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How the Sun could help Mr Prescott

The Sun newspaper recently heralded Mr Prescott's new transport plans, which include quadrupling the use of bicycles, as a Chinese-style cultural revolution.

With an outdated front-page photograph of Chinese workers cycling 10 abreast on car-free roads, the paper suggested that Trafalgar Square will become more like Tiananmen Square. Presumably, the Sun likes giant roundabouts.

Meanwhile, Ken Livingstone, writing in the Independent, described the huge problems Mr Prescott faces in persuading people to reduce car usage. Arguing that reversing the decline in public-transport services requires state assistance in order to generate an 'ascending spiral of improvement', Mr Livingstone says that the government's plans to fund public transport investment from taxes imposed on congestion and work-place parking will take too long. These words were much in my mind when, desperately late for an early-morning meeting last week, my train halted underground for 40 minutes. Jammed cheek by jowl in stifling conditions, we waited until the driver finally admitted a total failure (again) of Central Line signalling.

Then the extraordinary happened: our driver broke rank and rules and rendered, over some 20 minutes, a moving statement to his 1100 passengers to the effect that New Labour has arrived and made great promises, but nothing is happening. The new rolling stock that was provided isn't reliable. The signalling is not compatible with the trains and we have a donkey of a system. One billion pounds has been spent and still it doesn't work! Claiming that he cannot work under such conditions he concluded, with chilling logic, that it is simply not enough for Mr Prescott to offer millions of pounds to transport - the issue is, who spends the money, how, and with what competence.

Between them Mr Livingstone and the anonymous train driver have summarised Mr Prescott's dilemma. He must of course establish rational transport policies that provide for longer-term ecological sustainability and safety while relieving the miserable congestion on our roads and gridlock in our cities, but first he must secure and apply immediate funding for effective use in delivering improvements to public-transport infrastructure.

The new mood of one-nation Tonyism provides good conditions for bold initiatives but these problems are complex, and a pragmatic approach to transport policy is essential. For example, the extensive decentralisation over recent decades of our cities' middle-class working populations to country villages is in effect irreversible and public transport can never meet their principal commuting needs.

A combination of planning constraints on future residential decentralisation, as recently imposed in planning guidelines in Herefordshire in an effort to achieve sustainable developments (see this column, aj 20.11.97), combined with public-transport improvements, will of course achieve some progress.

But we live in a market democracy and in that respect the interests of commerce and industry and their influence on government policy are all- powerful. Remember, ex-transport minister Cecil Parkinson has also been a director of Tarmac plc - a major road-builder.

As the saying goes, 'the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys'. Breaking the excessive market-driven obsession with cars involves both persuasion through education and the provision of good- quality public transport, and unless these are achieved simultaneously Mr Prescott's efforts are doomed. The Sun could help this process.

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