Tuesday, September 19, 2006

UK Transport policy update - Department of Transport response.

I am pleased to announce that the Department of Transport has responded to the letter I sent to them. The reply is well written and courteous, and I do get the underlying sense that the woman partially agrees with me (maybe it is just a hope...).

Here it is (names are excluded and my comments are indicated with //):

"Dear Sir,

Thank you very much for your letter of 7 August to the Secretary of State on the subject of road pricing. I have been asked to reply. In your letter you raise a number of concerns in response to a newspaper article.

// Thank you for taking the time to respond, especially considering the pressures on the department of transport recently. //

As you will appreciate tackling congestion is a key long term priority in transport because it affects us all. It causes frustration to people stuck in traffic jams. It is bad for business because it disrupts the delivery of goods and services. And it affects people's quality of life.

// ....and it is bad for the environment because it causes pollution... //

It is a growing problem, especially around our major cities, where businesses and jobs are concentrated. As the economy grows, people want to travel more and travel further than they did before. If we do nothing, the problem will get worse in the next 20 to 30 years.

// ...you miss out the possibilities of Teleworking and the impact of the population size, but I agree it is an important issue and that is partly why I wrote to you. I don't believe any government should bury its head in the sand and hope a problem will go away... //

The Government is exploring the scope for developing a national system of road pricing - in line with its manifesto commitment.

// Its a quick fix solution to a problem that requires a long-term, sustainable, integrated policy. It might reduce congestion, but that will only be because people cannot afford to travel. I thought the idea of socialism was to help the people, not just tax them (or is this the new labour I've been hearing so much about)? //

This could mean charging on the basis of distance travelled with the charge varied according to how congested a road is. A Feasibility Study, published in July 2004, said that a national road pricing scheme had the potential to reduce urban congestion by nearly half, with about 4% less traffic using the roads at peak times. So a relatively small number of people changing the time that they travel, or travelling in a different way, could lead to a significant improvement in congestion.

// *sigh* According to data released by the Unlimited Jargon friends club, if you wear a hat, you are 40% more likely to experience a windy day. How many other alternatives have been considered? //

However, implementing a national road pricing system would be a massive and complex task. This is why to start with the Government has decided to focus on local pilot and pathfinder schemes, and support local authorities as they develop schemes which will test systems in different areas and establish what works.

// Perhaps you should replace "what works" with "what makes money". //

In your letter you raise the issue of public transport outside of London. Under the Transport Act 2000, for at least the first ten years, local authorities have to use the revenues raised by any road pricing scheme to help deliver their Local Transport Plan (providing the scheme comes into effect by 2011). After this time the local authorities’ share of net revenues can be spent as specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State. No decision has been made on what might be included in any such regulations. However, we are working with local authorities to enable the development of road pricing pilots that offer a fair deal for road users and work to the overall benefit of the places where they are implemented.

// Instead of working with on small scale community projects to improve an area, you are proposing creating an extremely complicated, bureaucratic system that will infringe on the public's privacy and make travelling more costly, which in turn will probably increase the English North-South economic divide. //

The Government is committed to improving public transport; it remains a key priority for us. Since 1997, spending on transport infrastructure has more than doubled.

// And yet clearly it hasn't solved the problem.... //

We have funded, and continue to fund, many local public transport schemes. The Crawley Fastway (a guided bus scheme) and Durham Park and Ride are recent examples of new schemes funded by the Department. We have also funded some very large rail projects, including updating the West Coast Mainline, which enables tilting trains to travel at 125mph - delivering much faster journey times. We are also investing in the Channel Tunnel rail link and upgrading the ticket hall at London Kings Cross.

// Whilst I support several of the policies mentioned, it is important to place Britain in context with the rest of the world. Japan has fast trains. Most of Europe has fast trains. The UK is still a long way behind and ticket prices are very costly during peak times (inhibiting travelling further). //

Furthermore, when local authorities bid for money from the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) to implement road pricing schemes, they will be required to tell us what complementary transport measures they are proposing. It is for the local authority to determine what these measures will be, but it could include measures such as real-time information systems at bus stops, improvements to bus services or redesigning the road space to encourage more walking and cycling.

// I hate to be a spoil sport, but I think the fares from bus journeys should pay for upgrades to the stops, not car drivers. //

You also raise concern about the effects of a road pricing scheme on people travelling to work. The Government recognises how important it is for people to be able to get around, and that is especially true for those on low incomes who need to travel to work. We are certainly not trying to price these people off the road – indeed under some possible schemes they might pay less than now in motoring costs. What road pricing should do is to encourage some people to change their travel arrangements, perhaps by travelling a little earlier or later, by car-sharing, or by using public transport where that is an option. Not many people need to change their journeys for us to have an impact on congestion. All of the pilot schemes for pricing will assess carefully the impact on all groups, including those on low incomes, to help design the best arrangements.

// A good point. Low income families will be penalised more under the new scheme, especially those who live outside expensive urban areas and commute every day. According to you "not many people need to change", which is a little contrary to what you said earlier...I thought congestion was a major issue. If only a few people need to change then there is less of an argument for road charging than before. //

The Government is also actively promoting fuel efficiency. The Graduated Vehicle Excise Duty and the Company Car Tax are now both linked to vehicles’ carbon emissions. Motorists can save up to £210 in VED, and thousands of pounds on their Company Car Tax bill if they choose clean, low-carbon vehicles. Colour-coded energy efficiency labels for new cars, modelled on those for household white goods, were launched in February 2005 and are now in most UK car showrooms. These enable consumers to make informed and environmentally friendly choices when they buy a new car. The 2002 Powering Future Vehicles Strategy sets out the Government's policies to encourage the development and uptake of clean, fuel efficient vehicles.

// This is hardly solving the problem. What you've done here is increased tax on the wealthy (who will probably just ignore the increased costs) and on families. The labels are a good idea, but clearly not widely publicised (especially compared to the "think" campaign.) //

You suggest in your letter that speed limits should be adjusted according to the number of pedestrians in the area. The Department keeps all national speed limits under constant review to ensure they remain appropriate. In 2001 we considered raising the motorway speed limit but concluded that the increased risk of accidents and severity of those accidents far outweighed potential benefits. Particularly as police enforcement thresholds are 10% plus 2mph of the speed limit. This effectively means that enforcement may not begin until vehicle speeds exceed 79mph.

// Yet in Germany (where many motorways have no speed limits, but instead strict dangerous driving regulations) road accidents have been falling dramatically over the past decade (http://www.safespeed.org.uk/germany.html) Once people in Great Britain accept that travelling by car is still an essential part of today transport policies, then maybe we'll be able to move forward. //

Local authorities are responsible for setting local speed limits, including speed limits by time of day. It is for them to decide when and where local speed limits may be changed. The Department published new guidance to local authorities on setting local speed limits on 8 August this year which will further assist in their decision making process.

// That still doesn't address my point of separating pedestrians and motorists. It doesn't even come close. //

The Department’s aim is to achieve safe, appropriate vehicle speeds that will reduce accidents and the risk of accidents and increase use by pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians.

// Increase use of roads by pedestrians? What kind of speed limits are you thinking of? //

Finally you raise the issue of black boxes and their affect on the privacy of individuals. We are conscious of these concerns and safeguards will need to be considered as we design any scheme. There are several ways to design a road pricing system - there are different types of technology and different ways of billing and paying. We need to work through the privacy implications of each of the options and it is too soon to say exactly how reassurance will be applied in any specific scheme. What is clear is that, as a minimum, the normal legal protections concerning the use of personal data would apply to all road pricing schemes, be they local or national."

// The data protection act is already under attack from central government. As previously stated no reassurances can be given. //

Yours sincerely,

BUT WAIT A MINUTE, what about the points I raised in my letter?

-There was a complete omission of any discussions of biofuels. I believe they have great potential (in a medium term time period) to solve many of our problems. If only 5% of drivers were to use biofuels, it would be the equivalent of taking 1 million people off the road. Brazil has done it. Actually (as the department of transport has used it above) according to the Labour Party manifesto The "government will continue to support technological innovation to reduce carbon emissions such as hydrogen fuel-cell buses in London."

-Public transport outside London (and especially in rural areas) is completely inadequate (lets face it, one or two buses a day is not going to be enough).

-Many people in rural areas are already on low incomes and this tax could drive them onto state benefits. However the government's "clever" solution is to adjust the price of travelling down certain roads so rural areas will be cheaper apparently (but what about second home owners or city commuters?). They also want to make cities expensive (What about low income migrants stuck in council accommodation?). Perhaps the answer is to tax based on earnings, but then there is no point in having road charging. Whatever way you spin it, it doesn't make sense.

-Public transport is overpriced in virtually every part of the United Kingdom. For regular travellers driving is significantly faster and cheaper and more comfortable than waiting for a bus. You can also carry lots of luggage in vehicles. The letter avoids discussing the price of public transport.

-In my letter I mentioned businesses may move away from Britain as a result of the inevitable increased costs. Those that do believe they can still make a profit will pass on costs directly to consumers (reducing the disposable income of everyone further). There is no mention of this in the letter either!

-On the issue of road charging all signs suggest the decision has already been made, even though the department of transport acknowledges how complex and unwieldy it is.

-As expected, the letter fails to outline what safeguards will exist.

In summary, the arguments for road charging (reduction of pollution and congestion) could be achieved far more effectively with the requirement of fuel efficient engines in all vehicles, the use of biofuels and other renewable energy (how about a solar panel on every car to power the air conditioning?), small scale local schemes by people who know their area, competitively priced public transport and better designed, more efficient roads to get people completing their journey's faster. There is also an argument for decentralisation of goods and services and generally reducing the need to travel.

Thank you for reading and I hope I have convinced you to reassess your approach to transport.

To view the full story, check out my archive of posts on the "UK Transport Policy" or select it from the sidebar.

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