Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Congestion Charging: coming to your place soon

Richard Normington - click to go to his homepageThere's a problem with traffic, at times, in Cambridge. When I take the bus to work because my bike's in the shop, it can take up to fifteen minutes to get from one side of the Hills Road railway bridge to the other - half the time it takes to cycle to work in the first place.

I picked up the Cambridge News today to see that Richard Normington, Cambridge's parliamentary spokesman for the Conservatives, speaking on a local issue which may be replayed widely over Great Britain and spread to other countries like the US. He's claimed that an investigation into whether Cambridge should have a congestion charge (like London) will be a "stitch-up", on the grounds that the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission's chairman, Sir Brian Briscoe, had previously come down in favour of a congestion charge for Reading, a town to the west of London.

Part of Richard's statement, reported in the News, was:
Sir Brian has a credibility problem. As part of a transport commission looking into the future of Reading, he proposed introducing a congestion charge and signing up to the Government's Transport Innovation Fund - which makes charging compulsory for local authorities. His previous support for Labour's flagship policy puts his neutrality on the subject into, more than ever, is not the time to impose greater financial burdens on Cambridge businesses and residents.
Sir Brian has responded that what he suggested was "a package of measures...with the possibility of a congestion charge in the long term". However, what the Independent Transport Commission Report for Reading Borough Council, co-authored by him, says is,
We think the Council should, with its sub-regional neighbours, urgently examine the case for managing demand by road pricing to influence driver behaviour...We are satisfied that the technical means exist to introduce more sophisticated charging regimes and we recommend that the Council examine how it might devise a scheme with the object of maximising economic use of road space [italics and bold in the original]
Another member of Reading's Transport Commission, Professor Tony Travers, published an essay in 2004 in the left-wing New Statesman in which he breathlessly and rather embarrassingly pours praise on the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone (known as "Red Ken") for putting Congestion Charging in place.

I don'Alok Sharma, with thanks to - click to go to Reading West Conservativest know whether Travers still believes in socialism or not - obviously people change and we have to allow them to. But the fact remains that transport charging is highly politicised, as it is in effect a form of taxation on a group of people - drivers - who are already taxed up to the hilt with road tax and duty on petrol. For example, back in Reading, prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate Alok Sharma has been accused of "lying" by opining that town dwellers would have to pay the charge (this has always been on the table in Cambridge); and the present Mayor of London, Boris Johnston, has been accused of "turning his back on carbon emission reductions and turning 'petrol blue'" (blue being the colour of the Conservative Party in the UK) by announcing that he would scrap an extension to the capital's Congestion Charge.

But to be tough on congestion requires us to be tough fancy building a house here?on the causes of congestion. A study commissioned by Cambridgeshire County Council states that 56,000 new dwellings will be required in this largely rural county by 2016. We just don't have the roads to support this, no more than the market towns and villages who are being pressured to accept new housing have the facilities and infrastructure. Not to mention that most rural areas are rural for a reason - the fens are very low-lying, and floods are common.

Travers makes a very interesting point in his essay: "no other city in Britain has anything like London's extensive public transport system. Less than 15 per cent of people working in central London commute by car. The political and economic risk would be far greater in a city where 65 or 75 per cent of workers travel by car." Stagecoach, which has a virtual monopoly on providing buses in and around Cambridge, must be congratulated for bringing in more and better stock. But to drive them they're hiring a lot of drivers for whom English is not a first language. If a prospective passenger doesn't speak good English either, it's a sight to behold.

If you live in or around Cambridge, please give your views online on this vital issue.

If you're from elsewhere, watch this space, because there's a very good chance that Congestion Charging and its ideological fellow-travellers are coming to a town near you soon.


  1. I wrote you a comment yesterday and it got deleted when I tried to post it. I was so frustrated I couldn't think of anything to say. Eventually, I will comment on this post, because I am a transportation planner, and I've read up on congestion pricing, but I need my thought momentum to build up again, now that I vented everything on the post that got deleted. Grr.

  2. I'm glad you got through this time. I don't know what the problem is, I'll try to get in touch with Blogger, as I really enjoy reading you comments. - FD

  3. Well, the kids aren't home right now so I will try again.

    Basically, although the publications on it are many (VERY MANY), and the arguments extensive, the idea behind congestion pricing, that mainly those who use a roadway will pay for it, sounds great on paper, but as with many idealist theories, lots of complications enter in when it's attempted. Part of the appeal here is that the petrol tax is tied to gallons, not dollars, of petrol sold, and with more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, plus the fact that the tax percentage hasn't been increased in well over a decade, it simply hasn't kept pace with roadway construction cost inflation. And much of our infrastructure, built about 40-50 years ago, was designed to last about 40 years, and - we have no money! Politicians have been afraid to increase the gas tax, plus what we do collect has been siphoned off for other things (such as education).

    One good thing about being a planner for the government, though - there's MORE work, not less, when the budget gets tight! (FIND those dollars! FIND THEM NOW!)

  4. That sounds an enlightened way of selling petrol. In the UK, as well as duty on petrol, owners of cars that are seen as "gas-guzzlers", like 4x4's have to pay either higher road-tax or insurance, I can't remember which one. It's not all about size, though - I remember a driving instructor telling me that a lot of the people who bought 4x4's were women with children who had either witnessed or been in accidents.

    Our infrastructure's the same, and the cracks are showing (sometimes literally). But still the government has an open door approach to immigration with no thought as to where people are going to live or to possible conflict - I don't know if you've heard of the strikes at oil refineries over here over the use of cheaper foreign labour: how long until they turn to riots, I wonder?

    I have to go to bed now, I need to get up tomorrow to help present an exhibition on the way forward for the village - including infrastructure! GOOD LUCK IN FINDING THOSE DOLLARS!


Please feel free to leave a comment - Frugal Dougal.