Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Her kingdom for a bus

I am enjoying one of the most entertaining novels I've read in quite some time. "Against The Day" is the new 1,000+ page tome by Thomas Pynchon (author of "Gravity's Rainbow"). One reviewer compares this ambitious novel to Bruegel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus", which by the way also happens to grace the hardcover cover of one of my favorite works of nonfiction: "The Structures of Everyday Life" by Fernand Braudel. (I've always appreciated life's little symmetries).

You may ask: How in the world am I able to find the time to derive such pleasure from this wonderful work of literary art?

Answer: I ride the bus to work each day.

I realize that captive reading time may not be the kind of incentive that will keep most commuters from jumping into car in in favor of public transportation, but judging from the following report from Britain, it may be as good as any. (GW)

Derailed: Government's green promises on transport policy

A green transport policy? New figures show how 30 years of failure has put Britain on the road to gridlock and pollution

By Ben Russell, Nigel Morris and James Macintyre
The Independent
July 17, 2007

Dramatic new evidence that car travel has become far cheaper while buses and trains have soared in cost led to renewed attacks on Labour's transport policy last night, as MPs said the Government was undermining its own battle against climate change.

According to newly disclosed statistics, the cost of car travel has fallen by 10 per cent over the past 30 years, while the price of bus and train tickets has risen by more than 50 per cent. The respective trends have continued throughout Labour's period in office.

Campaigners warned that the figures, revealed by the Department of Transport in a parliamentary answer yesterday, laid bare the huge disincentive for Britons to choose environmentally friendly forms of travel.

The statistics show that Labour has failed to reverse the long-term trend. Since 1997 when the party came to power, the cost of running a car has fallen by 10 per cent, but the price of bus travel has increased by 13 per cent and train travel has become 6 per cent more expensive. British trains are already among the most expensive in the world, with further above-inflation rises certain in the future.

Over the same period, greenhouse gas emissions have risen in five out of 10 years despite government promises to tackle global warming. Unsurprisingly, over the past 10 years the inexorable rise in car travel has continued, with motorists clocking up almost 400 billion kilometres (270 billion miles) a year.

The statistics, disclosed by the Transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick, provoked uproar among politicians of all parties and from environmental groups.

News of the huge rises in public transport costs came amid growing concern that the cost of rail travel is due to increase still further by the end of the year following a series of deals between the Government and train companies. Stagecoach and Arriva are planning fare rises in the East Midlands and Cross Country franchises of 3.4 per cent a year in real terms. Go-Ahead plans to raise fares by 3 per cent a year on the London to Northampton route.

Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman, who obtained the figures, said: "When we're all concerned about climate change, government strategy that increases the cost of public transport while motoring costs fall is outrageous."

Colin Challen, Labour chairman of the parliamentary all-party group on climate change, accused the Government of being timid in its efforts to cut the rise in car usage. He said the increasing cost of public transport " sends all the wrong signals" to travellers. "We should be prepared to bite the bullet with putting up the costs of driving," he said. "The Government could have done a great deal more. Since the fuel protests in 2000 we have run rather scared of certain lobbies. We really have to face them down."

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Environment Secretary, said: "This demonstrates how far off-beam the Government's policies are in delivering a low-carbon economy. They give serious cause for concern."

Theresa Villiers, the shadow Transport Secretary, added: "There's a good environmental case for encouraging people out of their cars and on to public transport. The increasing divergence in the cost between the two is not the way to achieve that."

Environmentalists echoed their concern, warning that ministers needed to take tough decisions to turn their rhetoric into results. Green campaigners have long argued that only aggressive policies, including road tolls and higher fuel prices, will encourage motorists to leave their car behind and use public transport. The pressure-group Transport 2000 has argued that a 10 per cent reduction in car use could be achieved by 2050, by measures including the introduction of more flexible and varied bus and train services.

Tony Bosworth, of Friends of the Earth, said: "These figures show one of the reasons why the Government is finding it so difficult to get people out of their cars and on to public transport." A Greenpeace spokesman said: "It appears Gordon Brown has been in hock to the motorist for too long. If he's serious about climate change he will face down opposition from the motoring lobby and promote green, low-carbon alternatives."

Sian Berry, the Green Party principal speaker, said: "If we're serious about tackling climate change we need to make public transport cheaper, easier and more efficient."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Transport said that spending on public transport had increased by more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years. She said: We are starting to see the results - public transport journeys have increased by 7 per cent since 2000.

"Government is also working to reduce the environmental impact of transport in other ways, for example by encouraging the use of biofuels and investing in new, clean technologies."

Why driving is cheaper

* Successive governments have shied away from taking on motorists and the motoring industry, while rail privatisation under the Conservatives ­ and its continuation under Labour ­ has resulted in repeated increases in fares.

* Governments since the 1970s have taxed fuel, and in 1993 the Conservatives introduced the Fuel Price Escalator, resulting in an increase in the price of fuel above VAT year on year. Gordon Brown abolished the scheme in 2000.

* Tax subsidies on company cars and continued road expansions, at the same time as rail companies are having to maintain their own tracks, has meant the trend away from public transport and on to the roads is continuing and may even increase.


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