Drivers: Guilty as charged?

The UK government's road-charging proposals present mobility as a polluting luxury, rather than something a civilised society should take for granted.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Bank holiday Saturday, May 2005. I’m crawling along the M25 with my husband and baby daughter, listening to the radio traffic alerts warning us about queues at particular junctions travelling in a clockwise direction (Kent, en route to France) and an anti-clockwise direction (Heathrow, en route to The World).

It’s only when we have navigated cross-country to hit the M40 four hours later, on the final leg of a modest journey that normally takes my sister an hour and a half, that a cheeky chappie on local radio tells us what we would have liked to know before making that fateful decision to bypass central London: ‘Traffic very slow on the M25…both clockwise and anti-clockwise, all the way around really. If you want to spend your bank holiday in a traffic jam, that’s where you want to be.’

Which just about sums up the British approach to driving anywhere in a car these days: Congestion is so commonplace that it doesn’t even need to be announced; and if you get caught in traffic, it’s your own silly fault for being there.

This is certainly the approach that underpins the UK government’s plans for transport in the new millennium, as outlined in transport secretary Alistair Darling’s proposed legislation for what one newspaper called ‘the world’s most ambitious road-charging scheme’ – but it takes contempt for the road-traveller one step further. In Darling’s grand vision, we should not only expect to live with the queues today but also make sacrifices to prevent the apocalypse of tomorrow: ‘complete gridlock’, in which ‘more and more cars will grind to a halt and the generations to come will curse those people of my generation who didn’t do anything about it’ (1).

To this noble end, the government wants to introduce a satellite system that will enable drivers to be charged between 2p and £1.30 a mile for each car journey, depending on when, where and on what kind of road they are travelling. The aim is that the thought of paying through the nose to sit for hours in a queue on the roads will force people to pay through the nose to sit for hours on some other delayed, creaking form of public transport – or simply to stay at home, forgoing such frivolous pleasures as getting to work on time or visiting their extended families on bank holiday weekends.

Proposals to reduce congestion by fining people for driving where they want, when they want are not new. The Future of Transport, a government report produced in August 2004, has already mooted these proposals; London’s congestion charging scheme has been implemented with such success that it has driven some small companies out of business. The Times (London) notes that the idea of road charging, using journey-plotting black boxes fitted to every car, was first proposed in a government report over 40 years ago (2). But what is new about the congestion-charging scheme proposed by the government today is the overwhelming cultural acceptance of the bleakness of its vision, which means that, unlike the 1960s, such a miserablist fantasy could really happen.

The car-fining idea so popular among those responsible for the future of transport in the UK neatly expresses the low expectations of our age, in which even the most positive examples of progress are redefined as problems and dangers. Mobility is seen as a luxury that society can ill afford (and individuals won’t be able to afford under this scheme), rather than as something an affluent modern society should take for granted. The great strides that humanity has made in being able to get out of the caves, out of the villages and out of the country, through replacing the horse with the car, the barge with the train and the ship with the plane, are now seen as symbolising our polluting greed.

In assuming that progress involves enabling people to escape their specific geographical circumstances and travel as far and widely as they choose, society has apparently made an historic mistake which it should now correct by looking for hi-tech new ways to stop people from travelling at all. Future generations will thank us for this, says Darling. Will they really?

As Mick Hume argued in The Times (London) after the launch of the 2004 report on The Future of Transport, there is a simple solution to the apparently intractable problem of congestion on the roads: which is to build more roads (3). A striking example of this is the recently-completed M6 Toll motorway in the Midlands – ‘proof that it is entirely possible to build our way out of a problem by making Birmingham disappear’. The M6 Toll is striking because of the improvement for motorists – but also because examples of new motorways are about as rare as examples of existing motorways that have been widened to cope with the increased traffic flow, and which are also a dream to drive on. Yet as Hume points out, The Future of Transport asserts no fewer than three times that ‘We cannot build our way out of the problems we face’.

Why can’t we build ourselves out of the problems we face? This point is never argued; it is simply assumed. Yet the facts, which are freely available, seem to suggest that this is precisely what we should do. In its comparisons with the 1960s, The Times article on Darling’s recent proposals furnishes us with some shocking statistics: that in 2003, three times as many total miles were driven than in 1964 (306 billion compared to 95 billion); there were almost four times as many licensed private cars (25 million compared with 7 million); and yet total road length has only increased by about 20 per cent, up from 200,000 miles to 245,000 (4). What I don’t thank the 1960s generation for is its failure to build more roads, not for its failure to introduce black boxes and road charging schemes.

If we need more roads, can we afford them? Well, if we can afford the satellites and bureaucrats and the daily penury that will come with Darling’s proposed road charging scheme, we could surely cough up for an alternative to the M1. The RAC Foundation points out that car owners already pay £42 billion annually in tax, of which a paltry £6 billion is spent on improving roads (5). As for the green objection – other research for the RAC Foundation has suggested that roads take up 1.4 per cent of land area in the UK, and that building enough to contain congestion over the next 30 years would require another 0.05 per cent (6).

If the assumptions about the solutions to congestion do not stand up to scrutiny, nor do the assumptions about the causes of congestion – that there are currently too many cars on the roads. Take London, home of the much-feted congestion charge. As Edmund King of the RAC Foundation argued on spiked at the time of the introduction of London’s congestion charge, there are fewer roads in the past, as road space has been removed by narrowing, pinch points, wider pavements, pedestrianisation, bus lanes, and the downgrading of some roads. There are also fewer cars – UK government figures show that in 2001, there were 35,000 fewer cars entering London in the morning than in 1991 (7). He continues: ‘Transport for London (TFL) figures actually show that traffic levels have fallen by 18 percent over the past two years. So, too, have speeds … Average traffic speeds in central London have declined from 9.4 mph to 8.6 mph. This represents a worsening of eight percent over two years. Meanwhile, passenger numbers for the Tube, for trains and for buses have all increased.’

Yet the assumption that congestion is a consequence of too many people driving too many cars, and that building more roads will not solve the problem, has gone largely unchallenged. Motorists’ organisations have focused on the financial problems this will cause the individual driver, and questioned whether this is fair – a valid point, but hardly likely to sway a government that is generally quite comfortable with imposing stealth taxes upon supposedly dubious forms of behaviour, such as smoking and driving. The considerable privacy implications of a mass road-charging scheme have been noted, but these have hardly been seen as a scandal.

It seems that our culture is rather too comfortable with the low expectations in which the transport debate is couched. The fact that mobility is something that we should take for granted in the modern world, that Britain’s outmoded, crowded infrastructure is thwarting its citizens and should be rebuilt, has been subsumed by the prejudice that this country is teeming with irresponsible drivers who are polluting the planet by insisting on leaving their locality, and who must be punished and prevented from doing so. What misanthropic journey brought us here?

(1) Charging plan aims to prevent road gridlock, Andrew Clark, Guardian, 6 June 2005

(2) Radical dreams for the future of transport haunted by past failures, Ben Webster and Michael Evans, The Times (London), 6 June 2005

(3) Shocking solution to congestion: build more roads, by Mick Hume

(4) Radical dreams for the future of transport haunted by past failures, Ben Webster and Michael Evans, The Times (London), 6 June 2005

(5) Charging plan aims to prevent road gridlock, Andrew Clark, Guardian, 6 June 2005

(6) Driven to distraction, by Edmund King

(7) Driven to distraction, by Edmund King

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Topics Politics


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