Should Congestion Really be Used as a Tool of Transport Policy?
The Daily Express today tells us that the European Commission’s Directorate General for Climate Action has produced a report calling for higher fuel duties and “road pricing” (i.e. tolls). Apparently the report says that “aggressive policy measures are vital in reducing transport emissions”.
All this reminds us yet again of the massive gulf between officials at all levels and the public, on transport policy.
To the public, the government’s transport officials are there to make transport work. And by “making transport work”, the public mean making it as easy, stress free and cheap as possible to go wherever they want to go. Therefore the public get very upset when roads aren’t maintained, when there is congestion or when trains don’t run on time.
But that isn’t how the officials see it. From the civil servants working in local authority Transport departments, through Whitehall, as far as the European Commission, they see their job as reducing the impact of transport. And it’s a very small step indeed from that to seeing their job as reducing the usage of transport.
We see this dynamic hard at work in cities like Oxford and Reading. There, officials have an explicit policy to try and stop the usage of cars in the city. To that end, they close as many roads as possible, introduce one-way systems and restrict junctions. The aim of their policy is to create congestion, because congestion discourages people from driving into the city.
This causes a great deal of anger among ordinary people, who thought the officials’ job was to reduce congestion.
Similarly, as in the case of this EU report, officials often propose higher fuel taxes and measures like road pricing, to discourage car use. And the public become extremely angry, because those measures undermine what they thought was the purpose of government transport policy. They thought the purpose was to make it easier for them to travel. But the officials think their aim is to make it harder.
Yes, of course the public want the environmental impact of their travel to be reduced as much as possible. But they also want to travel. When the last government tried to introduce road pricing, a petition against it was raised on the Downing Street website, that got 1.8 million signatures.
This breakdown in trust and communication between the State and the public is to be seen in all areas of government. But it is in the area of transport that it is most stark.
The position, the philosophy, of those officials is untenable. It breaks down as soon as you ask the question, “Why do you want to discourage car use?”
After the initial blank looks and confusion (because, hey, cars are just BAD, everyone knows that), they will talk in condescending tones about the adverse environmental impact of cars. But they are deliberately creating congestion and therefore pollution to further their policy. And they make no attempt at all to analyse the adverse impact of their favoured transport solutions.
They talk about the safety impact of cars. But they are happy to introduce chicanes, which deliberately guide cars to meet each other head on.
They talk about the fact that cars are driven by the rich, while the poor use buses. But their policies deliberately increase the cost of motoring, thus pricing it out of the reach of the poor.
Most serious of all, of course, they entirely forget that the ability of the public to travel when and where they want is a GOOD THING that should be pursued (though not to the exclusion of all else, of course). Therefore in their analysis they entirely ignore the costs (human and economic) of their attempts to prevent travel.
If you suggest measures like widening roads to reduce congestion, or improving junctions, or better road signs, or better road maintenance to reduce potholes, or (God forbid) building new roads, they’re not interested. Such things would make motoring easier, and their job is to make it harder, you see.
Most government transport officials also seem to believe that transport is the biggest creator of emissions, and that within transport, cars are the worst culprits. In fact, the biggest creator of emissions is power generation. And whether cars are worse offenders than buses or trains is far from clearcut. A crowded commuter train is probably more efficient than several hundred cars, each with one commuter in. But a car with two people in is obviously more efficient than a bus trundling along with just the same two people.
Not Environmentally Friendly
It wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, the predecessors of those officials were building Britain’s motorway system.
Whatever made them come to believe that great “green” lie that building more roads causes congestion? It’s about as sensible as claiming that the internet is a bad thing because it causes demand for communication. That argument ultimately represents a rejection of our entire civilisation and way of life. Fine if you’re a member of the Green Party – but not if you’re a government official supposedly there to serve the public.
In truth, there is a simple way to cut through all this confusion. Unfortunately, it requires a complete change of mindset amongst the sad control freaks who run our transport policy. They need to stop trying to bully us all into following their ideal of the perfect lifestyle, and start with the premise that the public whom they serve want to travel. And it’s their job to find the most effective, fastest, cheapest and least environmentally damaging way to deliver on that.
It’s not their job to stop us all travelling. It’s their job to help us travel better.
If they can’t or won’t make that change of mindset, the war between the public and the officials will continue and intensify – and the biggest sufferer will be the environment about which the officials claim to care.