Perhaps the wisest thing that former transport minister Stephen Byers ever said was vouchsafed to the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee two days before his resignation. In a blinding flash of insight into the real nature of the transport crisis, he broke ranks with political correctness and said: 'It would be a fundamental mistake to ignore the fact that 80 per cent of journeys are taken by people in their cars.'
Letting the cat out of the bag like that did him no good of course. The goods yard arches, 1950s bus culture and paint-on-the-road lobby saw to that but, by this last brave gesture, Byers did at least set his de-bagged cat among the right pigeons.
Within four days, his stance was buttressed by a Rail Passengers Council report that predicted little or no private investment, more train companies collapsing and no improvement in rail performance until an extra £10 billion is found to prop up the existing network.
'The train companies are basically bust, ' explained one of the authors. 'They can't possibly afford the £30 billion they are supposed to invest over the next 10 years.'
Similar reports over recent months have dealt body blows to bus transport, new trams, new motorway construction, national cycling networks and even air traffic control. The only thing the government's corps of transport gurus seems able to agree about is that they hate motor cars and want their use curtailed. Yet, ironically, this point of agreement is where they make their biggest mistake, because the trouble with all the top-down public transport systems, with which they propose to replace cars, is that they are based on retrogressive, slow and fabulously expensive attempts to refurbish old technologies - from medieval windmills to 20th-century airplanes by way of 19th-century trains and buses. All these means of transport have their merits, but even their strongest supporters have to admit that there will always be a difference between vehicles that follow set routes at set times and vehicles that are owneror user-directed, travelling unimodally, at any time to any place, in the most direct manner possible. In this sense the motor car, which as Stephen Byers said makes 80 per cent of all journeys, is more successful than any system of public transport.
It is because of the unique performance of the formula car plus road plus ICT (information and communications technology), that we should try to look on the car, and the industry that produces it, as the starting point, not the finishing point of transport in the future. If we did, we would see that the motor industry, far from being demonised, should be recognised as the most flexible and responsive element in the universe of transportation and indeed, the only part of it capable of transforming the prospects for transport within a decade.
For years we have ignored this point, tinkering with the infrastructure of road transport, suppressing its flexibility and neglecting its upkeep. Now we should turn to the potential of its vehicle superstructure in the light of universal ICT, and mutate new vehicles, half-lane miniature single-person cars, special long-distance cars and special-purpose vehicles of innumerable other types.The triumph and tragedy of the transport crisis is that it needs a consumer solution like this, not another black hole costing billions. It needs a solution that can finance its own development as the computer industry or the mobile phone industry did, not one that goes cap in hand to the government for public money.Most importantly, if we are brave enough to talk about the 80 per cent of journeys in the real world, it needs new kinds of cars.