BY ALEX PROUD — PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 1ST, 2014 —-
I’m lucky. I have a very nice editor who gives me a pretty free rein and lets me write about what I want. But this particular topic has taken six months of pestering. My editor is, quite rightly, concerned that this subject will unleash a tsunami of bile and an ash cloud of vitriolic reader comments. But it shouldn’t. I’m talking about a problem that really, no-one can deny (although that doesn’t stop them doing so). It’s a problem that causes environmental destruction, stress, illness, and incurs huge financial costs. And it could be solved very easily were it not for for our weak, craven political class who have all the bravery of Italians driving tanks in reverse.
Anyway, let’s start on a positive, upbeat note. I love London in August. I never go away. To take a holiday in August is to miss the city at its very best. Unlike capitals further south, London has decent weather in the dog days of summer. What’s more, the August exodus means our great city actually works. You can hail a taxi immediately and then drive, unimpeded, from one side of the city to the other. You can walk off the street into a good restaurant and be offered a choice of tables. The parks feel like the countryside. It’s a peculiarly brief, British version of la dolce vita.
The single biggest joy, though, is the lack of traffic. Sometimes you can cross roads without being sworn at. It’s absolutely wonderful. So wonderful in fact that, come the car-choked Hades of September, I find myself thinking: what if we could keep London like this all year round?
We could if we wanted to. In fact, we could go a long way towards solving the traffic problems of all Britain’s congested hell-holes if we wanted to. If I were a benign dictator, I could halve your journey time to work tomorrow. I could also ramp up spending on public transport and cycle and pedestrian infrastructure. I could have your kids breathing cleaner air. I could probably lay on a free submarine shuttle with a champagne bar on the Thames, if that’s what people wanted.
But first, a little economics. In general, most of us are pretty happy with letting the markets allocate scarce (in the economic sense) goods by deciding the price for them. We’re broadly happy with how this mechanism works for goods that nobody needs (like caviar) and goods that most people need (like chicken). We know that price controls, in general do not work well and capitalism, by and large, delivers the goods. With me so far?So what I want to know is this: why, the moment we get into our cars, do we all turn into screaming, pinko commies? Why do we reject the free market solutions that we embrace everywhere else. Why, rather than accept the idea that we should pay when we use a scarce resource (roads) do we ration them in the worst possible way. Why do we agree that, for a once-a-year fee, you can drive as much as you like, wherever you like and whenever you like?
The effects of this economic lunacy are there for all to see. According to the CEBR (Centre for Economics and Business Research), traffic delays cost £4.3bn a year (and 40% of this is in the London area). Air pollution from exhausts kills over 5,000 people annually, nearly three times the number killed by traffic accidents. And, if you add up the total negative externalities, as the Campaign for Better Transport has done, you get a range of figures that suggest that the cost motoring imposes on the country may be as high as £100bn. For comparison, the Policy Institute puts the total cost of smoking at about £14bn.
London is, very obviously, a city that was not designed for motor traffic and the weird, unpleasant things that cars have done are there for all to see. For instance, rich people used to build grand houses along the main thoroughfares. Now, these once beautiful homes have been carved up into grimy bedsits because no-one wants to live next to a noisy, fume-choked road. Or perhaps you can imagine how nice Upper Street in Islington was before it was the bottom of two of Britain’s motorways. Or how lovely North Kensington might be without the Westway Flyover?
The parts of London that are pedestrianised or traffic controlled (such as Covent Garden) are very pleasant – and most of central London was once like this. But trying to reclaim these tiny scraps from the all-conquering car is a task worthy of Sisyphus. You don’t need to spend long in London to realise that city traffic is a blight on society that is the result of pricing system straight out of the Politburo that delivers an end product that users hate.
Moreover (and back to economics 101) in London, at least, there are plenty of substitute goods for your car. There’s an excellent (if comparatively expensive) metro rail network, there are buses everywhere, there are less useful, but rather charming river boats, there are taxis and, of course, you can cycle or walk. Eighty percent of Brits live in urban areas, so I think it’s safe to assume that most of us have some alternative to the car.
It seems reasonable then, that we should at least have a grown-up discussion about what might be done. But the second you suggest that maybe there might be an alternative to our current system, you get howls of anguish, accusations of being a socialist and FULL CAPS ON comments of the sort my editor fears.
Most of us appear to want gridlock. We’ll go online and sign petitions calling for the heads of anyone who dares restrict our “right” to drive and God help the politician who suggests we might have a problem. Screw ISIS, sod the Third World and the NHS can go bankrupt… Our freedom to tool around in shiny metal boxes is the one thing we care about. Road charging is the hill we’re prepared to die on.
And yet, we can all see there is a problem. It’s not like global warming, where the problem is only really visible in far away places like Greenland and Bangladesh. We all know traffic is a nightmare and getting worse and that something must be done. We also know there is no magic bullet. So, what are left with? We can voluntarily drive less (which is not going to happen). We can accept road charging in some form or we can gradually tarmac over the rest of the UK. So far the last solution seems the most popular despite an endless series of studies showing that if you build more roads, you generate more traffic and a few years down the line, you’re back to square one.
Now, before you say, “But Alex, driving is different.” No. It’s not. Let’s think of other forms of transport. If you take a train, you pay for what you use. If you take a plane, you pay for what you use. If you cycle, it’s free, but contrary to what Top Gear’s geriatric adolescents will tell you, cyclists make virtually no impositions on others. Driving is not essential – and besides, housing is essential and plenty of people cheer as they price their own children off the housing ladder.
Cars and motoring occupy a unique and uniquely privileged position. It is a total myth that this is either inevitable or the only way. Yet it’s a myth that many of us buy into. The motoring lobby – from the RAC to industry shills to the nation’s pet oaf, Jeremy Clarkson – do a brilliant job of shutting down debate in this area. Anyone who dares to question the motoring status quo is quickly branded a crank and we move on to next celebrity pratfall.
Look, I get it. Cars are convenient. They’re comfortable, they look cool and they’re fun to drive. I enjoy driving and I find cars convenient too. These are my opinions and I am entitled to them. But, as the saying goes, I am not entitled to my own facts. And the facts that belong to everyone are that we face gridlock, that building more roads is not a solution, and that we could easily drive less – as we did 20 years ago. So once again, we’re back to the real reason we drive so much – because we’re kind of lazy and we like the convenience. That’s why I do it.
Anyway, all I’m calling for here is a grown up debate about what we can do. A debate where everyone gets a voice, not just 20,000 shouty petrolheads and the Daily Mail’s leader writers. A debate where we acknowledge, as Dave was once so fond of saying, that we can’t go on like this.
In London, of course, we have congestion charging – and, for a couple years, it was great. So what we need now is smarter congestion charging, nationwide. Congestion charging which is not a flat rate, but a rate that rises and falls until it reaches the right level to keep traffic moving. At 6am on Sunday, even in London it’ll be cheap; at 8:00 on Monday, in urban areas, it’ll be prohibitive.
Rural roads would end up costing peanuts most the time and of course, we’d exempt certain people, such as doctors, pensioners and the disabled. Some people might find alternatives or plan their jobs and lives differently. Some of the money raised would replace or reduce tax on petrol and some might be used to improve roads and public transport and introduce proper bike lanes to ensure that everyone has a transport option But that really is the size of it. You want to drive more in crowded places, you pay more – and if you can’t afford it, we’ll provide you with good quality alternatives.
Any idea you can cover in 24 words is not hard to understand. But telling people what they do not want to hear is hard. It requires moral courage. Not a lot of moral courage given that all you’re really saying is, “You can’t have your green and pleasant land and eat it.” But nonetheless more moral courage than most of our politicians have. Why grapple with difficult, long-term issues when you can do soft-soap TV interviews or pal around with Clarkson in the Cotswolds? And in any case, you’ll be out of office by the time London finally grinds to a halt.
So, given that our leaders aren’t going to provide any leadership, I’m going to have to appeal to the grass roots. Come on, you’re Telegraph readers. This is capitalism at it’s best. It’s the market being used to solve real problems, where central price controls are leading to disaster. It’s a workable alternative to gridlock or paving over our countryside and probably it won’t even cost you any more. Besides, it’s going to happen anyway, no matter what Jeremy and the RAC tell you.
If you’ve read this far, and your caps lock is still off, I thank you.
FIND THE ORIGINAL AT: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11064416/Motorists-have-ruined-England-and-they-need-to-pay-the-price.html