22 July 1998

Ken Livingstone MP (Lab. Brent East)

If John Prescott's great aspirations to free our roads of gridlock become reality, it will be seen as the greatest achievement of this Government, surpassing even the prospect of peace in Ireland. But nothing would be a greater tragedy than if No 10's fears of offending middle England led to a degree of inaction whose end result was the fact that middle England continued to choke on its own exhaust.

Although I have never learnt to drive myself, I do not underestimate people's love-affair with their cars. Indeed I once, long ago, took a few lessons - not particularly because I needed to drive for transport reasons, but because I hoped it might improve my luck with girls.

Only this weekend I was at a Labour fundraising garden party in my constituency, where a couple who live just a 12-minute walk away from a Jubilee Line station got very angry with me when I suggested that, as they were just 25 minutes from central London by Tube, they were prime candidates for using their car less and their feet and the Tube more.

The truth is that shifting people's transport habits away from the car and towards public transport will mean a huge psychological shift. It is bound to be messy, it is bound to involve mistakes, but in the end everyone will look back and agree that it was a good idea, and they will not be able to recall why they ever resisted the change.

The problem is that with a government that develops irritable bowel syndrome every time a focus group starts whingeing, it may be difficult to keep its nerve long enough to see the process through. Yet changing transport patterns that have built up over 30 years will clearly take time, and politicians with skins thick enough to enable them to live with short-term unpopularity and lashings of criticism.

The Government can take heart from my own experience when, back in 1981, Labour won control of the Greater London Council, which was committed to cutting fares in order to get people out of their cars and back on to public transport. In the election, we had been quite honest and clear in saying that we would increase domestic rates by up to 1 per week per household in order to pay for the cut in London Transport fares.

Although we won the election on this manifesto, when Thames Television commissioned an audience selection telephone opinion poll in the days just before the council met to vote on this policy, we found that there was overwhelming public opposition to our plans. When asked "should the GLC increase rates in order to cut London Transport fares?" 80 per cent of Londoners replied in the negative and only 20 per cent supported our scheme.

Fortunately we had sufficient commitment on our back benches to press ahead without public support, because within two months of the fares cut coming into operation opinion polls found that two-thirds of Londoners now thought we had been right to cut the fares. Of course, if we had been as fearful of opinion polls and as much in awe of focus groups as the modern Labour Party, we most probably would never have cut the fares.

The statistician George Stern recently conducted a detailed survey of passenger usage on London Transport between 1959 and 1986. His figures show that between our fares cut and the abolition of the GLC, fares were reduced by 35 per cent. This generated a 70 per cent increase in passenger miles, with a resulting increase in fares revenue of 11 per cent.

The real lesson for John Prescott from the GLC experience is that it pays to invest in public transport. In the end, one person in 20 left his or her car at home and switched to public transport, thus easing congestion as well as reducing accident and pollution figures. Some City firms even abolished their car mileage allowance and gave their staff travel passes instead.

People's reactions are never going to be wholly rational when the state intervenes to change their way of life. But then, it is not rational for hundreds of thousands of parents to drive their parents to school because they fear that their children may be injured in a car accident (no doubt driven by another child-ferrying parent). Fifty per cent of the children who live on heavily trafficked roads have asthma. Breathing the atmosphere in a congested city such as London doubles your chance of dying of lung cancer - the same odds as if you were to smoke forty cigarettes a day.

Far from being the great liberator, the car has become a tyranny that makes us prisoners in our own cities. As people switch to car usage, public transport is systematically cut back until we no longer have the choice of car versus public transport. As those who are dependent on public transport become a progressively smaller and poorer section of society, their ability to influence government fades, while the power of the car lobby grows, and we reach the bizarre situation where it is cheaper to drive your car over long distances than it is to take the train.

The only way to break out of this spiral of decline, as the GLC demonstrated, is to spend money initially in order to improve the public transport options in terms of both reliability and cost. Then as people make their personal choice it becomes possible to lock into an ascending spiral of improving public transport.

This is the main worry about John Prescott's White Paper. The extra funding for public transport is only going to come about once legislative time has been found to introduce charges on congestion and work-place car parks. Given that this legislation is not programmed for the next session, the earliest point these measures could become law is in the autumn of 2000. Can we really continue choking ourselves to death until then?

Unless John Prescott can persuade Gordon Brown to release the resources to buy the new buses and rolling stock as well as to provide the increased subsidy to allow for a fares cut, there is no prospect of rapid improvement. Why on earth should somebody travel a mile on London's Underground when it costs more than it does to travel a mile on Concorde?

Unfortunately, because it is local councils that are going to be responsible for enacting the new transport strategy (or not, as the case may be), ministers may think they will be able to get to the other side of the next election before the critics start homing in on the Government. In your dreams, John, in your dreams.

Ken Livingstone MP (Lab. Brent East)

"The real lesson for John Prescott from the GLC experience is that it pays to invest in public transport….. Fares were reduced by 35 per cent. This generated a 70 per cent increase in passenger miles, with a resulting increase in fares revenue of 11 per cent."

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