walking, cycling and public transport from 32 per cent now to 45 per cent by 2040. The Welsh Government has also adopted progressive planning policies to reduce the car dependence of new developments; it has promised to make 20mph the ‘default’ speed limit for urban areas by 2023 and an equitable road pricing scheme. It has also earmarked funding for walking and cycling, amounting to £23.80 per person in 2021-22.

Meanwhile the new partnership agreement between the SNP and Scottish Green Party confirms a previously announced target to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030; to make 20mph the default urban speed limit by 2025; and to boost annual funding for cycling and walking from £21 per person now to an amazing £58.50 by 2024-25.

The Westminster Government’s promise to earmark £2 billion for cycling and walking over the next five years to 2024-25 may be six times higher than its previous five year settlement, but it still only amounts to £7.10 per person. Scotland looks set to achieve the TDP’s promise of a “world class cycling and walking network” a very long time before England does.

Two traffic reduction acts are just waiting to be used
In the late 1990s, a campaign for national road traffic reduction targets, led by Friends of the Earth, resulted in two Traffic Reduction Acts, dating from 1997 and 1998. Although it was an excellent campaign, neither act fulfilled the original aims to require ministers to set targets to reduce road traffic from 2000 levels by five per cent by 2005 and by ten per cent by 2010. Still, the 1997 act enabled ministers to require councils to set local road traffic reduction targets, in response to national government guidance. While the 1998 act required them to set national traffic reduction targets or to write a report explaining why these were not needed.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, ministers chose the latter option. They issued a report in 2000, called Tackling congestion and pollution. In essence, it argued that there was no need to reduce traffic, the key thing was to reduce the adverse effects of traffic, namely congestion and pollution. The government would tackle congestion with some targeted ‘pinch-point’ road schemes (a phrase intended to assure people that there would be no outrages like Twyford Down or the Newbury Bypass, which were both still fresh in the memory). Meanwhile it would tackle pollution by working with the motor manufacturers to clean up vehicle technology. That has not turned out quite as planned.

One small change to legislation could have a huge impact
Tackling congestion and pollution was subtitled ‘The first Road Traffic Reduction Act report’. But there has never been a second one. Here’s why.

The 1998 act stipulates that, when the secretary of state considers setting or updating road traffic reduction targets or reports, they must take account of congestion, pollution, road danger, health, landscape and biodiversity, as well as social and climate impacts. However, it only requires them to do all of this at such times as they deem “appropriate”.

All that’s needed is a Private Members’ Bill to replace those words with a specified frequency. Ministers could then be required to set road traffic reduction targets, say, every two years, taking account of all the criteria listed above. They could then use their powers under the 1997 act to ensure that councils set targets, policies and programmes which contributed to these national targets.

The 1997 act could already prove to be very useful for Welsh and Scottish ministers, as they seek to achieve their ambitious targets.

But, in England, more pressure is needed for ministers to bite the bullet and set national targets, taking account of climate science, along with the many other negative impacts of road traffic.

In short, a minor amendment to the 1998 act could make a big difference, now it’s time for parliament to make it happen.

This post is one of a short series on transport issues we are featuring over the coming weeks, following the publication of the government’s transport decarbonisation plan in July 2021.

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