Tuesday 2 June 2009

Cars, trains, and buses

Saturday's Western Mail managed to fill almost the whole of a double-page spread with a story about AMs telling the rest of us to use public transport whilst very few of them do the same thing.

It's based on an analysis of travelling expenses claimed by AMs, and assumes that if they haven't claimed it, then they can't have spent it. Given the current attention being given to those MPs who go out of their way to claim every last penny to which they believe that they are entitled, this is a natural assumption to make; but that doesn't mean it's correct. It may well be that AMs who take only short distances are actually making more use of public transport than at first sight appears, and just not bothering to claim it back.

However, the first thing that struck me is that the reasons stated for not using public transport are, in fact, remarkably similar to those of the rest of the population; in this context, at least, AMs are nothing special. Convenience, journey time, reliability, timetable problems particularly outside peak hours – all of these things contribute to the decision to use, or not to use - public transport.

Interestingly none of them mentioned cost; but for many people, that's one of the key issues in making the decision, even if it's not the one that they own up to. There is often a real financial advantage for the individual to drive rather than take the train, even if driving is more expensive.

Take an employee – of any organisation - who is travelling on business from Carmarthen to Cardiff, for instance. Train fare, £15.10; petrol cost 150 miles @ say 10 miles to the litre = c £15. Case 1, claim £15.10 on expenses; case 2 claim 150 miles @ 40p per mile = £60 on expenses. It doesn't take a genius to work out why many employees will choose to drive, citing the lower journey time as the justification.

We all know what we should be doing if we're serious about emissions from transport; and most of us fail a lot of the time. But if those urging us to make changes to the way we travel aren't doing so themselves, it surely serves only to underline the fact that 'urging' will never be enough by itself.

I think that the logic of that is pretty clear - but what to do about it? There are some changes that can be made which are pretty non-controversial. Alleviating bottlenecks on the rail system where there are only single-track stretches is an obvious one. Providing extra capacity, in terms of longer trains or more frequent trains is another.

Other changes are much harder to gain consensus around. Increasing the cost differential between public and private transport would help. It's likely to be popular if it's achieved by reducing the cost of public transport (until people see the effect on taxes at any rate!); but increasing the cost of private transport doesn't sound like an immediate vote-winner to me. There's always 'compulsion' or 'prohibition'; but I'm sure that Sir Humphrey would rapidly tell any minister minded to follow that route that it would be a very 'brave' decision.

Ultimately, however, if we are really serious about getting to grips with the issue of the contribution made by transport to carbon emissions, what are the alternatives? Politicians urging people to do one thing whilst themselves doing the other is clearly the wrong sort of leadership – but are people ready for the right sort?

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