A to B 35 Blog, April 2003, Congestion Charge

A to B magazine, Congestion Charge, Day OneFIRST PUBLISHED April 2003
London Congestion Charge Launch, Rough Guide launch

On Monday, February 17th, the Mole joined the world’s media on the streets of London for the launch of Ken Livingstone’s long-awaited Congestion Charge. This turned out to be something of a disappointment because (a) Ken had wisely chosen a half- term launch date, thus eliminating the school run from the equation and (b) the Mayor had talked up the potential for disaster to such an extent that whatever transpired could only be viewed as a successful launch.

In the event, traffic levels were down a thumping 25%, forcing media commentators into a frenzy of interviews with each other for want of stationary motor cars and grumbling occupants. The Mole spent an equally fruitless morning attempting to track down a small body of protesters, rumoured to be waving placards beside the A3 somewhere south of the river, but all to no avail.

By the evening, a formerly hostile media had changed sides, with even the vociferously anti-Ken lobby giving a wary thumbs up. Yes, the charge gave every appearance of being a discriminatory kick at the poorer motorist, but the media soon grasped what Ken had known all along – that the only people driving into central London at peak times were posh nobs.

Thus, the spin changed overnight, with the Congestion Charge melting seamlessly from an indiscriminate tax on the poor to a democratic congestion buster, clearing the streets of filthy-rich, selfish motorists to make room for the buses that the downtrodden masses had been using all along.

Ken had taken quite a gamble introducing the charge (although nothing like as big a gamble as he had made it appear, of course). But the real loser was arch transport spokesperson and Tory Mayoral candidate-in-waiting Steven Norris, who laid caution to the wind on the eve of Charge-day, announcing that he would scrap the system if elected. By Charge-day +14, with traffic stabilised at 10-15% below its former level (just as Ken had predicted), Norris had grown strangely quiet.

A to B magazine, Congestion Charge launch, Mike BurrowsAmongst the winners on the day was Mike Burrows, who cheekily chose this day, of all days, to publicise his 8-Freight load carriers in the capital, arriving by train with no fewer than three machines, a feat for which we must thank the unrecognised British Rail engineers who endowed the Norwich rolling stock with sufficient luggage space.

Wandering aimlessly through the near deserted streets of Vauxhall, the Mole happened upon a pair of Mark 3 Brox HPVs, billboarding the Toyota Prius, which turns out to be a hybrid petrol/electric vehicle, sensibly exempt from the Congestion Charge. According to Toyota, those signing up for the Prius receive a £1,000 grant from the Energy Savings Trust (see page 9), and save £100 on the road tax and £1,250 on Congestion Charges each year (less a £10 administration fee). Of course, would-be Prius owners could pocket the entire £17,000 purchase price by cycling to work instead – an irony that was no doubt lost on the ad agency concerned.

A to B magazine, Toyota Prius advertisementTwo weeks later, the Mole attended ‘Keeping us Moving’, a conference widely billed as the post-mortem of the Congestion Charge.This cheerful shindig was staged by something called EPSRC, working in tandem with another thing called ESRC. For non- transport professionals, these worthy bodies are composed of charming academics whose role seems to involve finding new and imaginative ways of spending tax-payers’ money.

Rather disappointingly – although entirely predictable, given that the Department for (road) Transport was a primary sponsor – this day of egg-head debate centred largely around motoring matters.The only real difference of opinion being the long running spat between the ‘predict-and-provide’ chaps (now on the ascendancy, in the wake of the government’s latest round of road building), and the ‘demand management’ boys, fighting a desperate rearguard action.

As one might expect, bicycles were off the agenda altogether, and rail conveniently sidelined.The Mole discovered why, when sharing a mid-morning coffee with Professor Phil Goodwin, the government’s amiable advisor on transport affairs. ‘I’ve given up working on rail’, says Phil, ‘…because nothing ever gets done…’

Prof Goodwin went on to pour scorn on his master’s policy of building roads, whilst predicting ever greater congestion: ‘For governments to say this themselves is unprecedented’, says the transport advisor, with a twinkle in his eye. Fortunately, he has a day job. Interestingly, he goes on to predict that HMG will do a U-turn and back the Congestion Charge, ‘…within 16 months, give or take four months.’

At the morning press briefing, the Mole took the opportunity to ask whether the conference might best be described as a crisis meeting? ‘There’s no crisis in research’, proclaimed the egg-heads, as one man. Putting it into practice, of course, is another matter. ‘It’s more an opportunity than a crisis’, chips in one professor. ‘The only way to get research into practice is with a high level political commitment’, adds another, implying, rather woefully, that commitment might be lacking in government circles.

Consequently, Keeping us Moving offered little of interest, but there were a few innovations, such as the Deflatable Road Hump, an air-filled device that deflates under slow-moving traffic, but stands firm when it senses rapid movement. Clever stuff, but will it deflate for bicycles? We weren’t told.

…it deflates under slow- moving traffic… will it deflate for bicycles? We weren’t told…

Clever Innovation Number Two is the GPS-controlled private hire system. London, it seems, has 44,000 mini-cabs, of which only 4,000 are registered – many of the remaining drivers being uninsured, with a small but identifiable proportion being homicidal maniacs into the bargain.

It seems the public interface of the system is a roadside box into which one inserts 50 pence and types a destination. Then, through the action of clever mechanisms that must remain unexplained, a message is sent into space requesting the arrival of a mini-cab. Back on terra-firma, all the registered mini-cabs are buzzing about radiating their position to the same orbiting satellite, and the box duly pinpoints the nearest, then prints and disgorges a ticket indicating its registration number, estimated time of arrival, and the fare.

Not only does the system choose the nearest cab, but it guarantees a registered (and thus, one hopes, user-friendly) driver, and dispatches passengers on a first-come- first-served basis, eliminating any post- theatre unpleasantness.

A to B magazine, Rough Guide Launch, Jason Patient

The Rough Guide launch – photographer Jason Patient salutes one of his images…

Back at the conference, a rare moment of insight comes from Professor Glenn Lyons of the University of the West of England. ‘Public perception of travel modes is drifting further and further away from reality’ says the prof, helpfully explaining that bicycles are now beyond most peoples’ field of imagination and trains are considered expensive and inconvenient, but cars are cheap, fast, secure and reliable.

A to B magazine, Rough Guide launch

…and the view from the balcony

During the 2000 fuel ‘crisis’, Professor Lyons moved quickly, obtaining funding for an emergency survey of motoring habits. This revealed that some 30% of commuters changing transport modes when the pumps began to dry up, with 25% of parents walking or cycling their children to school, although the crisis had little effect on business travellers. ‘Habitual behaviour inhibits mode choice’, sums up the professor with a sigh. In laymen’s terms, given a swift kick up the backside, we could solve our transport ills in days. Roll on the next fuel crisis.

After a satisfactory lunch, the participants took their seats for a blast of hot air from a panel composed of the Great and the Good in transport, chaired by BBC Transport Correspondent Simon Montague. First up for ritual humiliation was Steven Norris, who was reminded that he had promised to ‘scrap the charge’. Norris, ever the politician, replied ‘It’s important to split the principle of charging, which is entirely sensible, from any particular scheme.’ One suspects the problem with the London scheme is that the incumbent mayor thought of it first…

It’s a sign of how far Norris has to squirm that even John Dawson of the Automobile Association spoke kindly of the Charge, accepted that ‘tactical charging’ made sense, and that motorists were generally in favour.

Warming to this theme, a traffic engineer stood up and admitted that he had helped to design the computer model for the layout of Milton Keynes, a town specifically designed around the car, yet now as congested as anywhere else. Was this honest man about to come over to the demand management camp? A conversion on the road to Buckinghamshire? Sadly no – the fellow merely concluded that the residents of Milton Keynes would jolly well have to live with congestion. He’s probably right, but one somehow expected a little more insight from a conference organised by the country’s transport intelligentsia. Is that really the best that £40 million a year and Europe’s most powerful computer can come up with? Two weeks later, the Mole joined a motley crowd of flotsam and jetsam from the bicycle world at 80 The Strand, the magisterial home of Penguin Books.The occasion was the rather grand launch of the Rough Guide to London, sponsored by Mayor Ken’s Transport for London.

For those unaware of how the other half live, the views from Penguin’s 10th floor balcony are most striking, although the book turns out to be something of a disappointment (see Review, page 11). No matter! For in a neat post-Congestion Charge twist, the BMW drivers grinding painfully along the Embankment below are effectively subsidising both the Rough Guide and the cocktails. Bottoms up!