20 April 1998

Alan Francis, Transport Speaker for the Green Party

Talking to The Millennium Debate

General Motors seem to be celebrating their progress in developing a vehicle that will reduce emissions, if not altogether, certainly reduce them considerably. What is your reaction to this?

I am very glad that vehicle emissions can be reduced, if indeed the fuel cell works, but it won’t solve all the problems around car use. It won’t solve the problem of congestion. It won’t solve the problem of accidents. It won’t solve the problem of social exclusion for those without a car. It won’t solve the problem of the demand for new roads destroying the countryside.

Do you think there’s ever going to be a solution for congestion?

I think what we have to do is to reduce road traffic, and that is why the Green Party – together with Friends of the Earth and Plaid Cymru – helped pilot the Road Traffic Reduction Act through Parliament last year, and another one, the Road Traffic Reduction UK Targets Bill, which we have going through Parliament at the moment. That is what we have got to do, actually reduce the amount of traffic on the road. It is useful to reduce the pollutants that are coming from the exhausts of vehicles, but we have to reduce the total amount of traffic as well.

We have a debating contribution which argues that every time you reduce traffic on the road you create a vacancy for another road-user who fills the space, and so congestion finds a level again. Which is rather like the process of a new road always filling up. Do you think you will ever be able to deal with this phenomena?

Well, one of the ways to get over that problem is actually to start allocating road space, away from the private car and in favour of cycles, pedestrians, and buses and trams. That way, the surplus road space will be taken up by the environmentally sound forms of transport, rather than just, as you say, one car being replaced by another car.

Do you imagine the day when there will be bus lanes on motorways?

Well, there already is one in this country. It’s rather short, it’s the Heathrow Terminal spur off the M4, and I think it was opened last year. I would not envisage large numbers of them, but on very critical sections like that, yes.

The motorway from Oxford to London, the M40, is presently being widened to four lanes, over about an 8-mile stretch. Would you advocate allocating that fourth lane for buses?

I honestly don’t know how many buses and coaches there are on the M40, whether it would warrant that or not. Perhaps for people travelling from Oxford to London, the train is perhaps a better option from the environmental point of view rather than the bus or the coach. But I think I am talking more about reallocating road space in town centres, reducing the amount of space for cars and increasing the amount of space for buses and cyclists.

Back to General Motors. Does the Green Party have policies to encourage the development of alternative fuel for transport?

Yes, we are in favour of anything which will reduce the amount of pollution coming from vehicle exhausts, but we do not want that to be seen as a sort of panacea, where people say, "ah well, clean the exhausts, and that makes car use all right", because there are many other problems. I would particularly like to see the cleaner propulsion systems being used in buses, taxis, delivery vans, and so on, which we are always going to require. I think they are a more appropriate use for this newer technology.

We actually had electrically-powered buses in Oxford, which have been withdrawn because they do not have enough money to run them any more.

Yes, I am aware that it either has, or is about to finish. I know it was put there on an experimental basis, with subsidies from the electricity company, because it is an electric powered one, I think. We do need more of these sorts of clean vehicles, and if it is going to involve extra cost, then I think that either it has to come from central or local Government, and they have to be able to raise the taxes to pay for that. The sort of thing that we have in mind is to charge a tax on what is called non-residential parking. That is parking primarily around businesses, shopping centres and so on. Then people who are travelling there by car are actually paying taxes which can be used to help people getting there by public transport.

We have a contribution from someone who suggests (see M A Baxter) that one incentive would be to provide free parking spaces for those driving electric or hydrogen cars. And if that was done universally, across the country, it would generate a market for these cars – a stronger market than there is at present. Do you have any reaction to that idea?

I suppose it might work in the short term, while there were only a few of those vehicles about. But it is not a long-term solution, because if all the vehicles were converted to these alternative fuels, we would be back to the same position again.

But do you think that it is a way of kick-starting the industry? It wouldn’t need to be long-term, it needs to be short-term, to kick-start a new industry.

A better way of helping it is perhaps by increasing petrol costs, so that the running costs of the electric vehicles or whatever they might be are considerably less than those for petrol-driven vehicles. I think that is a better way of helping the industry get going.

We had a spokesman for the AA pointing out that 80% of fuel costs for motorists at the moment go in tax, as against only 5% in the United States. How high do you think tax on petrol needs to go before it does actually bite at all?

I have seen various reports on research of economists, and in order to get people to change their mode of transport, to get them out of their cars, that petrol costs will have to be hiked-up quite a lot. Some of the reports I have seen have spoken of doubling, and so on. The Green Party does not have a precise figure, but it thinks that petrol costs have to rise and that any changes have to be gradual. But as I remember rightly, we recommended in the recent Budget a 10% increase rather than the 6% that the Chancellor did actually raise taxes by, as a means of indicating to people that petrol prices are going to rise. And the other thing that we want is to hypothecate increased taxes, to make sure that they are used for public transport provision, for cycling and walking facilities, rather than just disappearing into the Chancellor’s general fund.

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