For 50 years, the roads have been designed exclusively for the car, to the exclusion of almost all other means of transport. Branch lines were axed on the rail-network and the rest fell into unionised disrepair, motorways were built, tramlines ripped up and buses (outside of London) were neglected as the choice of the underclass. Little thought was given to the bus, cycle or pedestrian in the design of roads, or if they were, it was about controlling the pedestrian with cages and detours, in order to keep the motorised traffic flowing. Town centres were wrapped in urban dual carriageway circulatory systems leading into and out of multi-storey car parks. Unfortunately, the experience of road-building is that any increase in capacity is rapidly filled, and despite the investment, the experience of the driver in most of the UK is pretty miserable.
As a result, any removal of road-space from the private motor car, for bus lanes, cycle lanes or other forms of public transport is enormously controversial, and seen as part of a "the war on the motorist", who feels over-taxed, and generally put-upon. Because racism is no-longer allowed, the most vituperative comments on Local papers' 'sPeAK YoU'RE bRaneS' boards are reserved for cyclists who are all red-light jumping, suicidal, pavement-riding, road-hogging Lycra Nazis who are in the way. Angry yet smug, they are the cause of all that is wrong on the roads.
Of course driving can be fun. The open road (ha!) or a race-track. And we've all experienced the joy of giving it the beans when given the opportunity. This is what people think driving SHOULD be like. It isn't.
Driving is uniquely stressful, especially in stop-start traffic. This is why cyclists are so hated. The unexpected flash past the window merely adds to the stress of the motorist in the urban queue who immagines actions to be far more dangerous than they actually are. The disconnect between how driving is, and how it should be, combined with the envy of the cyclist, as he makes progress, ignoring the red light (when safe, I do so to get out of your way...) and nipping in and out of the traffic, leads to these feelings of hate and rage. Of course, if you're sitting in traffic, you're part of the problem, not me...
Now my principal interest, as an occasional motorist myself, is to have smooth traffic flow and as stress-free a journey as possible. The problem comes at pinch points which set the capacity for an entire system. For example, the M4 (of Jeremy Clarkson's bus-lane fame) into London from Heathrow has its capacity set principally by the Hogarth Lane roundabout in Chiswick and a 2-lane overpass between junction 2 & 3. There's no point having a 3 lane black-top if it just pours vehicles over a bridge which will be backed up for 6 hours a day as a result. The thinking behind the bus-lane is that a significant chunk of that traffic will be doing one route: Heathrow to West London. A bus will take cars off the road, freeing capacity, for people who want to use a car, and presenting another option for those who haven't a car parked at Heathrow, and for whom the train or tube is inconvenient. It takes excess capacity off the road, leading to the pinch-point, meaning at peak hours, the traffic flows slower into the junction, leading to fewer tail-backs. Thanks to Clarkson, the bus lane is no more, and there are more delays as a result.
This is also the thinking behind variable speed limits when the road is clear - for example to ease the congestion at Junction 6 (spaghetti junction) of the M6 whose capacity is exceeded almost every day, you often see 50mph limits on the overhead gantries for 20 miles leading up to it. Of course everyone ignores variable speed limits and Junction 6 stops moving every day (Advice: the M6 Toll road between junction 4 & 11 is well worth £5. If this blog can teach you anything, never, unless you absolutely have to approach junction 6 of the M6. You will be there for hours...).
So here's the rub. Traffic engineers can look at a system and suggest that IF everyone does X, we can have capacity Y. But motorists don't like being told what to do, and rarely believe it's for their own good. The legacy of the hated Gatso camera (which I want to see removed), speed bumps (cyclists hate these at least as much as motorists), one-way systems, all designed to make traffic flow better, but end up making drivers even more stressed. And a stressed driver is an aggressive driver. And that makes no-one happy least of all, me on my bike.
From a recent twitter thread: "£8bn in spending on roads, but motorists pay £30bn in taxes." or variations thereof is an oft heard refrain. So let's look at this in more detail. Vehicle Excise Duty (a tax I've long argued should be abolished) raised £5.4bn and fuel duty raised £24bn. Fair enough. But this isn't a hypothecated fund for road building. It's more akin a usage fee for a scarce resource, in this case road space. It is also designed to cover the externalities of CO2 emissions (whatever you think of this, I'm not interested right now), noise, pollution, and congestion.
England (see comments) is the world's 3rd most densely populated country (ignoring micro-states) after Japan and the Netherlands. The greater south-east is the most densely populated area in the world. There just isn't the room for everyone to use their cars at the same time. So bear that thought in mind when reading the next few paragraphs. What this enormous £30bn tax bill represents is a colossal mis-pricing of an asset. Roads are far too expensive for 12 hours a day (9pm-6am). They are far, far too cheap between 7:30 and 9:30am or between 4:30 and 6:30pm. They're probably about right (given that they're full, but running smoothly) during the rest of the day.
So. You've a problem for 4 hours a day, across much of the south-east as everyone tries to get to the same places at the same time, by the same means of transport. You've got 3 options.
- Build capacity. The problem is that if you build enough capacity, you get Milton Keynes or in it's extreme form, Los Angeles. Free Parking in LA has been a curse. A 2 bed semi in Milton Keynes costs £315k compared to £500k in 'war on the motorist' central, Cambridge. This differential despite the fact that Milton Keynes has better connections, and is an easier commute into London (the strongest correlator with house prices). People don't choose to live in a car-paradise, because cars though lovely to be in, impose enormous externalities on everyone around them - noise, pollution, danger - when they move faster than 20mph. The market has spoken. People like their car. They don't like other people's, and they will put up with restrictions on its use for quality of life.
- Encourage alternatives, which means laying on buses, trains, trams and designing the roads so they aren't savagely hostile to all but the most aggressive and confident cyclist. The fact I am not in a car, is one less car in the queue up the hill to the roundabout. Motorists should recognise this and welcome it. The problem is cycling is uncomfortable to the weak (yes I do feel utter contempt for fatsos in boxes...), and buses are just nasty. So that in itself is not enough.
- Discourage motorists at peak hours. This is the argument behind the congestion charge. I don't like road pricing mainly because of the surveillance aspect of it. I don't like 'the man' being able to track my movements. Instead I prefer the widespread use of parking charges as a proxy for road pricing. This isn't a "nudge", but an application of the principles of the market to road congestion. Councils encourage short-term parking for shopping, with nominal short-term ticket charges, rising sharply should you wish to park all day (which is often not possible at all in a council car park). Further more, councils charge an annual tax on office parking spaces -£600 in the last example, to discourage commuting and encourage the use of alternatives. Clever use of technology will allow motorists to pay when they leave for what they've used, rather than using penalties and traffic wardens, which just creates more stress.
So, motoring & parking charges are seen as "sin taxes" on what most people regard as a necessity. They aren't. Nor are speed limits below what you think "safe and reasonable" or traffic calming measures a politically motivated restriction on your freedom. They're mostly about demand management and safety. This is why the Tax Payers' alliance is wrong on 'Sin Taxes' which according to them "either work, or raise revenue. They can't do both". They can, of course, it's just a question of where any particular tax is on its laffer curve, something the TPA is fond of pointing out in other contexts. If a 5% rise in tax leads to a 2% drop in use, you have raised money AND had an effect. In any other context, a market-pricing system for use of a scarce resource would be lauded by the TPA, but not, it seems when applied to the motorist, which is bizarre. Because the TPA are firmly of the (correct) belief that market price-setting anywhere and always leads to more efficient use of a resource, and therefore greater wealth for all.
So. All this stuff I've been writing about these last few days isn't about a "war on the motorist", nor is it particularly about cycling. It's about a fair crack of the whip for all means of transport, which all have their place in a sophisticated, decentralised, efficient means of getting people to the right place at the right time. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The UK is too car-centric, and needs to invest in alternatives, mainly to make the car itself work better. A benefit of fewer cars in our town centres MIGHT be a more pleasant and relaxing environment for us all.
I mentioned three countries more densely populated than the UK - The Netherlands, Belgium and Japan. All have embraced the bicycle as a means of urban transport, and both invest heavily in public transport. They do this because in parts of the world where lots of people live together, there just isn't room for everyone to drive. Motorists know this, deep down, and fear the loss of their privileged position in the hierarchy on the road. That is why any comment which involves addressing the necessity to control traffic is dealt with in such an angry way. Humans are irrationally loss-averse, and blind to opportunities. Just as benefits recipients fear the changes to the benefits system more than is reasonable, the motorist fears any alternative to the car more than is reasonable.
Note, I am not suggesting YOU can't use YOUR car, merely suggesting that government has a role in providing safe alternatives, even if you're a libertarian. If you're a libertarian, you should be in favour of market pricing mechanisms. This isn't government promoting anything, nor is it isn't a war on the motorist. Can we really go on sitting in traffic for hours (when I say "we", I mean "you". I'm long-gone)? Wouldn't it be better if, on a sunny day, you weren't put off taking a bike to work for a change because of a perceived danger? It's about giving the options, not taking them away. Wouldn't it be nice if there was an incentive for your employer to allow you to work at home? Do we really ALL need to make the journey to work at the same time? Without a pricing mechanism which captures at least some of the externalites, you will not have the most efficient use of resources, and we're all poorer for it.
Finally, and much more broadly, we have the wrong basis for taxation. Why do we tax jobs, leading to fewer jobs; why tax profits, we want more; why not tax externalities instead? Pigovian taxes make more sense than income taxes because the tax can create a positive outcome in more efficient useage of resources. Wouldn't that make sense?