I find it very hard to understand how we run public transport in Britain. Public transport is very important. It is almost always better (in terms of producing less carbon) to take a train or a bus than it is to take a car, so you would expect that public transport services would operate at cheap prices to get cars off the road and put people into buses and trains. That way the person who pollutes most would pay the most. That way people would not waste fossil fuel and energy unnecessarily.
To get people to use public transport you need to have public transport arranged so that it is
- Easily and readily available
How does public transport in the United Kingdom today measure up? I will look at one part of it, the underground railway (or “tube”), in my city, London.
The underground is generally quite convenient; stations are closely spaced in the city centre and more widely spaced in the suburbs. There are some big holes in underground services, especially in South London.
The underground is not terribly safe. Violent crime on London Underground rose 14% in the last year and there was a 50% increase in public order offences and drug related crime increased by a massive 103%. There was a big drop in reported robberies and a slight fall in sex crimes.
The underground is not a healthy way to travel. In summer particularly closely packed underground trains, which are constantly delayed in tunnels, mean that passengers have to endure temperatures well above those experienced in tropical climates or deserts. The combination of heat, humidity, poor train services, breakdowns, and carriages packed more closely than cattle trucks would ever be allowed to be, creates a very unhealthy environment for those who have to use the underground every day.
People travelling by train, buses or underground are helping the environment in doing so but they are being penalised by having to pay for future infrastructure improvements, rather than being rewarded with lower fares. We should subsidise public transport heavily. It has been tried and it did work.
After the Greater London elections in 1981, Londoners were treated to a transport policy, called Fares Fair, under which there was an increase in local taxes which was spent on reducing the public transport fares on undergrounds and buses.
Virtually overnight buses and undergrounds trains were full, as people moved out of their cars into public transport. As a young lawyer working very late hours I was delighted with the savings. I moved out of my car and on to the underground, and even though it was more inconvenient I was prepared to put up with that to save money. So did humdreds of thousands of others.
The scheme was introduced by a very left wing local labour party (Ken Livingstone led it) that had been voted into power on the basis of this policy; I suppose that meant, however sensible the policy, it was going to be opposed on political grounds by a right wing party in Government. Sure enough, central Government grants to London were immediately reduced by the opposing party that had power in Westminster.
One London Borough, Bromley, opposed the scheme because its inhabitants had no underground service and would not benefit that much from it. Bromley applied to the court for an order that the “Fares Fair” scheme was unlawful, under the judicial review process.
At first things went well for the Fares Fair scheme. At the first hearing the judge said that this proposal had been a central part of the political manifesto, which the electorate had voted to accept and it was not his job to argue with the electorate. The Court of Appeal agreed, and it looked as though our cheap fares were here to stay.
However, after losing in the Court of Appeal, Bromley appealed to the House of Lords, the final arbiter of law at that time. An appeal to the House of Lords is held before the law lords only, the highest judges in the land, who sit without wigs or other flamboyance.
Five law lords held unanimously that the fares reduction and the supplementary rates were illegal. I found their reasoning flawed at the time and after the passage of years the flaws are even more obvious. The law, they said, required the Greater London Council to develop policies and encourage measures which promoted “the provision of integrated, efficient and economic transport facilities and services”. The judges then held that the GLC had to run transport services on ordinary business principles, therefore an arbitrary reduction of fares was not an ordinary business principle.
They also said the GLC had a duty to runs transport as far as possible to “break even”. Because the Government had withdrawn grants to the GLC due to the Fares Fair scheme, to continue with the scheme would in the light of this be a thriftless use of ratepayers’ money. Three of the five law lords said that the manifesto commitment was override by the Central Government’s withdrawal of the grant.
At that time the cost of the scheme was around £69 million. The law lords scuppered my cheap fares and those of everyone else and increased public transport misery while increasing the long term carbon footprint of London, and I am sure that they did it on flawed reasoning. The part of the case in quotation marks in the preceding paragraph is taken from the law report. I think that the GLC were then developing policies and measures which genuinely did promote the provision of efficient transport services.
It was nonsensical to claim that the GLC had a duty to see that transport “broke even” and the law lords went into some detail on this point; however a transport system that lets its infrastructure decay is not “breaking even”, so the underground system never complied with the economic test that the law lords laid down, neither have most transport systems in the developed world.
£69 million was a lot of money in 1981 – it is a lot less, however, in real terms, than the amount of money wasted on the Millennium Dome for example, and all sorts of other government projects, schemes and events.
I suggested at the start the qualities a public transport system must have to get people to use it. Of all of these I am sure that cost is the most important factor. Reduction in cost has led to the increasing number of air travellers, and increases in underground and bus fares in 1981 led to fewer Londoners using public transport after the scheme was dropped, and as I remember fares then rose constantly since then.
It is time to get transport policy out of the political arena. Mr Livingstone’s initiative in 1981 was squashed, and subsequently the authority he led was abolished. About seven years ago Londoners regained the Greater London Council, but with a Mayor and elected Mr Livingstone as Mayor of London, a position he holds today.
After seven years in office Mr Livingstone’s transport policy is not as effective, in environmental terms, as it was in 1981. Transport is a source of around a quarter of our carbon emissions so the benefits of an environmental transport policy are massive. Let the polluter pay and let those prepared to suffer for the common good the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that public transport is be rewarded with a free ride.
Filed under: carbon emissions, ken livingstone, tax, transport, Travel | Tagged: Court of Appeal, fares fair, Greater London Council, House of Lords, ken livingstone, London Borough of Bromley, London Underground, Mayor of London, public transport, transport, unhealthy travelling conditions | 1 Comment »