In the closing scenes of Richard III by William Shakespeare King Richard, having bravely fought on the battlefield at Bosworth but facing defeat by the future King Henry VII, cries in despair “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” But no horse is forthcoming and he loses his head as well as his kingdom.
All of us can no doubt relate to that. We have been stuck in some godforsaken place, regular transport providers seem conspicuous by their absence, the buses are no doubt grouping themselves in threes somewhere, and we desperately seek an instant escape route. The writers of Star Trek tapped into this with the perennial cry of their heroes “Beam me up, Scotty!” as they got out of some intergalactic scrape. Dr Who could always escape the Daleks in his Tardis which not only took him to a different place in the galaxy but also to another point in time. The makers of the James Bond films understood it too as the eponymous hero, content with a second hand Bentley in the books, was given ever more exotic cars and other mechanisms to get out of trouble and keep his date for the night.
During the recent volcanic ash cloud when travellers were marooned all over Europe, individuals performed extraordinary acts of tenacity to get back home. John Cleese, the comedian, allegedly ran up a £3,000 taxi fare from Scandinavia. Transport shapes much of our lives. Where we live and work may well be decided by Transport facilities. A visit to the London Transport Museum is instructive on this theme as it displays photographs of a rural Golder’s Green with very little sign of buildings and then just a few years later, after the Northern line is extended to stop there, the town is largely formed.
Suburban towns were transformed by the networking of railways and in the past 50 years the motorway network has had a similar effect. Retailers moved from the High Street to out of town locations provided they were well served by the road network.
So how will this play out in the future? Some forecasts show a doubling of Britain’s conurbations in the next 40 years, a truly terrifying prospect. If people still want the flexibility of instant personal travel as provided by cars, etc then the congestion, pollution and other threats to human life will be a permanent escalating crisis.
New models of ownership, of housing density, of sustainable mobility are required and much of the glue for this will be provided by intelligent transport systems. According to the European Commission which has just approved a new Intelligent Transport systems directive traffic congestion costs 1% of Europe – wide GDP. Installation of intelligent technology in cars and trucks it is estimated will save 5,000 lives per year.
An example of an intelligent transport system is the Congestion Charge in London. Though initially unpopular it gradually delivered on what it promised and importantly reinvested its net proceeds in extra public transport services like additional buses and cycle lanes. I have seen irrefutable evidence that it has worked in reducing congestion not only in the zone but in a much wider area radiating around it while at the same time cycling traffic has increased steadily and substantially.
The technology involved in this scheme is actually quite primitive and there are now proven technologies that are robust and effective, collect the charge and do not delay the traffic. These are being introduced all over Europe and the UK is gradually falling behind in its competitiveness in this area.
Back in 1920 the British economist Arthur Pigou described direct user charges as the most appropriate way of financing the road transport system “because the user pays at the location and at the time of use”. But he accepted that traffic related taxes were “the second best solution… for the time being” because of the then high costs involved in collecting the charges as well as the need to interrupt the traffic flow and delay motorists at toll booths. The model of financing road building from general taxation and also taxing motorists for owning a vehicle and filling its tank with fuel became the norm. Although the Treasury does not hypothecate taxation, unlike the London Congestion charge, motorists understandably feel that they have “paid” for the roads and already “own” them and should not pay again to drive on them. Thus road user charging has become very unpopular and when put to the vote in Manchester, even though the local authority explained that like London the net proceeds would be invested in additional public Transport services, 80% of the voters overwhelmingly rejected it. Few local politicians would have the courage to expend political capital now in fighting such a certain losing vote.
Yet Alan Milburn, the Blairite politician, has written a thoughtful piece recently in the Sunday Times suggesting that the Labour party should stop rejecting every attempt to reduce the public deficit but instead advocate an alternative to the proposed cuts in public services by introducing road user charging. I don’t know if he has done his sums (I doubt it as a former Blairite minister) and estimated what part of the deficit could be reduced in this way but it is still interesting to see that such an unpopular move could get back on the public agenda as an alternative to even more unpopular moves.
In my view road user charging is inevitable. We cannot build our way out of the problem. We must find more intelligent ways to manage the infrastructure. Road user charging is not the total solution but it is definitely part of it.
Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved