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Transport battle is waged on the field of contradictions

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Transport is a funny subject, as anyone will agree who attended last weekend's 'Transport in the New Millennium' conference at the Royal College of Art. One minute the participants were swapping anecdotes about the size of their garages, the next the response time of information systems, and the next the psychological significance of 'reaching for the keys'. Clearly the subject of transport has few boundaries, so nothing can really be dismissed as irrelevant and no chair, however determined, can sharpen the focus.

The uncontrolled zone is not confined to conferences. In the battle to control road traffic, tu quoque arguments abound and the media wallows in contradictions. For example the front end of last week's bumper issue of Country Life carried 120 pages of advertisements for country houses (all of them inaccessible without a car), along with an editorial praising an experimental public-transport scheme involving three buses in the Vale of Pusey. For good measure, it followed this up with a wildly enthusiastic road test of a 240bhp two-seat sports car costing £28,000, 'but still £6,000 cheaper than a Porsche Boxter'.

Can such editorial schizophrenia really be 'on message'? Of course not. But it is widespread nonetheless. For months there have been full- page advertisements in the broadsheets for 4x4 off-roaders that stress their capacity to handle speed bumps, and local radio phone-ins that promise insurrection if bus lanes and pedestrianisation schemes are not removed.

Nor is there any resolution at the level of government. There, we find the same contradictions thoughtlessly enacted as national policy. For instance, it appears to have dawned on no-one that there is a huge contradiction in the proposal to offer farmers £40,000 each to get out of farming because there is no future in it, while at the same time trying to persuade the housebuilding industry to erect as many new dwellings as possible on brownfield land.

As the wine lakes and butter mountains of the Common Agricultural Policy demonstrated years ago (and as the enthusiastic take-up on set-aside later confirmed), applied science and global marketing have been creating an enormous and still-growing surplus capacity in agriculture for years - a surplus capacity that, whatever else it means, must mean a surplus of unused land.

This is not the case in any London borough. There, the problem is exactly the reverse. Despite setting all the traffic signals at green, there is so little space to build anything, that property prices are rising at 15 per cent a year and more. Was this alarming price escalation foreseen? Or is this a deliberate pressure-cooker housing policy masquerading as a transport policy hijacked by the mythology of city life?

To bring some coherence into this mishmash of visions, prejudices and traffic engineering means making a few clear distinctions. For a start, it has to be accepted that transport policy is fundamentally about land use, which is itself ruled by principles that seem increasingly arbitrary in the electronic age. The old distinction between town and country, for example, has been blurred by information technology, the speed of road transportation, changes of use, an increase in home working, farm diversification, and the disurbanisation of manufacturing industry. At the same time, the pressure behind urban sprawl - which all parties profess to oppose - is kept up by measures to conserve the countryside that are increasingly at odds with economic realities.

To bring these two back into line would be a huge job for any transport task force. But a start might be made by letting cash-strapped farmers sell unproductive agricultural land for low-density housing and employment, thus reducing the population pressure on cities instead of pumping it up.

'For a start, it has to be accepted that transport policy is fundamentally about land use ... .'

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