Hamish McRae: Congestion? No problem

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Road tolls, congestion charges in cities and now the idea of a national congestion charge to replace road tax - anyone who likes cars has a right to feel somewhat hounded. Successive British governments have chosen to build proportionately fewer new roads than any other large developed country and should be less than surprised that there is a congestion problem.

Road tolls, congestion charges in cities and now the idea of a national congestion charge to replace road tax - anyone who likes cars has a right to feel somewhat hounded. Successive British governments have chosen to build proportionately fewer new roads than any other large developed country and should be less than surprised that there is a congestion problem.

Since the Government has failed to act on the supply side it has to act on demand. Plan A has been to cut road use by increasing fuel taxes, with the result that Britain has the most expensive fuel in the world. But that has failed. Not only has road use risen, but just last week political pressure forced the Chancellor to postpone his latest scheduled rise in fuel duty. We are at the political limits of that particular tax.

By contrast, Ken Livingstone's congestion charge is perceived as a success. I say "perceived" because that is the view of the chattering classes - anyone trying to run a retail business in central London might have a different view. And I suspect that, in a few years time, the general view will be that it has simply displaced economic activity outside the zone.

But a national congestion charge, aside from being politically fashionable, has the advantage of hitting people in the South-East, not a Labour stronghold, so you can see why the present Government is keen on the idea. Besides it has to raise revenue from somewhere.

Do we need it? It is profoundly unfashionable to suggest it, but I suspect we may be getting close to the natural limits of road use. In other words, road congestion will not go on getting worse forever and may instead plateau close to present levels.

The basic point here is that people no longer drive for fun. A lot of us enjoy driving and prefer to drive a car that makes a journey a rewarding experience. But we don't make a journey for the sake of it. Here in Britain the proportion of families with access to a car has stopped rising (though there are more and more multiple-car families). Some European cities, Copenhagen being the best example, have been redesigned to help people use other ways of getting around, including bikes.

Yet surely, as people get richer they want more cars? Well, yes and no. Up to a certain point they do, but as societies reach a certain level of wealth the additional money is not spent on things, but on services. Things have to be trucked around; services don't to nearly the same extent. There are only 24 hours in a day and after a point we tend to spend money on saving time, by living closer to work, for example, or by shopping for groceries on the Net and having the stuff delivered.

In short, as we get richer we will try and organise our lives to try to drive less, not more. We are not yet quite at that stage, and of course congestion won't disappear. But it will become less of a problem -- just in time for our political masters to bring in their national congestion charge.

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