TAPAS.network | 1 August 2023 | Commentary | Phil Goodwin

Can our political system treat transport properly? Lessons from a generation ago

Phil Goodwin-c@2x.jpeg

Crucial transport issues are not being addressed by our national political leaders with the attention they deserve, suggests Phil Goodwin. Having recently examined the trajectory of policy over the past 50 years he sees a sharp contrast between the build- up of consensus for change thirty years ago, and the current loss of direction and consistency. This raises questions about the state of our democratic processes and the required recognition of matters of fundamental importance to the nation and the planet.

Transport Policy Transition in an Era of Change: 1991-1997 contrasted to 2020-2025

THE PAST HALF CENTURY has seen several remarkable upheavals in transport thinking. We don’t always recognise how far the content of the professional discussion has changed – if not necessarily a similar re-calibration of policy. Sometimes politicians have seemed ready to grasp the nettle of change when it was needed. But not always, and not completely, especially now.

In the period 1991-1997 a substantial shift in thinking about traffic growth and its effect led, at least for a time, to a degree of consensus of the need for change in policy which bridged the transition from Conservative to Labour Governments. Since 2020 there have been strong reasons for the same to happen. But we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.


In the last month I have been involved in writing two reviews reflecting on these two periods, which has raised the question of what might be going wrong. The first review was occasioned by a celebration in Oxford of the 50th Anniversary of the foundation of the Transport Studies Unit, a gathering of old and new friends and colleagues in good humour and thoughtful mood. I had been (so far) the longest serving of its five Directors, and was very pleased to be invited to deliver what academic circles call a ‘keynote’ speech reflecting on its history and achievements. The full edited text of that speech is now available on the Tapas Network, and it is one section of it, on our role in the period of exceptional activity and engagement with policy change in the 1990s, that I want to extend here.

The second review was a much longer document, produced for the Foundation for Integrated Transport, who had appointed me in October 2020 to a two-year Senior Fellowship on the topic of Transport and Climate Change. The final report was published earlier this month, and is available on the website of FIT[1] with a compilation of all the different strands of work I had carried out, with many colleagues, on the Fellowship, including a witness statement to a High Court challenge on the assessment of carbon impacts of road appraisal, contributions on other controversial road and transport schemes, evidence submitted to several House of Commons Transport Committee hearings, and indeed articles here in LTT and Tapas on the same themes.

1989-91: Roads for Prosperity and The New Realism

In 1989, ten years into her Prime Ministership, Margaret Thatcher’s Government announced a massive road building programme, ‘Roads for Prosperity’ supposed to cope with the greatly increased (and, as nearly always happens, greatly exaggerated) traffic forecasts. It was described as ‘the biggest road programme since the Romans’ and grew out of a huge body of official work spanning nearly 90 years, which had created a very substantial intellectual structure of transport analysis and planning, based on forecasting and providing for future travel, which became a juggernaut of great influence. The underpinning of this structure is mostly misunderstood in academic discourse, because it has been created by scientists and professionals in Government, mostly outside the Universities, and published overwhelmingly in what is wrongly called the ‘grey literature’, which I’ve written about in a recent TAPAS column[2], with an argument that the intellectual structure of planning and transport cannot be understood, or changed, without understanding its institutional history.

In 1989, when I’d spent a decade at TSU, a research charity, the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, announced funding for new research on ‘Transport and Society’, which required a fundamental rethink in the orthodoxy of ‘predict and provide’ as the core of road planning. There was competitive bidding from the main University research transport groups, which by then included TSU, and we won that competition.

The work ran from 1989 to 1991, and included a series of commissioned discussion papers around seminars and workshops involving a high proportion of the leading academics and professional institutions. It reflected – and accelerated – a growing research and policy consensus which we called the ‘New Realism[3], based on a new narrative of how to interpret ‘predict and provide’.

We described it thus :

Predict and Provide – for all its elaborate models and appraisals – essentially relied on the idea that traffic would inevitably increase in line with income, and therefore additional road capacity was essential to provide for it. But the 1989 traffic forecasts implied a volume of traffic increasing more than the road capacity could be increased. If traffic increases more than capacity, congestion will increase.

Therefore the predict and provide approach did not mean ‘congestion will improve’ – always the promise for specific schemes – but ‘congestion will get worse, more slowly’.

Therefore demand management (whether by pricing, reallocation of road capacity, planning, investment in alternatives, enforcement or promotion) would be forced to centre stage of transport policy, for reasons of efficiency and quality, quite apart from the environmental and safety case for doing so.

This approach facilitated a turning point, led politically by Conservative councils in the Southeast, faced with how to deal with additional traffic pouring off the motorways onto local streets that could not be expanded to cope with it. There was support from a wider change in climate of opinion: in particular road schemes locally were not being greeted by enthusiasm for their modernism, but for problems they brought to the local and wider environment, demonstrations, and protests. It was very high profile work, with very active dissemination marked by an unusually large number of discussions and conferences and invited presentations.

1994-96: SACTRA report and the Great Debate

At the height of this discussion TSU bid for a remarkable initiative of the official Economic and Social Research Council, ESRC, part of their strategy at the time to support academic ‘Centres of Excellence’, later retitled ‘Designated Research Centres’. This was based on themes which were devised by the applicants, not the ESRC itself. We were awarded 10 years funding for a new programme of work, on traffic growth and dynamic analytical methodologies.

This programme was launched on 13th October 1994 at a big public lecture. It was a time when transport professionals were waiting for publication of the report of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) inquiry which was to demonstrate that building roads generated additional traffic[4]. I was a member of that committee, with lead responsibility for the chapters on assessing the empirical evidence. After discussion with DfT, I foreshadowed the induced traffic finding in the launching speech, and the BBC Today programme reported it that morning, as having the ‘impact of a runaway juggernaut’. A few days later, on the 16th October, the Observer published a front page story under the headline ‘Tories Plan U-turn on car culture’, based on a lengthy interview with the then Secretary of State for Transport. The reporter Polly Ghazi wrote:

“Transport Secretary Brian Mawhinney has given a clear signal that the Government is preparing a dramatic U-turn on road building, reversing a decade of policy.... For the first time since the war, the Conservatives have turned away from unfettered car ownership – what Baroness Thatcher famously described as ‘the great car economy’. The development may effectively spell the end of the Government’s £19 billion road building programme”.

Flushed with the success, at least, of very precise timing, in June we held a one-day conference, including a ‘Great Debate on Transport and the Environment’ which filled Oxford’s prestigious Sheldonian Theatre, with a visibly awed Secretary of State, among others, as speakers. (Shortly after this it was agreed that TSU, now designated the ‘ESRC Transport Studies Unit’, would move from Oxford to join the much bigger Centre for Transport Studies at University College London, which we did from January 1996, together with the ESRC funding, various other projects and all the research staff[5]).


June 1995: the great debate and emergence of a new approach to transport policy

Brian Mawhinney was succeeded as the last Transport Secretary in that John Major-led Conservative Government by Sir George Young, known as the Bicycling Baronet, and another liberal thinker who took further the idea of a less roads-dominated transport policy. It is also worth noting that at the same time the Department of the Environment was led by the similarly-inclined John Gummer. The DoE was working on some related dimensions of transport policy itself, notably the planning of new developments and their accessibility, in Planning Policy Guidance notes PPG 6 and PPG 13. John Gummer subsequently became Lord Deben, most recently the Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change.

1997-2004: A New Deal for Transport

In 1997 there was a General Election, producing a Labour Government with John Prescott as Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for a merged Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Many saw this as a most welcome strategic step to integrate transport, land use planning, and related environmental policies. Prescott appointed an external advisory committee to help write a new White Paper, and invited me to chair it. The White Paper[6] was called ‘A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone.’

In his introduction to the White Paper John Prescott wrote

“There is now a consensus for radical change in transport policy. The previous Government’s Green Paper paved the way with recognition that we needed to improve public transport and reduce dependence on the car. Businesses, unions, environmental organisations and individuals throughout Britain share that analysis. This White Paper builds on that foundation... With our obligation to meet targets on climate change, the need for a new approach is urgent”

The White Paper included much on demand management, referring back favourably to the change in Conservative policy since 1994, and road building as a last priority. There was enabling legislation for road pricing, on which congestion charging in London was launched, (though not in the 20 other cities envisaged).

It should be said that there are some caveats about this picture, including how firmly committed both the previous Conservative Government and the new Labour one were to the statements of principle. The previous Government did indeed reduce road building plans, reinforced by financial constraints, but slid in some approvals just before the election which enabled some favoured schemes to avoid review. And the new Government’s first flush of enthusiasm for traffic reduction was eroded from around 2000.

Nevertheless, it was clear that a process of transition away from ‘Predict and Provide’ was genuinely started during the Conservative administration, was recognised, approved and extended by the new Labour administration, and in all this there was a manifest contribution of the challenging rethinking stimulated by the ‘New Realism’.

2010-21: Transport and Climate Change: A New Consensus?

These steps were definitely in a different direction for transport policy, and they explicitly cited climate change as one of their justifications. The harmful effect of transport on climate change had been foreshadowed in research by the coal and oil industries and others for a century, and became an explicit theme in national and international transport policy thinking since the late 1980s[7]. But they were not given centrality in the policy argument, and they were not propelled by anything like the concern at major climate change and its fearful consequences that we have now.

But this knowledge had little influence on transport projects and strategy until much more recently, building up slowly, and particularly due to its increasing prominence in international scientific discussions and agreements in the 2000s. There were much more tangible signs of a real sea-change in 2020 and 2021, such that transport sustainability should – and could – genuinely contribute to reversing the direction of change in transport carbon production. At that time I was beginning the FIT Senior Fellowship[8], working in cooperation with many colleagues in particular Jillian Anable

of Leeds University, and in parallel with a similar Fellowship of John Whitelegg. I was struck by a series of important reports by Government Departments which showed a new, more serious, approach to the problem of climate change and the need for decarbonisation.

In particular I’d cite:

  • The Treasury Review of their ‘Green Book’[9] 2020 which criticised the way in which appraisal failed to give proper attention to strategic aims such as levelling up and net zero:

  • Supplementary Guidance by DEFRA (2020)[10] on how to account for the effects of climate change, 2020, advising that appraisal of schemes and policies should include consideration of their robustness to 2°C and 4°C increase in global average temperatures, which would treat global warming as a serious and very substantial change, not a minor perturbation.

  • The DfT’s Decarbonising Transport[11] (2021), which, as well as emphasising the electrification of vehicles, made some very explicit suggestions for very substantial reductions in road traffic volumes in towns, proposing 50% of all urban journeys to be by active modes (mostly walk but also a substantial increase in cycling). This it was envisaged, together with improvement of public transport overall, would make walking, cycling and public transport an attractive first choice for all able to do so. There would be an increase in car occupancy, and the application of land use planning to reduce unnecessary travel. Although this was mostly urban, such developments would also have spin-off effects on the interurban road network, because of the very high proportion of interurban trips which are carried out by cars owned in urban areas. This, together with it improved interurban public transport, and changes in living and working patterns, would give ‘the possibility of reductions, or at least stabilisation, more widely’.

  • Advice from BEIS (2021)[12] which very substantially increased the recommended values that should be accorded to carbon emissions in cost-benefit analyses of transport and other projects.


2021-24: Other things seem more important

To me all this suggested the possibility of a very similar rethinking to that which had happened within the Conservative Government in 1994, followed by a General Election in 1997 producing a change of political power but a continuation and extension of the same arguments. It seemed at least conceivable that a similar degree of consensus could follow an election in, say, 2024 or 2025.

In retrospect, I would now have to say (as others did at the time) that that assessment was over- optimistic. It turned out that each of these official views, increasing the importance of carbon emissions in strategy, policy, and appraisal, could be countered by technical, legal or political justifications for discounting their effect, and giving prominence instead to assertations that other priorities, principally economic growth, outweighed climate considerations. Carbon targets were particularly countered by the practice of judging carbon emissions from transport projects to be ‘insignificant’ as a proportion of all the carbon emitted from all sources. The priority in a proposed revision of the National Policy Statement on National Networks[13] seemed to be to ensure that there would be the minimum possible interference from legal challenge to the construction of road projects which would increase traffic and carbon emissions.

More broadly, the whole political context had changed. Now, the environmental crisis has manifestly intensified, but its expression, an escalating series of weather crises of flooding, drought and heat, has had to fight for attention against other headlines: the Covid Crisis, the Economic Crisis, the Brexit Crisis, the Energy Crisis and the Cost of Living Crisis, all developing alongside an unprecedented intensity of a crisis of governance. There has been a breakdown of many long- established expectations of how the British political system should work, and a lack of clarity in its direction and priorities. Assumptions about the future economic and social influences on travel demands and needs, continue to rely on a completely implausible form of ‘Business as Usual’, based on very tenuous evidence that the traditionally-defined road programmes would actually contribute to economic prosperity. Such movement as there had been in implemented policy, has been eroded. Assumptions that road building would solve congestion and be good for the economy, successfully challenged in the 1990s, were reinstated as though they were self-evidently true.

The combination of these factors has given space for a political and economic ‘push-back’ at local, regional and national levels against the principles, methods and assumptions of sustainable transport. It is asserted that this is because such policies cannot command public support, most recently amplified in narratives about the Ruislip and Uxbridge by-election result, and what seems to be an imagined effect of the ULEZ. But these narratives seemed intended to reduce any commitment to policies on climate change, rather than informing the political process of implementing them. And now we have the Prime Minister demanding a review of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

Fortunately the other side of the argument is also being put forward. The Committee on Climate Change, in a final contribution by its Chair, Lord Deben, has given a most sobering account in its most recent report to Parliament[14], with a most critical assessment of the shortfall in delivering necessary policy and technical change, in a month of unprecedented global environmental damage. In particular, it advised that the UK transport sector was failing to deliver essential demand reductions in the volume of ground and air traffic. It called for a fundamental review[15] of present and future road schemes, to avoid locking-in unsustainable patterns of behaviour. And a useful and thoughtful contribution has just been made by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, whose most recent report[16] advised the DfT to prioritise strategic road maintenance over new road construction.

It is not clear what pathway can deliver what we surely now need – and deserve. Can we hope that at least one of the major parties – and preferably both – enter the next election campaign with very clear, well-explained, radical transport and decarbonisation policies which genuinely confront the climate crisis, sensitively face up to the need to reduce traffic, and can command understanding and respect. We were on the verge of it in 2021. Adult politics would give us that. There are strong voices in favour, but they have not yet found the prominence they deserve.

References and Links:

  1. https://integratedtransport.org.uk/downloads/FIT-Senior-Fellowship-Report-Phil-Goodwin-July-2023.pdf

  2. From black and white to shades of grey – the flawed world of expert knowledge dissemination in transport, https://tapas.network/32/goodwin.php

  3. Goodwin P, Kenny F, Hallett S & Stokes, G (1991, re-edited 2012) Transport: The New Realism, Oxford University Transport Studies Unit.

  4. Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) (1994) Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic, Department of Transport, HMSO.

  5. The final report to the ESRC, including a bibliography of work done on the ESRC Transport Studies Unit programme, 1995-2004, both at Oxford and UCL, was Goodwin P, Cairns S, Dargay J, Hanly M, Parkhurst G, Stokes G and Vythoulkas P (2004) Changing Travel Behaviour. Meanwhile of course a new TSU was constructed in Oxford, now well-established in the School of Geography, under the directorship, successively, of John Preston, David Banister and now Tim Schwanen.

  6. DETR (1998) A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone, CM3950.

  7. Notably the Government’s ‘This Common Inheritance’, December 1990.

  8. Goodwin P (2023) Transport and Climate Change Unresolved, Senior Fellowship Final Report, Foundation for Integrated Transport, https://integratedtransport.org.uk/downloads/FIT-Senior-Fellowship-Report-Phil-Goodwin-July-2023.pdf

  9. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/final-report-of-the-2020-green-book-review

  10. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/934339/Accounting_for_the_Effects_Of_Climate_Change_-_Supplementary_Green_Book_.._.pdf

  11. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1009448/decarbonising-transport-a-better-greener-britain.pdf

  12. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/valuing-greenhouse-gas-emissions-in-policy-appraisal/valuation-of-greenhouse-gas-emissions-for-policy-appraisal-and-evaluation

  13. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/draft-revised-national-networks-national-policy-statement

  14. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/2023-progress-report-to-parliament/

  15. The CCC specifically advised that this review should be similar to that carried out by the Welsh Government, which is interesting as the review body was an independent panel of professionals with much experience of sustainable transport, working to a policy brief committed to traffic reduction.

  16. https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/153/transport-committee/news/196794/prioritise- strategic-road-maintenance-over-new-enhancements-transport-committee-tells-dft/

Professor Phil Goodwin is Emeritus Professor of Transport Policy, University College London and University of the West of England. He was head of the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University for 16 years, before moving to UCL in 1996.

 This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT874, 1 August 2023.

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