HL Deb 04 December 1974 vol 355 cc196-211

2.54 p.m.

Lord BYERS rose to call attention to the increasing frustrations experienced by all concerned with urban transport in the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I regret having trapped the former Lord Chancellor and not allowing him to leave. I wish he would stay, because this is an important matter. My noble friends and I have chosen this subject on which we invite the views of your Lordships because we believe that those who use transport in urban areas, those who work in the transport industry in urban areas, and those who manage transport in urban areas, are subjected to constant daily frustration and misery, and that even more strenuous efforts ought to be made to try to understand this problem, and if possible to try to ease the situation. I hope that those who live in rural areas will forgive me for concentrating on the urban aspects of this matter. This is not because my noble friends and I minimise the problems in the rural areas but because we feel that transport, as a whole, is probably too big a subject for a debate of this nature.

The varieties of frustration in urban transport are many. There is congestion on the roads; there is the growing use of side roads by frustrated motor car drivers; there are the increased peak hour traffic jams, due largely to the use of the private motor car—I do not want to appear to be too hostile to the private motor car; I enjoy motoring but I think that this has to be said—these increased traffic jams in peak hours often being a response to the frequently unreliable, dislocated, and uncomfortable public transport system. Those of your Lordships who use the Underground in London in the rush hour, either in the morning or evening, know that it is an absolute nightmare at many of the stations that we have to use. Staffing is inadequate and there is an inefficient use of buses and commuter trains.

At the outset I want to stress the complexity of the urban transport system and the problems. The problems are different in different parts of the country, but wherever one looks they are complex in different ways. I do not claim today to be able to put forward any comprehensive plan for solving these problems, although I must say that I have had plenty of advice, and there is no shortage of different solutions. I limit myself to identifying a few of the areas in which successful solutions, or at least improvements, might be found. My first proposition is that the main object ought to be to make public transport so effective that there is a real incentive for the motorist to use it rather than to compete with it. If public transport is to be effective, then there may have to be disincentives to deter the private motorist and the heavy freight vehicles from using the valuable road space which a public transport system needs if it is going to be efficient in its use.

A reliable and effective public urban transport system would be one, I believe, in which a pedestrian can get from point A to point B speedily, in comfort, and with a minimum of effort and strain. Certainly that cannot be said of many of our journeys today. Far too many journeys by public transport involve a lot of walking, a lot of waiting, and a lot of general discomfort. Often this is due to poor planning, aggravated by avoidable congestion, and so we have a series of vicious circles. Congestion wrecks the carefully thought out bus schedules; and in cities like London, with long bus routes, congestion at many points along the route results in long waiting periods at other points along the route, and so matters go on in an aggravated way. Congestion is often caused by a failure to provide pedestrian underpasses, so that the traffic lights have to be geared to deal with hoards of pedestrians surging across the main routes in the midde of cities at peak hours, thus creating more and more congestion.

Other examples of pedestrian created congestion in London are, for instance, Bond Street tube station, where the outlet is only to the South side of Oxford Street, and to get to the shops on the North side of the road you have to cross the road, thus holding up the traffic; Holborn tube station, which is a tremendously busy one, produces the same problem. So far as disincentives to using the public system are concerned—and these are by no means confined to London—I should like to mention two or three; and I have taken my examples from London because I know these best myself from my own experience, but I believe that the same problem exists in other major cities of the country. In London one only has to look at Waterloo, Victoria, and London Bridge. The commuter leaving London Bridge, as I often do, wanting to use the underground, has to walk across a busy, traffic-congested yard which, in the rain, is distinctly uncomfortable, and it is quite a journey. At Waterloo it takes about seven minutes to get to the Underground from the main station—a clear case for a travellator, or something of that sort. Victoria has a crazy system. One arrives there by underground, to find that there is no exit to the North side of Victoria Street, and that is the side on which many big offices have now been built and are being used; hence more congestion. Many more people, I believe, are deterred by these shortcomings from using public transport, and use the car instead. I am told that since Notting Hill Gate underground station has been redesigned many more people have used it.

Then, of course, there are many more impediments to the free flow of traffic in major urban areas. Some motorists and van drivers completely disregard the total prohibition of parking along the main routes, whether that prohibition is by way of double yellow lines or is of some other type. I think these people constitute a menace. Presumably the double yellow lines are put there for the purpose of easing the flow of traffic. Where there are tow-away or drive-away systems in operation I believe that much tougher measures are needed to deal with this type of anti-social action.

I would not only tow the car away and fine the driver, I would impound the vehicle for not less than a week and probably longer. If this remedy were enforced far fewer vehicles would need to be towed away, and I do not think any new pounds would be needed because few people are prepared to risk the loss of the use of their vehicle for a week or perhaps a little longer. I believe that the toughness of a measure of this type would have a marked effect in easing the congestion on the roads of major cities. I believe, too, we should make much more use of bus-ways and bus lanes. There is a difference between the two. I am told that there are a number of potential bus-ways in this country which could be used. They arise mainly from disused railway tracks, of which there are many, and other under-used rail rights of way. What is needed is a concrete bed to enable buses to travel along these ways.

I am told that the lines from Wolverhampton to Snow Hill, Birmingham, form one of these. Some of your Lordships speaking later in the debate will have more local knowledge. I am told that there is spare capacity on the line from Knowle through Solihull to the city. The creation of a bus-way, with several access points coming out on an inner ring road, would improve services considerably. I believe that Runcorn is at present using bus-ways of this sort to very good effect. Work done by the Brookings Institution in the United States shows that the bus has a much greater potential than many people have recognised, especially if it is allowed to be more flexible in design, size and method of operation.

Experiments with mini-buses seem to offer a great deal of hope, and the better use of specialist buses should also be considered. Why cannot school buses be used for other purposes during school hours? Why should they be confined just to taking children to and from school? I understand, too, that there is pressure for permission by taxi firms to offer a shared taxi service, or even a shared mini-bus service. I wonder whether this is not one solution, too.

I do not know whether there is a place for what they call the Mouche system, which is used in Istanbul and Teheran. "Mouche", I think, is a particular dish which has bay leaves around prunes, or something like that; and when you see people in these shared taxis they look as though they have been pushed there and are stuffed in. However, the system seems to work in Istanbul and Teheran. In these cities these large taxis operate at intervals of a minute or so on circular routes, and they seem to be effective.

I think, too, that in many cities there is great scope for an extension of bus lanes, as opposed to bus-ways, for buses and taxis. We might even give consideration, as they have done in one or two American cities, to allowing fully-laden private motor cars to have the use of a bus lane, so encouraging people to do away with the one-passenger car and to get a full load. Whether this would create a black market in tailors' dummies, I do not know; but I am sure that someone would get round it. Anyhow, the idea is one which is operating in the States and, I believe, with some effect. I think also that if bus lanes are to work they will need to be policed properly against those who cheat. I am not one for suggesting that we put more work on our hard-pressed police force, but here possibly the traffic warden corps could help in making sure that the bus lanes are kept for buses and taxis and that motorists do not come in and out of them, thus wrecking the original object of the exercise.

My Lords, congestion on the roads is appalling. It has arisen largely because our cities have just grown and become too big, whole areas being devoted to production and others to residential use, with the motor car linking the two. Nevertheless, I do not think that we should contemplate major road reconstruction schemes before we have made a real effort to make the best of our existing road system in the cities and towns. This means that we have to make another effort to develop traffic management to the full. As I say, I am by no means opposed to the motorist or the motor car. I do know what mobility the private car has given to the infirm and the disabled. That is something that we have to remember when we are talking about restrictions upon the movement of private cars. But I think we must recognise that some restraints may well have to be imposed on private motoring in urban areas if congestion is to be reduced and public transport is to be allowed to function properly. The private car has obviously played some part in the breakdown of the public transport services.

There are two ways of dealing with this restriction. One can have a system of pricing and charging for the use of road space. I believe that the little black box which many of us have talked about, with its cartridge that you buy at the post office, is, in fact, a practical possibility. Whether it is desirable is a different matter. But certainly there should be developed to the full measures to make public transport easier before we adopt a sophisticated system of charging for road space or road price. But apart from bus-ways and bus lanes much can be done by widening and improving urban roads solely with the object of assisting public transport. The cost of doing that, of taking off a corner here and putting a small underpass there, would be chicken-feed compared with the costs involved in the inner ring road, which many people have talked about in the past. Much can be done by intelligent traffic management to improve the situation.

I was impressed the other day when I went to Birmingham, where the inner precinct served by buses into the central shopping area has done much to relieve congestion in the middle of the city. Lessons have got to be learned and passed on from the experiments being carried out in this country and overseas. I am told there are experiments in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Stevenage, Harlow and many other places from which much can be learned if only we can get these lessons to the people who need to know them.

I come back to the problem of complexity. To my mind, it is twofold. On the one hand there is the problem of so many and so varied road users. We have juggernauts, lorries, vans, public service vehicles, coaches, motor cars with drivers of varying skill, and often motor cars with drivers of no skill at all. We have motor cyclists, mopedists, pedestrians, cyclists, all competing for precious road space. To strike a fair or even an effective balance between such competing interests is well-nigh impossible. On the other hand, the problem is aggravated by the management of urban traffic being in the hands of so many different authorities. We have central Government responsible for certain things; local authorities responsible for others; the police, who know much about these problems, responsible at all levels; and different agencies coming in in different parts of the country, all with their own problems and their own responsibilities. The situation is very complex indeed.

There is, too—and I am not going to develop this beyond mentioning it—the whole question of the optimum size for any transport organisation. British Rail seems to me to be designed to defeat any one chairman, no matter how good he is, or even any one board. It seems to me that the problem and the organisation are too big. A fresh look is required at the whole problem there. I wonder whether or not the time has come to appoint somebody to have a real good look at our transport system, but especially at the urban aspects which every day affect so many millions of people in their daily lives. I think that it has become a very disturbing feature of our lives in cities that people are beginning to accept as a matter of course the inefficiency, the high cost and the appalling discomfort. One hears people complaining, but one docs not hear them protesting about this; there is an acceptance of it which I think is bad psychologically for the whole country.

I wonder—and I shall not ask the Government for any reaction to this proposal today; I should like to throw it out as an idea—whether this subject is not a suitable one for a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. It is the kind of thing, I think, which we might do quite well. Quite apart from providing a forum for the collection of evidence on possible remedial measures, a Committee could examine and, if necessary, challenge much of the so-called conventional wisdom which has come to pervade this subject of urban transport. It might ask such questions as: are we right in accepting the virtual monopoly conditions in which urban transport has to work? Many transport experts would say that there is no other way of doing it. I wonder whether this is true. Certainly there have been few, if any, innovations in urban transport since the 'thirties. It might ask: is there no place for private operators? If not, why not? It might also ask: can we leave the decisions regarding fares to local politics, as we do in London? The inevitable consequence of leaving fares to politics is that colossal deficits build up, just as they have done in nationalised industries, where there is the problem of politics rather than economics governing the pricing system.

Then, again, there is a point about which I am particularly interested, because I have always believed that quite often one ought to subsidise transport, since that would help the lower income groups. But a study has just been made in Canada (it is not altogether complete) which indicates that there is no evidence to support the view that, in general, the subsidisation of urban public transport contributes to the wellbeing of the low-income groups; it seems to help those in the better-off suburbs. This is something which ought to be examined in some depth before we jump to the conclusion that the right political action is to subsidise.

I should like to know what it is that inhibits recruitment when unemployment is relatively high. Is it wages, is it conditions, or merely the lack of adequate housing or training? I think that some fairly regular monitoring of experiments which are under way by some body like a Select Committee could be useful. For instance, in Leeds a moderately heavy investment for improved roads and public transport has been undertaken, resulting in greatly improved traffic circulation and a city centre largely clear of traffic in the shopping streets. I should like to know whether this is applicable on a wide scale throughout the country. Is it likely to be successful, or is it a unique situation? Or should we take the view that no more investment at all in urban roads is required, and that traffic should be restricted by every possible means? I understand that this is an approach which is being advocated, but nobody seems to know what the environmental conditions on the remaining roads will be if one has very severe restrictions in the centre forcing vehicles into the side roads and out towards the perimeters.

Finally, I do not think that we can expect miracles from public transport, but at least I think we ought to be identifying those passenger movements which genuinely lend themselves to public transport, and we ought to concentrate on improving that transport to accommodate such movements. For instance, there is what is called the Nottingham approach, involving very severe restraints on car entry to the city centre, encouraging the bus services and playing down road construction. How far will this be successful, how far can it be applied elsewhere? What we want to know is the degree to which such car restraint can be imposed, and to what extent the imposition of car restraint of real severity has the desired effect. There are many other aspects. What effects do these restrictions—if they are brought in—have on city centre trade, on shopping, on the profits which may be made or on the investments which may be made in the areas concerned?

My Lords, I believe that there is a case for a new look at this problem. I have touched on only a very few aspects of urban transport. I hope that your Lordships who are taking part in this debate will have, as I am sure will be the case, many other points to contribute, and to put forward today. As I say, I have a feeling that this debate may be the forerunner of a movement towards having some body, such as a Select Committee, look at this problem. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for raising a subject this afternoon which is so close to all our wheels. I think he introduced his speech with spanking velocity, and there certainly was no congestion in his approach.

We are, of course, dealing with an intractable set of problems, and it would be quite foolish to deny a lot of what the noble Lord has said. Indeed, since this Motion went down on the Order Paper almost everyone I have met, either in this House or in my own home, has battered me with his or her transport tribulations. It has been rather worse than amiably asking people how they are.

Throughout any discussion, though, it is vital to remember that we are in a period when resources for transport, in common with other services, are very limited. This means that radical solutions involving heavy expenditure will seldom be possible, and certainly not in the near future. Perhaps this is not really such a bad thing. Increasingly we need to conserve the fabric of our towns and cities. We do not want residents and pedestrians to be dominated by vehicles. We do not want more and more great traffic arteries gouged out through our towns, and buildings torn down to make room for the omnipresent car. Those using public transport want a swift, punctual and comfortable service, while recognising that resources are limited. This means, as the noble Lord pointed out, that we have to make the best use of what we have.

How are we to achieve this? I see three elements in this particular package: first, transport planning; secondly, traffic management and restraint of the private car; and, thirdly, the improvement of public transport. I do not believe transport can be looked at in isolation. The planning of transport must be intimately linked with provision for housing, jobs, schools, shops and recreation. Problems and their solutions vary from town to town, and have to be dealt with not only in the context of the town itself, but in response to the needs of the community.

This year, for the first time, we have the transport policies and programmes, known as TPPs, prepared by the new county authorities, which will be used by my right honourable friend as a basis for considering applications for the new transport supplementary grant. But they also represent something else—a big step forward in the working out of transport policies at local levels to assist the needs of county areas both inside towns and cities, and in the country around.

At the heart of the urban traffic problem is congestion which, although it may elude immaculate definition, is readily recognised. Congestion must be tackled. It is costly; it pollutes the atmosphere with fumes and noise; it delays the bus services. But the country cannot afford to spend its way out of congestion by building roads, to say nothing of the environmental effects of major new motorways in urban areas. Between 1966 and 1973, the number of miles travelled by cars in towns—I repeat, in towns—rose by 35 per cent. It is just not practicable to continue to cater for this rate of increase. One mile of urban motorway, for example, can cost up to £20 million; and we all, I am sure, have various priorities which we could probably put before that. What we have to do is to make better use of the road space we have, and share it out more equitably, remembering that pedestrians and cyclists have rights, too. Obviously, this cannot be done without expenditure on road improvements, particularly at bottlenecks, and building new road links.

The lorry, despite all its critics—and I am also one of them at times—is an essential part of our daily lives, whether we are manufacturers, traders or consumers. But as far as possible heavy through-traffic must be kept away from congested town centres. This may mean prescribing special routes for lorries, and even new road construction. However, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Byers, pointed out, the real congestion culprit is the private car. Rising car ownership has brought convenience and transport independence to an increasing number of people. But what a heavy price we pay for it, particularly in the rush hours!

Of course, each motorist who drives himself to work is not only using an individual right; there is, I believe, a subtle relationship between a man or woman and his or her car. I know that I wear my car like a coat—I never want to take it off. And when I heard the noble Lord refer to impounding cars for a period of not less than a week, my social feeling and conscience said, "Good" but inwardly I said, "Oh! not that". But, collectively, the result of this attitude, of which I believe I do not have a monopoly, adds up to inefficiency and frustration and gives rise to social, environmental, and economic costs; and the economic costs are certainly not covered by peak urban motorists through the various charges they pay. My Department is studying ways of tackling congestion, which my noble friend Lord Melchett will deal with in winding up.

However, all these are local or central governmental initiatives. My view, also, is that we should benefit from some educated self-help. For example, the spreading of traffic peaks would make an enormous difference. Here the initiatives lie not with the Government but with industry, commerce, schools and shops to adopt staggered hours or "flexitime"—another of those awful expressions. There are some remarkable social as well as transport success stories where these have been tried. Then there is car pooling. There are, I know, legal difficulties with car sharing where there is a payment involved, but I was interested the other day to see that British Steel are encouraging car sharing by their workers; and my Department is sponsoring research work into car sharing at the Transport and Road Research Laboratory and at Loughborough College. These studies should throw light on what is needed at the local level.

If the results are encouraging, as we have reason to hope they will be, then I intend to suggest to my right honourable friend that we should consider what publicity might usefully be given. No scheme like this can possibly work without publicity based on an evaluation of people's motivation and their likely resistance. The effect of all this, I hope, will be to change the emphasis in urban transport planning in a way more in tune with our environmental and social priorities. The best remedy for congestion may often be the least costly; such as some measure of restraint—imposed or voluntary—of the private car, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, recommended, together with improvement of public transport. Such a policy certainly makes sense in another important area; that is, in terms of energy conservation.

My Lords, during the last ten years or so the bus industry has been running into increasing difficulties. Buses have been losing about 3 to 4 per cent. of their passengers every year in urban areas. There are many causes. Car ownership has gone up five-fold during this period taking people off the buses and increasing congestion, making buses less reliable, and thus leading to a further loss of patronage—a real vicious transport circle.

To add insult to congestion, bus operators have recently had to contend with acute staff shortages and poor deliveries of new buses and spare parts. For some time now, their costs have been rising by 3 per cent. every year in real terms, and in the past year by as much as 20 per cent. and more. This has led to increased fares and reduced services, in spite of central grants from the Government which are now running at some £60 million a year. In addition, many local authorities are paying substantial sums from the rates, totalling an estimated £85 million in 1974–75. If local authorities continue such policies, the burden on public expenditure—particularly on rates—will become quite intolerable. From now on, fare levels must keep pace with increases in costs. Where they have dropped behind in recent months there will be even further ground to recover.

However, improved rail services can relieve congestion in dense conurbations. On Merseyside and Tyneside, substantial rail improvements are in hand to assist commuter traffic. The metropolitan counties, with their passenger transport executives, are trying to make the best use of both rail and bus with integrated timetables and bus feeder services. But outside London and the main conurbations, public transport largely means "the bus". The noble Lord mentioned various practical methods of improving bus services, and my noble friend Lord Melchett will be referring to the work the Department has already done in assessing the effect of bus lanes and other bus priority measures. But the noble Lord, Lord Byers, will be glad to know that one of his suggestions about converting disused railway lines to bus-ways is now being examined, at my right honourable friend's request, by Professor Peter Hall.

A city where a local authority has been attempting to combine the approaches I have mentioned—planning, traffic management, and public transport—is Nottingham. Until recently, Nottingham had a transport policy based on the unrestrained use of the car, and were also planning substantial new road building. The cost would have been enormous and still would not have coped with the demands of the private car. But with the Labour takeover of the city council, a fresh approach was adopted. The central shopping area has been largely freed from cars, buses have been given priority and streets returned to pedestrians. Already people can go about their business in comfort once again, and it seems to me that what has been done in Nottingham could surely be emulated elsewhere.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Byers, naturally made special mention of London; and those of us who travel in London grumble about its congested roads and the deficiencies of its public transport. But we tend to forget that London receives some six million tourists a year and countless visitors on business and pleasure from the rest of Britain. We tend to forget that traffic has been kept moving despite a 16 per cent. increase in the number of cars owned by London residents between 1966 and 1971; and we tend to forget that London Transport has not, in fact, broken down and that London's railway system, in the words of the London Rail Study, published last week, is, despite its defects, amongst the foremost in the world". Great credit is due to the Greater London Council, to London Transport and British Rail for what they have achieved in the last decade or so. The Greater London Council are responsible for traffic and transport planning in London, and also for London Transport. This I must make clear, for many people believe that my right honourable friend has some special "overlord" role in relation to London's traffic. This is not true; he is responsible, as elsewhere in the country, for trunk roads, and he is also responsible for the broad policy regarding British Rail's commuter services.

Undoubtedly, traffic movement in London presents, and always will present, severe problems. But London has an advantage. The railways play a greater role in her transport than in that of any other city. About one in eight journeys made in London each working day is by surface or underground railway, and three-quarters of the daily commuters into Central London travel by train. Nevertheless, in essence, the problems of London are the problems of other conurbations writ large. Therefore what is good for London will, we hope, prove to be good for other big cities.

Thus London has pioneered ways of turning available road space to maximum use. As a result of parking restraint and traffic management, average traffic speeds in Central London have increased steadily over the past decade at both peak and off-peak times of the day. The GLC are continuing to give high priority to measures to improve the efficiency and safety of traffic and, of course, of pedestrians. Many motorists resent what they regard as the anti-car attitude of the GLC. Certainly, parking controls in Central London and in some of the suburban centres have virtually restricted the use of cars. But they have been of general benefit in helping to check traffic congestion and to make it possible for buses and other traffic to move more freely—not of course as freely as we should like, but more freely than they would have done. They have also improved London's appearance by controlling indiscriminate parking on the streets and, although we may grumble at what we see, if we let our imagination fly and think what it would be like without the controls that we have at the moment, we must recognise that the city would look absolutely ghastly.

It is argued that it is pointless to try to restrain private traffic in London until the public transport services improve, but this again would bring us into the same vicious circle as I mentioned before. The main reasons for the poor service that London Transport and, to a lesser extent, British Rail have been able to give over the past 18 months are those I have already mentioned in a general context; namely, an acute shortage of operating and maintenance staff and a serious shortage of spare parts for buses. This summer, we saw big improvements in the pay and conditions of both London Transport and British Rail staff, improvements which have begun to attract staff and to enable more buses and trains to run. I know that there is a long way to go, but both the operators and the GLC are giving top priority to restoring scheduled services as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, I have to say that it will not be easy to hold the position in the longer term. Staff are becoming increasingly expensive and their cost accounts for about three-quarters of the public transport operators' working expenses. There is insufficient time to go into this very difficult problem in depth this afternoon, but noble Lords will appreciate that not only in London but in most other cities the cost of providing the public transport services we want is becoming one of the biggest headaches for urban planners.

Your Lordships will see that many of the remedies mentioned by the noble Lord are already the policy of the Government, although their application lies with local authorities and their effectiveness is blunted by difficulties of enforcement. I thank the noble Lord for his proposal for a Select Committee of your Lordships' House and I am very grateful to him that he does not require a reaction today, but I would put it to him that, since the Expenditure Committee of the House of Commons reported on this topic only two years ago, there has been a fundamental shift in principle in the direction of comprehensive transportation planning and traffic management. It may well be, therefore, that these initiatives should be allowed to evolve before launching other inquiries.

Finally, my Lords, there is no single measure and, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has said, no miracles with which any of us could honestly come up this afternoon which could hope to solve all these problems, short of banning almost all traffic from all towns. It is no use expecting instant solutions from new technology. The Department is doing its share of research into new systems like the mini-tram, yet these and other more far-flung instances of futurology are costly and will inevitably take many years to develop.

On the other hand, our traffic problems cannot wait for that: they are urgent. Restraint, road works, bus priority, linked traffic lights and pedestrian needs must be seen as integrated parts of a comprehensive plan. Different towns will need different transport recipes: the basic ingredients, however, will remain the same. Traffic must be the servant, not the master, of urban living and we must protect the environment by preserving and improving the quality of life in our towns and cities.