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There is no getting away from it - car use in Cambridge must be reduced

Opinion | Cllr Tim Bick, chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership joint assembly and leader of the Liberal Democrats on Cambridge City Council, writes about the results from the Making Connections consultation on the city’s transport future.

Cllr Tim Bick
Cllr Tim Bick

The only way out of Cambridge’s congestion problem is for people to use their cars less and use public transport or bikes more. After all these years of debating this, the answer in still the same. When you add the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and of reducing harmful pollution – the answer is the same again: less car use and more use of public transport and bikes.

But who? Me?

Up till now, there have been perfectly understandable reasons “why not me”. Public transport isn’t nearly good enough and too many don’t feel safe enough on their bikes. Lots of us are caught in that dilemma about a choice which is clearly right, but just not practical for us.

This would be less of a Gordian knot to untie this if there was a simple lever to pull just to improve public transport or just to make cycling more attractive. But there are two hard realities in the way. One is that it is well-nigh impossible for either buses or bikes to become as attractive choices as they could be because they too are caught up in the same old traffic queues as the cars. The other is that, as practice round the world tell us, a truly effective public transport system requires a public subsidy.

So the kind of measures needed to turn the tables on this transport challenge are quite fundamental and involve us all. This was the subject of the recent consultation exercise known as “Making Connections” by the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP). Its results, just published, represent a leap forward.

If many more people are to rely on transformed public transport services, it is obviously important that what needs to change is understood. The improvements put up for comment by the GCP in quite a lot of detail – increased frequency of services, extended hours, additional routes and lower fares – broadly won favour through the consultation exercise and generated feedback which can help to tune them even better.

But if these improvements are to be delivered, a sufficient income needs to be generated to fund them and other traffic on the roads must have reduced. The GCP is considering measures which could achieve both. People expressed a preference for a variation of road user charging over extra parking charges. This was based on their pro’s and con’s, including their effectiveness in reducing traffic and in funding the bus service changes.

The leap forward lies in a public reaction which is different from the expectation of some. This subject, particularly when it involves road charging, is assumed to be toxic. In return for levelling with people about the challenge, the strategy and the factors involved in designing a scheme, it drew serious and positive responses. I am pleased that the GCP for its part has shed ideology and is pursuing an evidence-based path. Above all, it has accepted that burying our heads in the sand and averting our gaze from the huge and growing disadvantages of our current system will not result in this challenge just going away.

Informed by these findings, the GCP should soon be in a position to agree and publish a draft scheme. This will enable people to assess its impact on their lives and their communities and provide more feedback before decisions start to be made.

So the time is coming when that question “But who, me?” may be a much more meaningful one. Judgement will be possible, both on whether new transport choices are sufficiently practical for each of us, and whether they can achieve what we all need as a community - and do so with fairness. And of course we will each need to decide whether we are as a result up for changing some of our own routines.

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