Road Pricing or Road Building?
What can be done about traffic congestion?
Some take the laid back approach. “Do nothing” is their answer. Traffic won’t increase indefinitely, some people just won’t bother making some journeys simply because they will take too long. The pace of life is too hectic anyway, they say, we need to slow down and focus on the important things in life. Take time to reflect. Relax. zzzzzzzzz
Unfortunately traffic congestion not only delays people and puts up the price of goods and services but also causes more pollution and more crashes. Pollution from standing or stop-start traffic. Crashes due to impatient drivers taking risks when trying to make up time lost in jams. People pay with their lives for such behaviour.
The traditional answer is to build more roads. Of course not too close to where people live, close enough for speedy access to the motorway network but far enough to keep the noise and smell away from homes. As for objectors, they will shut up if you pay them enough. Property prices and the other costs of road building may have sky-rocketed over the past few years, the government always has enough money to build more roads. After all, who would want taxes spent on health, education or pensions if they could be spent on expanding the road network instead?
A slight variant on this idea is to build more railways. Or bus expressways. As if building these were much cheaper or less disruptive than building new roads.
The alternative is to use the existing roads more efficiently. The capacity of the motorway network would increase fivefold if single occupancy cars were replaced by full coaches. In cities thirty cyclists take the same space as five cars. All very well in theory, but not many people are willing to switch. High fares & infrequent services are a block to greater public transport use. For buses there’s also the issue of anti-social behaviour. As for cycling, people tire of the harassment they get from drivers, while the traffic free routes are few in number and inconvenient to use.
The more efficient and environmentally friendly modes of transport are locked in a vicious circle. The fewer travellers on public transport, the more infrequent the services. The fewer cyclists the less account drivers take of them. Hence many a “Sorry mate I didn’t see you” crash. The small number of people cycling means a weak lobby for better cycle routes.
The vicious cycles need to be broken, people need a greater incentive to use the more efficient forms of transport. The London congestion charge shows that the world doesn’t come to an end when road charges are introduced. Buses and bicycles are taking the strain. But in a number of ways it isn’t the example to follow. The monitoring of every vehicle is sinister and must go. Vehicles don’t need to be tracked, there are other ways. Drivers could feed cards containing credits to equipment in their cars which removed the credits as the car travelled along the roads.
The London scheme is too inflexible as well. Motorists pay the same whether they drive for two minutes or two hours. Roads only need to have a charge when they are congested. High demand, high price, low demand free. London’s scheme is not equitable either. Rich drivers don’t use the roads more than poor ones, but a pound means more to someone on the minimum wage than someone on £100,000 pa. So some way of directing the revenues to benefit low income people must be devised. Perhaps car tax could be abolished, pensions increased or taxes cut on low incomes.
Of course there’s a massive resistance to road pricing. People love the the idea of low taxes but they also want a good health service, high pensions and free education. They want more roads which don’t cost much to provide and don’t take up any land. They want to drive as fast as they like and never crash. That’s the stuff of dreams, it’s about time people faced up to reality.