Responding to ConservativeHome's Majority page, J P Floru suggests that policies for drivers should be at the heart of the next Tory election.
Car drivers feel under threat, constantly. Yet their complaints fall upon deaf ears. When was the last time you heard a politician say “And now, we are going to introduce measures for drivers”? There is a vast constituency out there. Its votes are there for the taking. Car use is vast and popular. According to the RAC Foundation, car use per person has grown for half a century. Car use has increased most in low income households – owning a car is part and parcel of aspiration. In 2010 64% of all trips were made by car; 22% on foot; 7% by bus; 3% by rail, and 2% by bicycle.
And how does the government treat the people’s most popular mode of transport? The UK has one of the lowest motorway densities of Western Europe (and their population densities are usually lower than the UK’s). By way of length of motorway per capita, only Norway, Poland and Turkey have less. Taxes and duties account for 60% of the price of unleaded petrol – the highest in the European Union. People choose transport by weighing up the alternatives. For decades public policy has favoured public transport and cycling – yet when given the choice, people opt for the car. Why is there such a disjoint between what the people want and what the politicians are willing to give?
There are a number of reasons why drivers’ interests often come last in politicians’ priorities. There is the safety argument: most other road users are seen as more vulnerable. It is difficult to plead for an increase in the speed limit when a lady in the back stands up and tells us that her daughter was killed by a car. Yet based on that logic, we should abolish all driving. If transport came to a standstill, it would become incredibly safe. An ideal situation…which nobody wants.
There is the scarcity of space argument. Motorway density per square km in the UK is lower than in virtually all other Western European countries. All road building has to fight dreamy musings of a lost arcadia – even though roads have been around since the stone age. It I perfectily feasible to make them virtually invisible through planting, sunken roads, screens and tunnelling. Road building is unpopular because of loss of amenity and loss of property value. Sadly, road building is still firmly in the realm of collectivised benefit and privatised loss: roads are used by all but the environmental cost is almost exclusively born by the person living next to it. This could be remedied by introducing a free market system of financial compensation. Pay the neighbours, and there will be far fewer objections.
Environmentalists point at greenhouse gases. But cars now pollute far less than before. We have electric cars and hybrid cars. Often pollution is invoked when a higher tax take is desired. There is no logical link between the amount of car taxes and the pollution it creates, as compared to other modes of transport or polluters. Car taxes are vastly disproportionate. There is no link between car taxes and pollution – but there is one between car taxes and greedy government.
There is a strong zero sum mentality whenever government decides on transport priorities: a belief that if one road user benefits, another one loses out. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is perfectly possible to increase cycling facilities without harming other road users. Or to compensate drivers for the loss of road use by giving them other advantages which come at the expense of nobody else.
Policies for drivers:
- Whenever traffic calming measures are proposed, proportionality should play an important part. Safety must be measured as a proportion of the use of the relevant road; not by reference of absolute numbers of accidents.
- Increase the maximum speed on motorways – or abolish it altogether and introduce strict liability instead. Statistically, motorways are incredibly safe. Fining speeders is punishing victimless crime.
- Abolish bus lanes. They are often underused; and buses often use 1½ lane anyway, so reserving one lane for them is useless.
- Drastically reduce the number of speed cameras by reference to the proportionality principle. How many accidents are caused by motorists on the lookout for cameras?
- Traffic lights defeat the purpose of a roundabout. Abolish.
- Having to attend a speed awareness test or get points on your licence when you are 7 MPH over the speed limit is disproportionate. Urgent re-evaluation of speeding fines with regard to proportionality.
- Reduce road blockages or reduction of roads for public works. The system is widely abused; how often do we see lanes reduced with no works going on? Perhaps there should be a helpline where drivers can report unused lane reductions – fines could be imposed.
- Fines should generally not be imposed on road use but on road blockage.
- Deregulate taxi companies and allow for competition.
- Reduce fuel duty. The scarcity of petrol and the market mechanism is sufficient to ration fuel use and pollution.
- Entirely replace fixed and variable car taxes by road pricing.
- Cycle lanes should be cycle lanes, and not the same width as car lanes. I fear that Boris will lose a few votes over this.
- Cycling should be taught in schools. It should not include teaching cyclists to cycle in the middle of the road (as they often are). Countries with high cycle ratios such as Holland and Belgium do not teach their children to block traffic; they teach them to stay on the side of the road.
- Introduce a financial compensation system for loss of amenity and property values resulting from road building. In other words: compensate neighbours for their loss.