Thursday, February 22, 2007

Zoe Williams on the Congestion Charge extension

Parts of this article beggar belief:

"One of the protest placards said: "Will your congestion charge pay for Livingstone's next trip to Cuba?" This is probably the most stupid of the arguments against the charge extension, unsupported as it is by any evidence, plucked from the irrational fumes of an angry motoring mind, but really, all the arguments against it are senseless. Yes, it costs money. The counter- argument is, of course, that it will pay for itself, based on the fact that the main zone made £122m profit last year, which was mainly ploughed back into buses."

This is truly idiotic. It doesn't "pay for itself"; motorists, Londoners pay for it.

"Now I can't stand the bendy buses, but they are still better for the air quality and the wider environment and sense of social cohesion than any car is. I cannot stand Transport for London (TfL), with its patronising leaflets for the lady traveller and the overall arrogance of its literature - you could spend a year wandering the corridors of its leaflets and website and all you will be told is how to pay, how important it is that you pay and what will happen to you if you don't. It's old-school leftie authority, basically. I am probably as anti-TfL as any Chelsea-dwelling 4x4 owner, but that shouldn't blind any of us to the fact that, not only is it doing the right thing, it's pursuing the only course of action that makes any sense."

The argument that this is good for social cohesion is the funny one in this paragraph. I sit on the bus most days and am a reasonably friendly fellow passenger but the idea that this gives me a common feeling with my fellow citizens, even though no one is even talking, is a little implausible.

"Naturally, the anti-extension lobby makes that noise the self-seeking always make when they're trying to invest their cause with more nobility and long-termism than it actually has. "This is bad for business" is of course true, as businessmen will have to pay the charge, and customers might end up buying heavy things off the internet. Possibly a purveyor of Venetian glass on a Kensington mews might go bust, but he or she will be replaced, I have no doubt, by someone selling lighter items, like sandwiches. Who cares anyway? If five shops close and are perpetually empty, and 500 cars are left at home instead of driven, we still all win."

Those shops are run by people with families and viewing their impoverishment with such equanimity is pretty inhuman. I guess leftie fellow feeling doesn't extend to 'capitalists'. By comparision, the congestion and pollution effects of 500 cars are pretty marginal.

"Conservative spokeswoman Angie Bray remarked: "I think [Ken Livingstone] has put his own political wishes before the interests of London." An otiose remark. If anything at all were to jeopardise Livingstone's plans it would be this extension and west Londoners' voting against him as a consequence of it. Regardless of that, as he says, there are 70,000 fewer vehicles in the original zone, so the interests of London have already been served 70,000 times!"

Livingstone has noticed that West London doesn't vote for him much anyway. That's why it looks pretty self-serving for him to impose an extra tax, which looks decidedly arbirtrary because it is supposed to combat congestion which isn't really that bad in most of West London (there are problems with speeding unlike in Central), on that particular community.

"Besides which, the system couldn't have stayed as it was, since it was totally unfair. The south-east of London is much poorer than the south-west. Drivers going east as far as Tower Bridge and south to the sparkling streets of Rotherhithe were being hit by a charge that exempted drivers in Holland Park. It was unjust and couldn't have continued."

Fairness makes sense when taxes are a cost to those taxed but Williams has spent the rest of the article arguing that this one isn't as it improves congestion and the environment in the areas concerned. Given that this tax is supposed to reduce congestion, rather than raising revenue which it is a highly inefficient mechanism for, surely the correct criteria isn't some prehistoric socialist sense that the rich should pay but an analysis of where congestion is at its worst?

If the programme has been extended too far South then it should ended in those areas but that has nothing to do with the case in the West; the only relevant question for each area is how bad congestion is.

"More important, for this current batch of protesters there is no ballast to this argument. The truth is that car use has to be reduced. Whether this is done to the advantage of the rich or the poor, or done at random, or done in the spirit of a practical joke, with TfL elves putting sugar in every fifth petrol tank, the result will still be better than having done nothing. So vote against Livingstone if your own interests are really so much more important than those of the community, but do so quietly, as pinch-lipped self-servers have always voted."

Given that there is no analysis in this article on how much congestion there is in West London, or any argument as to why a London only scheme makes a remotely significant difference to global warming or some other problem, Williams has done nothing to establish how important it is to reduce car use. She has assumed in this entire article that it is an absolute priority, that we have to reduce car use. Why?

Even if the externalities from cars in West London are significant this only means that it would be good to reduce car use. That should still be balanced against other priorities such as the fortunes of West London businesses and the money wasted in the collection of a costly tax to administer.

Oh, this entire post is written by someone who takes the bus, tube or walks; there goes the 'it's only the self-serving' argument.


Gracchi said...

Matt I think you are right to critique Williams but I do think that there are ways to defend the congestion charge as well. The externalities may be bad but the principle of pricing what is a scarce commodity ie congestion and then funnelling the money into public transport might be a good one. Livingstone isn't a great advert for it but I do think there is something there and its worth taking on the principle and working from the principle to show how the policy doesn't meet it rather than attacking the policy as though it were the principle of congestion charging itself.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I am going to tackle road pricing at some point. That article just pissed me off though.