The Transport Debate

Jon Shaw + Iain Docherty

Policy Press 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
The Transport Debate offers a broad overview of transport policy in the United Kingdom. Its five central chapters take as their frame events in the life of an imaginary family in the Midlands, representing middle class "Motorway Man": Paul and Susan Smith and their teenage children Sophie, Jack and Lucy. But the real structure is in the three or four thematic sections within each of those chapters.

An introduction provides some background. People in the UK have low expectations of transport: they are happier with what they experience despite it being objectively worse. Relative to GDP, the UK has invested 40% less than its continental peers in transport; on top of that, building infrastructure here is considerably more expensive. Transport policy has seen a shift from 'Predict and Provide', building motorways to meet demand, to a 'New Realism' which emphasizes alternatives.

"The commute" looks at the history of commuting and urban growth and road building, emphasizing the changing balance between cars and people, at the problems and costs of congestion and the possibilities of road pricing ("the most deliverable intervention"), and at personalised travel planning and gender issues and NIMBYism. Shaw and Docherty suggest that cities remain 'foot' and 'tracked' places at heart.

"The school run" explores the school run itself, and its links to education policy, the active transport modes of walking and cycling, and their contributions to health and other advantages, and the broader significance of car ownership, notably as a symbol of status and independence. (Somewhat disappointingly, the discussion of cycling follows the "encouragement / perception of danger / safety in numbers" line — "the challenge for policy is to promote the widespread uptake of walking and cycling" — rather than emphasizing the provision of infrastructure that makes cycling a genuine option for everyone.)

In "the business trip" Paul takes a journey into London. This frames discussions of the effects of ICT and telecommuting on transport, of privatisation and how transport in London is different (with an integrated ticketing system and coherent planning), of the broader problems of evaluating infrastructure investment (London versus the rest of the country, benefit-cost ratios and so forth) and of the railway system. It also offers some comparisons with the trips of Paul's international colleagues.

In "the family visit" the Smiths visit a grandmother in Scotland. This frames discussion of the importance of transport for social inclusion, of rural bus systems and concessionary travel schemes, and of choices between transport modes (in this case between flying, catching the train, or driving) and greenhouse gas emissions.

In "the summer holiday" the family travels to France. This leads to discussion of airport capacity and expansion options (where Shaw and Docherty tentatively support second runways at Gatwick and a third at Heathrow, though they suggest limiting the latter to 80% of capacity to ensure resilience), a look at freight and goods distribution, and comparisons with European transport, focusing on metro and tram systems in smaller cities.

Shaw and Docherty broadly align with the New Realists, arguing for a shift to the active modes and public transport and away from driving and flying. But they emphasize the need to do this by giving people choices: "Decades of transport policies favouring road transport and the associated, established car culture mean that for many journeys people have little practical choice, other than to drive where they want to go". They label their position "Progressive Realism": they are not opposed to road-building or airport expansion where there's a clear case for it. Their conclusion includes some ideas on how funding for increased transport investment could be found, and they present in some detail a proposal for improving the bus system in a mid-sized city of a quarter of a million.

The framing is not played up too much but does provide a useful perspective on multi-modal trips and, more importantly, a reminder that the effects on and attitudes of individuals have a significant influence on policy decisions. There is no attempt to be systematic, with the bundling of sections into chapters fairly arbitrary and some sections treating awkwardly assorted topics — air pollution alongside airport expansion, for example. So The Transport Debate is best used as an introduction rather than as a reference. Having moved to the UK not so long ago, I found it a useful guide to the current state of debate, giving enough background history for someone coming from outside.

May 2014

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%T The Transport Debate
%A Shaw, Jon
%A Docherty, Iain
%I Policy Press
%D 2014
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9781847428561
%P xxi,236pp