Towards a Sustainable Transport System: Supporting Economic Growth in a Low Carbon World

1. History and context

From the 1950s to the 1990s

1.1 In the immediate post-war period, bus and bicycle were the main means of making local journeys, whilst rail dominated the market for longer-distance trips. Cars were a rare luxury, and fuel was rationed. By 1952, car ownership was on the increase, but public transport and cycling still accounted for most personal travel. Table 1.1 shows the dramatic growth in car’s market share (measured in passenger-kilometres) from 1952 to 1996.

Table 1.1: Passenger travel by mode, 1952 and 1996 (passenger kilometres)

1952 1996
Bus and coach 42% Car, van and taxi 87%
Car, van and taxi 27% Bus and coach 6%
Rail 18% Rail 5%
Pedal cycle 11% Pedal cycle 1%

Source: DfT

1.2 People were not just changing their modes of transport. They were also travelling more often and for longer average distances. The total amount of travel undertaken in the UK more than trebled between 1952 and 1996, from 218 to 719 billion passenger kilometres.

1.3 Our shops began to stock a wider range of imported goods, and the balance of our economy shifted away from heavy manufacturing. These changes also had an impact on the level and pattern of transport demand. Road haulage increased and rail freight declined. Traffic through ports increased, and a growing proportion of goods arrived in containers.

1.4 The motorway era (beginning with the Preston Bypass in 1958 and the first stretch of the M1 in 1959) was both a necessary response to rising demand and a stimulus to further growth. Motorways were clearly needed to take pressure off trunk roads and the towns and villages through which they ran. But motorways also facilitated long-distance travel and the movement of freight by road.

1.5 The 1973 oil crisis drove up petrol prices. This increased the cost of motoring and made the Government more sensitive to the nation’s dependence on imported oil. It also did serious damage to the UK economy and public finances. The UK had to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which came attached with conditions requiring public expenditure restraint. The pace of road-building slowed, and was subject to stop-go decisions in response to short-term changes in public finances.

1.6 But car-ownership and road-use continued to grow. People reorganised their lives around the car, and companies changed the way they did business. In their different ways, the ‘school run’, second home, out-of-town shopping centre and ‘just-in-time delivery’ concept are all predicated on cheap and easy road-use. There were some powerful economic and quality of life benefits to these changes, but some social costs – not least the increasing disadvantage at which households without cars were placed.

1.7 In 1989, the then Government was ready to re-embark on a large-scale roads programme. Its Roads to Prosperity White Paper promised 500 road schemes and was billed as “The biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. It came with a price-tag of £23 billion at 1989 prices (equivalent to about £40 billion today), but this was judged a necessary investment to address a demand-growth forecast of 142 per cent by 2025.

1.8 However, the programme encountered increasing environmental opposition. Protests focused primarily on adverse impacts on the countryside and quality of life (for example, impacts on wildlife, landscapes and noise) and on health (for example, the emission of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and lead). But scientists had for some time warned of a more fundamental problem – the possible impact of human activities on climate change. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, CO2 emissions were seen as a sufficient risk to justify precautionary measures. As the scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of climate change grew, it became clear that more urgent and radical action was needed.

1.9 The growth in international transport was even faster than the growth in domestic transport. The volume of goods moving through ports continued to grow and so did the number of ships moving through our coastal waters. But the most dramatic growth was in aviation. The number of passengers travelling through UK airports increased 100-fold between 1950 and 2005, and air freight increased 70-fold. Globalisation of trade drove up business travel, whilst package-holidays and no-frills airlines opened up Europe and the world to people who had never been able to travel abroad before.

More recent transport trends

1.10 The transport history from the 1950s to the mid-1990s was dominated by a rapid growth in overall demand, and the decline of the most sustainable transport options – bus, cycle and rail. Since the mid-1990s, there have been some changes in transport trends, which are potentially very helpful.

1.11 Transport demand is still growing but the rate of growth has decelerated since the early 1990s relative to growth in GDP (as illustrated in Figure 1.1). Each percentage point increase in GDP is accompanied by a significantly smaller increase in the movement of goods and people than was the case when Roads to Prosperity was published.

1.12 Since the mid-1990s, rail travel has grown faster than road. Road’s market share peaked in 1996, which is why we have used that year in the table at paragraph 1.1. Rail is still a minority mode, and likely to remain so, because there are many types of passenger and freight movement for which it is not a viable option. But rail’s potential to provide a safer and lower-CO2 alternative to car and lorry is much greater than seemed possible even ten years ago.

1.13 London demonstrates what can be achieved by bringing cross-modal transport planning and spatial planning together, and by implementing a balanced package of interventions – investment in public transport, priority for buses and cyclists, a local freight strategy, and congestion charging. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, bus use increased from 1.27 billion journeys a year to 1.81 billion, bucking the national trend. More trips are made by cycle and on foot, average traffic speeds in central and inner London have increased since 2003 (reversing a long-term trend) and road casualties across London have declined faster than in the rest of the country.

Figure 1.1: Growth in road passenger kilometres, freight tonne kilometres and GDP, Great Britain, 1980–2006

Image: Figure 1.1: Growth in road passenger kilometres, freight tonne kilometres and GDP, Great Britain, 1980–2006

Source: DfT

1.14 The Government has taken a number of initiatives which have helped support these trends. The Ten Year Plan for transport, published in 2000, provided for the first time a committed stream of long-term funding, addressing the previous stop/start cycle which had blighted transport planning. While continuing to invest in roads, the Government has put much more emphasis on public transport. It has backed the railway financially and addressed the industry’s structural problems stemming from a flawed privatisation. And it created a single point of responsibility for transport in London, under an elected Mayor, replacing the patchwork of fragmented responsibility created by the abolition of the GLC.

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