|A car speeds down a lane in rural Cheshire: an increasingly|
common sight as fuel duty tips the scales in favour
of travel by car
It’s a fair commentary on the intellectual vacuity of the current discourse on the subject that one of the main problems Chris Grayling, transport secretary, identified as a challenge for the UK’s road system in an interview in December was “excessive” use of speed bumps. This is the rhetoric one should expect in the immature, early stages of a government, when ministers are caught up in the simplistic solutions they dreamed up while still in opposition. By their second terms, most governments have started to recognise unpleasant, underlying realities and begun to tackle them. It seems clear to me that the abundance of cheap leasing finance is contributing to the misery by making it ever cheaper for drivers to get hold of very large and very powerful cars, whose effect on other road users is particularly intimidating.
|Rush hour traffic in central Birmingham, one of the UK's|
most car-dependent cities: a result of badly-positioned
speed bumps, presumably
As long as the problems go unaddressed, however, roads in most of the UK will continue to clog up with cars, efforts to encourage cycling and public transport will grow steadily more fruitless and the actions needed to redress the balance will grow ever more extreme.
At the heart of the debate is the question of what one thinks it means to let motoring get steadily cheaper. There is an argument that it’s perverse to argue on principle that any item - especially one that’s indispensable to many people’s daily lives - should be more expensive. I’ve certainly heard passionate arguments from some transport economists that it’s just that motorists should benefit from recent years’ undoubted rapid improvements in vehicles’ fuel economy. It’s also clear that in the UK - unlike the US - taxes on motorists cover the direct costs of building and maintaining the road network many times over. That prompts many people to argue that any extra tax take from drivers represents an unjustified extra tax burden to which the government is right to object.
But it’s impossible to miss the effects of allowing the steady fall in rates. While traffic levels in central London continued to fall in the last quarter of last year, for example, overall traffic volumes on major roads rose by 1 per cent year-on-year. To judge by my experience of dodging speeding vehicles haring down back streets, the rise on minor roads in outer London must be far higher. Minor roads in rural areas are also becoming increasingly miserable to use outside a motor vehicle. Bus travel is falling in many parts of the UK as growing volumes of cars clog the roads, getting in buses’ way. Traffic growth on the railways - where ticket prices mostly go up by at least the inflation rate - has slowed down sharply. As long as fuel duty is frozen, transport policy will remain hostage to the growing advantages enjoyed by cars.
|Space allocation in Glasgow, which faces worsening|
congestion. I'm sceptical bike paths are the main cause in
cities like this.
The action in central London has at least had some of the intended effect. Cycling levels in central London in the October to December quarter were up 5.4 per cent year-on-year, while motor traffic fell again, by 3.5 per cent.
It is also, meanwhile, far from clear that placing a higher tax burden on drivers would be as unjust as opponents typically suggest. There is a wide range of estimates of whether the annual tax take from driving covers the full external costs of motoring - most of which come from congestion. Even the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a respected thinktank, failed to make a clear judgement on the question in a report last February that called the present fuel duty regime “a mess”. But there was a consensus among economists several years ago, before recent years’ freezes, that the tax take was probably falling just short of covering the full costs. The steady falls since in fuel prices, improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and growing exemptions from vehicle excise duty must all have made the situation worse.
|London's policies have at least shifted the central London|
balance towards cyclists - even if this driver failed
to understand it.
I had particular cause to rue the changes ten days after my epiphany near Chester when my daughter announced that she and her friend planned that day, for the first time, to ride their bikes the 3.4 miles to school in Dulwich. While the outbound journey, which I rode with them against rush-hour traffic, was relatively calm, I found myself repeatedly buzzed even on quiet streets on the way back by high volumes of fast-moving vehicles. If current road conditions left even me, a hardened and committed cyclist, a little shaken and worried about my daughter’s safety, I realised, it was small wonder that she was so unusual in her choice of transport to school.
Yet there’s no mystery about what could be done to tackle these issues. It has been well known for years that fuel duty was bound to do a steadily worse job of controlling congestion as vehicles became more fuel-efficient and started to rely on untaxed power sources such as electricity. Both Conservative and Labour governments have recognised in their later terms in office that a system that charges drivers according to where they drive and the time of day is the only realistic answer to the challenges of charging for road use. In a rational world, the UK’s national transport policy debate wouldn’t revolve around speed bumps and the impact of desultory cycle facilities but around the details of the road-charging system that was inevitably on its way. Policy could move on to managing traffic, rather than falling victim to the inevitable effects of surrendering to it.
|An electric, autonomous pod vehicle at Heathrow Airport:|
current policies take no account of how roads will be funded
when more vehicles start to resemble this one
But there is, I think, a powerful reason why rational policy considerations are having an even harder time than normal asserting themselves. During the late years of the 1979 to 1997 Conservative government, there had been more than a decade of steady policy development that had made it clear the simple answers were not going to work. Much the same goes for the later years of the 1997 to 2010 Labour government. In contemporary British politics, by contrast, every policy calculation is subservient to the effort to mitigate the unnecessary damage of pulling out of the European Union. I sense the distraction of dealing with the distraction of an incompetent, unpredictable president is having a similar effect in the United States.
The effects of that policy stasis are visible in far more places than beside the A548. Long years of declines in road deaths have halted or started to reverse. Pollution is growing worse. The pleasure of a quiet bike ride along a winding country lane is increasingly interrupted by the speeding of vehicles taking the route their navigation app tells them will be least congested. It is hard in many parts of the UK to avoid the feeling that the country is being slowly strangled by this surrender to the motor car. I’m unlikely in the immediate future to have much respite from worrying about the riding conditions for my daughter or the many others suffering the effects of current miserable, directionless policies.