The last government’s Ten Year Plan envisaged that congestion could be greatly reduced by increasing rail use by 50% and bus use by 10%. Consequently vast sums have been spent on public transport. However, the policy was, at its inception, deeply flawed.

Firstly, it was always obvious that, since rail accounted for only 2% of motorised journeys, and since rail and bus each carried only 6% of passenger miles, large increases in those percentages could have only a trivial effect on car journeys. For example, increasing rail use from 6% to 9% (a 50% increase) and bus travel by from 6% to 6.6% (a 10% increase) would increase public transport’s share by less than four percentage points. Figure 1 illustrates the potential effect. It assumes half of the increase in public transport use would come from the car and that car use would otherwise rise by 10% over the 10 year period. Clearly the effect of the policy would be difficult to discern

Secondly, the car has enabled a dispersed land use that is difficult or impossible to serve by bus let alone the train. If it were otherwise that land use distribution would have arisen in the past and it did not.

As for road and rail, the train is used by people reaching the hearts of our largest cities because there is, for those people, no other practical way of reaching the destinations. Half of those journeys are more than 20 miles long and 10% are more than 80 miles long.  Similarly, the bus may get a passenger to a town centre but seldom anywhere else except at great inconvenience. In contrast the car serves out of town locations; half of all such journeys are less than 5 miles long and 90 % are less than 17 miles long.

Supposing that left any doubt as to the foolishness of the policy, consider Figure 2. The idea that the car trips that have arisen since 1950 could ever be swept into buses and trains is clearly absurd.


The cost to the nation has been vast. Roads have been starved of funds and congestion has been deliberately caused in a misguided attempt to force people out of cars onto buses and trains.

Paul Withrington

Member of the Advisory Council

Paul Withrington graduated in Civil Engineering from Bristol University in 1962. In 1966/7 he took an MSc in Transport Planning under the aegis of the Greater London Council, where he worked for two years followed by a period as a lecturer at Portsmouth.  He joined Northamptonshire County Council in1975 as Project Manager, Transport Planning. Since 1994 he has directed Transport Watch appearing at public inquires and undertaking policy analysis. In 2000/01 he appeared as the Strategic Objector at the Public Inquiry into Railtrack's West Coast Main Line Modernisation Programme.

6 thoughts on “Transport policy: the folly of the last decade”

  1. Posted 23/08/2011 at 12:38 | Permalink

    Having just been on a holiday to france, I can say that their motorways are a lot less congested than ours. The main difference? Most of their motorways are toll roads
    If we privatised the entire motorway network I am confident that we would see more people using public transport. That would mean less CO2 emmissions, and the saings made could be used to charge less road tax, helping everybody

  2. Posted 23/08/2011 at 14:39 | Permalink

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the government spends roughly the same amount on rail as it does on roads! That said, I do actually think the government should be spending the same amount on both i.e. nothing.

  3. Posted 23/08/2011 at 20:53 | Permalink

    Whig wrote that he thinks that “it is worth pointing out that the Government spends roughly the same on rail as it does on roads!”

    Doubtless he and readers noticed that roads carry nearly 90% of passenger-miles compared with Rail’s 7%., likewise with freight, rail is, in national terms, a trivial player. Hence equal expenditures seem massively disproportionate even if zero.

    Further the net expenditure on the roads (Expenditure minus taxes taken) is less than zero, namely minus £40 billion whereas rail costs the exchequer £5 billion annually.

  4. Posted 23/08/2011 at 22:22 | Permalink


    You will have noticed the less congested motorways in France than here in the UK but did you consider the amount of roads per person in France compared with the UK?

    They have 3.6 times the motorway length per person in France compared to the UK. If we were to spend a larger proportion of the money taken from motorists in taxation building roads we would see less congestion and better roads.

    It isn’t rocket science, we have less road space than almost any other EU country (per person) and we set about clogging what we have with traffic lights and traffic calming to engineer congestion.

    Predict and provide – we need more road space – simples.

  5. Posted 11/10/2011 at 09:05 | Permalink

    The UK definitely needs to implement better transport policies so as to reduce congestion. It falls to our engineers and the government to make this a priority.

  6. Posted 11/10/2011 at 10:24 | Permalink

    @Alex Bettany Quite so but political correctenss and a denial of the numbers sabotages that, see later blogs by seaching my name.

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