Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The Weekend Economist - #2 - Road (Pricing) Rage

As most of you will probably remember, I've been trying to write a bit more journo type stuff, and got a short piece put up on The Weekend Economist. Well, I've managed to get another writen, so please, give it a read and let me know your thoughts!

Road (Pricing) Rage

It sometimes seems as if things couldn’t get any worse for poor Tony Blair; an endless quagmire in Iraq, embarrassing police interviews, John Prescott (need I elaborate?) and now yet again, the British public have once again voiced there disapproval – over 1.65 million people have signed an online e-petition, ending today, to ‘scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy’.

The Great British Motorist, whose rage was last expressed rather visibly in the national fuel protests in 2000, is something of a civil institution in the UK, to be roundly whipped into a frenzy by various tabloid and/or political forces, as and when deemed necessary. We, unlike other Europeans, have had a long history of being rather unwilling to accept that motoring and fuel prices should in fact reflect the true socio-ecological costs of the activity itself. Perhaps we feel short changed in the ‘Blood for Oil’ War, with so little to show for it in at the pumps.

What startled me most was, however, to receive one of the multitude of emails urging people to sign from my mother. Far from being merely the bugbear of suburban bourgeois motorist (and the Conservative Party), this policy seems to have riled the nation up and down the land – either on the grounds cost or privacy (as Peter Roberts, author of the petition, has stated, “the idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong…Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay.”)

The rage was perhaps inevitable; but then, perhaps the short sightedness and intellectual papacy underpinning it was also to be expected. Yes, there are serious privacy considerations inherent with the proposal – who will have access to the data? How will it be regulated? What safe guards will be in place? On closer inspect, however, the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in Britain are ready to accept ID cards, phone tapping, curfews, electronic tagging, the opening of private mail and extensions to detention without charge to fight the rather ethereal threat from the Al-Qaeda bogeyman proves just how hollow this argument is in reality.

Still, bloggers screamed a call to arms, demanding to know “are we prepared to be taxed for the privilege of going about our business? At what point do we turn round and say that something is a basic right rather than a privilege, and as such not something we expect to be taxed for?” In the process, of course, such outspoken opposition illustrated in fact the very reasons why such a policy must, in fact, be implemented. Motoring, at least as it has been historically conceived, really is a privilege, not a right.

Without some kind of action, congestion on Britain’s roads is set to increase by 25% in less then a decade, in a country that has already seen road transport grow by a shocking 81% since 1980. We face a major transport crisis, made all the more significant by the Stern Report last year that underscored the very grave financial (let along human, social and environmental) costs of unrestrained global warming (of which transport accounts for 1/5th of all CO2 emitted.) The transport study, led by Sir Rod Eddington, recommended the road pricing of around £1.28 per mile in direct recognition of this fact - "the world needs to face up to the reality of climate change, and that implies learning to live within a carbon-constrained future.” People need to "feel the consequences of their decisions," and this is, contrary to rage blinded motorists, neither patronizing nor authoritarian. The European Carbon Trading Scheme is already in place, and it is only a matter of time before this is extended to private individuals in the form of carbon credits.

It is, quite frankly, ridiculous to assert, as Austin Williams did in the Telegraph, that transport policy should follow a ‘predict and provide’ approach – endlessly expanding the road system is not a sustainable solution. Nor is it morally or intellectually honest to dismiss Eddington’s conclusion that “some of the best projects are small-scale, such as walking and cycling.” Indeed, such changes in habits – requiring as they do first and foremost a change in mentality – will only be achieved with both the carrot and the financial stick. As the Prime Ministers Official Spokesman pointed out, “people did feel strongly about this issue, but feeling strongly was not a substitute for coming up with practical proposals.”

The supreme irony, of course, was the in accusing Eddington of ‘Stalinist’ penny pinching, (asking, “since when have we ever reduced politics to such simple fiscal equations,”) Williams himself articulated the crassest form of financial selfishness on behalf of the British Motorist, urging them to “downplay the so-called harm that carbon does” and, despite all the scientific evidence available, stress that global warming “a potential problem.” Whilst that approach may save many motorists money, and yes, quite possibly a significant amount, it is tantamount to mortgaging our future and gambling with the very sustainability and prosperity of our children, for they are the ones who will have to deal with our legacy of an infatuation with boundless mobility and endless consumption.

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” Albert Einstein

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