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Restraining our use of the car

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The white paper on integrated transport is one of the first fruits of the bringing together of land-use, planning and transport in the new Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. But the repeated delays in its appearance underline the serious dilemma it is seeking to confront: between freedom, choice and private ownership on the one hand, and restraint on individual behaviour and public investment on the other.

Some commentators are suggesting that the government's (apparent) reluctance to clobber the motorist underestimates people's sophisticated understanding that 'something must be done' and that we will all be prepared to restrain our (selfish) use of the car for the common good. If minds really are overuling hearts in this matter, it is probably confined to small metropolitan enclaves (and to their dinner-party conversations at that) rather than public opinion in the country as a whole.

Indeed, anyone who has travelled widely knows that traffic moves around central London and other British cities rather well most of the time, and that parking is firmly controlled when compared with the relative chaos of some European cities (Milan, Rome, and Madrid, for example) or the sheer anarchy in places like Bangkok. But clearly there is a problem which can only get worse unless the government is prepared to take some strategic, and possibly unpopular, actions.

The Architecture Foundation's competition1, 'A Car-Free London', launched offically today, istrailing for ideas, at a variety of scales, to help to constrain the use of the car, while Planning in London2 this month publishes a series of related papers. These include a consideration by John Sanderson of the London Planning Advisory Committee of how sustainable land-use planning - transport accessibility of development sites, car- free housing, parking standards - can be brought to bear; and a request by Peter Collins of London Transport to the new mayor to implement effective actions across the modes of transport and to bring borough planning control into a less competitive coherence. Richard Bourn of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England reveals that current development proposals with more than 250 car-parking spaces each will add over 123,000 to London's parking capacity if all are permitted.

Business recognises the issue and the London Chamber of Commerce supports an integrated transport policy, stating that its objective should be 'the efficient movement of people and freight, an improved quality of life and a thriving regional and national economy'. London First has undertaken research with the University of Westminster into the views of business on the anticipated taxation of private non-residential parking (pnr).

It shows that while 40 per cent of inner-London firms have no pnr and only 12 per cent have up to 50 spaces, in outer London the reverse is the case with over 40 per cent having up to 50 spaces. The idea of taxing these spaces (in addition to the business rate) is not welcomed - only 6 per cent of firms with parking saying it is 'very acceptable', and 27 per cent 'fairly acceptable'. The majority of firms think the measure would be neither acceptable nor effective.

Ninety per cent think that improving tax breaks for employers who assist with public-transport tickets would be a more effective way to reduce congestion, while 70 per cent think that charging drivers for driving in congested areas would be an effective measure. The preferred method of charging for parking spaces would be to establish standards and to charge for spaces provided in excess of these.

Another message was very clear. More than 90 per cent of firms believe that the revenues raised should be channelled specifically towards transport improvements rather than going to central government. Stephen Glaister of the London School of Economics suggests an elegant means of achieving this last objective - the introduction of travel passes which give motorists access to congested areas and, at the same time, free use of public transport within such zones.

Tim Pharoah, a consultant to Llewelyn-Davies, makes the case for neighbourhood car fleets or 'car clubs'. This idea for local shared use of cars originated at the University of Warwick as long ago as 1968, but until now has been tried only in other European cities.

Car clubs have the potential of achieving objectives of sustainability and the reduction of both traffic and parking. Members can not only book a vehicle for a particular trip but can select the type of vehicle best suited and the accessories (baby seats, ski racks) they need. If successfully adopted, these clubs would allow near car-free development, better use of land and better environmental conditions. Above all they could help to achieve the fundamental changes in perception and behaviour required if current trends are to be reversed.

Along with taxis, shared minibuses and car rental, car clubs suggest there is scope for making a distinction between ownership of a vehicle and its use and, possibly more importantly for the long run, the distinction between private traffic and public transport might be helpfully blurred.

The Architecture Foundation's competition is an opportunity for architects to bring to bear our lateral thinking skills on an issue which affects the lives of everyone at every level.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel: 0171 828 6555


1 Details from the Architecture Foundation, tel: 0171 839 9389

2 Planning in London on subscription from 0171 834 9471.

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