Sin Taxes, Incentives & the “War on the Motorist”.

For 50 years, the roads have been designed exclusively for the car, to the exclusion of almost all other means of transport. Branch lines were axed on the rail-network and the rest fell into unionised disrepair, motorways were built, tramlines ripped up and buses (outside of London) were neglected as the choice of the underclass. Little thought was given to the bus, cycle or pedestrian in the design of roads, or if they were, it was about controlling the pedestrian with cages and detours, in order to keep the motorised traffic flowing. Town centres were wrapped in urban dual carriageway circulatory systems leading into and out of multi-storey car parks. Unfortunately, the experience of road-building is that any increase in capacity is rapidly filled, and despite the investment, the experience of the driver in most of the UK is pretty miserable.

As a result, any removal of road-space from the private motor car, for bus lanes, cycle lanes or other forms of public transport is enormously controversial, and seen as part of a “the war on the motorist”, who feels over-taxed, and generally put-upon. Because racism is no-longer allowed, the most vituperative comments on Local papers’ ‘sPeAK YoU’RE bRaneS’ boards are reserved for cyclists who are all red-light jumping, suicidal, pavement-riding, road-hogging Lycra Nazis who are in the way. Angry yet smug, they are the cause of all that is wrong on the roads.

Of course driving can be fun. The open road (ha!) or a race-track. And we’ve all experienced the joy of giving it the beans when given the opportunity. This is what people think driving SHOULD be like. It isn’t.

Driving is NEVER like this…

Driving is uniquely stressful, especially in stop-start traffic. This is why cyclists are so hated. The unexpected flash past the window merely adds to the stress of the motorist in the urban queue who immagines actions to be far more dangerous than they actually are. The disconnect between how driving is, and how it should be, combined with the envy of the cyclist, as he makes progress, ignoring the red light (when safe, I do so to get out of your way…) and nipping in and out of the traffic, leads to these feelings of hate and rage. Of course, if you’re sitting in traffic, you’re part of the problem, not me…

Now my principal interest, as an occasional motorist myself, is to have smooth traffic flow and as stress-free a journey as possible. The problem comes at pinch points which set the capacity for an entire system. For example, the M4 (of Jeremy Clarkson’s bus-lane fame) into London from Heathrow has its capacity set principally by the Hogarth Lane roundabout in Chiswick and a 2-lane overpass between junction 2 & 3. There’s no point having a 3 lane black-top if it just pours vehicles over a bridge which will be backed up for 6 hours a day as a result. The thinking behind the bus-lane is that a significant chunk of that traffic will be doing one route: Heathrow to West London. A bus will take cars off the road, freeing capacity, for people who want to use a car, and presenting another option for those who haven’t a car parked at Heathrow, and for whom the train or tube is inconvenient. It takes excess capacity off the road, leading to the pinch-point, meaning at peak hours, the traffic flows slower into the junction, leading to fewer tail-backs. Thanks to Clarkson, the bus lane is no more, and there are more delays as a result.

This is also the thinking behind variable speed limits when the road is clear – for example to ease the congestion at Junction 6 (spaghetti junction) of the M6 whose capacity is exceeded almost every day, you often see 50mph limits on the overhead gantries for 20 miles leading up to it. Of course everyone ignores variable speed limits and Junction 6 stops moving every day (Advice: the M6 Toll road between junction 4 & 11 is well worth £5. If this blog can teach you anything, never, unless you absolutely have to approach junction 6 of the M6. You will be there for hours…).

So here’s the rub. Traffic engineers can look at a system and suggest that IF everyone does X, we can have capacity Y. But motorists don’t like being told what to do, and rarely believe it’s for their own good. The legacy of the hated Gatso camera (which I want to see removed), speed bumps (cyclists hate these at least as much as motorists), one-way systems, all designed to make traffic flow better, but end up making drivers even more stressed. And a stressed driver is an aggressive driver. And that makes no-one happy least of all, me on my bike.

From a recent twitter thread: “£8bn in spending on roads, but motorists pay £30bn in taxes.” or variations thereof is an oft heard refrain. So let’s look at this in more detail. Vehicle Excise Duty (a tax I’ve long argued should be abolished) raised £5.4bn and fuel duty raised £24bn. Fair enough. But this isn’t a hypothecated fund for road building. It’s more akin a usage fee for a scarce resource, in this case road space. It is also designed to cover the externalities of CO2 emissions (whatever you think of this, I’m not interested right now), noise, pollution, and congestion.

England (see comments) is the world’s 3rd most densely populated country (ignoring micro-states) after Japan and the Netherlands. The greater south-east is the most densely populated area in the world. There just isn’t the room for everyone to use their cars at the same time. So bear that thought in mind when reading the next few paragraphs. What this enormous £30bn tax bill represents is a colossal mis-pricing of an asset. Roads are far too expensive for 12 hours a day (9pm-6am). They are far, far too cheap between 7:30 and 9:30am or between 4:30 and 6:30pm. They’re probably about right (given that they’re full, but running smoothly) during the rest of the day.

So. You’ve a problem for 4 hours a day, across much of the south-east as everyone tries to get to the same places at the same time, by the same means of transport. You’ve got 3 options.

  1. Build capacity. The problem is that if you build enough capacity, you get Milton Keynes or in it’s extreme form, Los Angeles. Free Parking in LA has been a curse. A 2 bed semi in Milton Keynes costs £315k compared to £500k in ‘war on the motorist’ central, Cambridge. This differential despite the fact that Milton Keynes has better connections, and is an easier commute into London (the strongest correlator with house prices). People don’t choose to live in a car-paradise, because cars though lovely to be in, impose enormous externalities on everyone around them – noise, pollution, danger – when they move faster than 20mph. The market has spoken. People like their car. They don’t like other people’s, and they will put up with restrictions on its use for quality of life.
  2. Encourage alternatives, which means laying on buses, trains, trams and designing the roads so they aren’t savagely hostile to all but the most aggressive and confident cyclist. The fact I am not in a car, is one less car in the queue up the hill to the roundabout. Motorists should recognise this and welcome it. The problem is cycling is uncomfortable to the weak (yes I do feel utter contempt for fatsos in boxes…), and buses are just nasty. So that in itself is not enough.
  3. Discourage motorists at peak hours. This is the argument behind the congestion charge. I don’t like road pricing mainly because of the surveillance aspect of it. I don’t like ‘the man’ being able to track my movements. Instead I prefer the widespread use of parking charges as a proxy for road pricing. This isn’t a “nudge“, but an application of the principles of the market to road congestion. Councils encourage short-term parking for shopping, with nominal short-term ticket charges, rising sharply should you wish to park all day (which is often not possible at all in a council car park). Further more, councils charge an annual tax on office parking spaces -£600 in the last example, to discourage commuting and encourage the use of alternatives. Clever use of technology will allow motorists to pay when they leave for what they’ve used, rather than using penalties and traffic wardens, which just creates more stress.

On top of the externalities motorists impose on themselves, like congestion, cars impose externalities on everyone else when they move. (Don’t even try to deny this. Would YOU want to live next to a main road…?) especially when they move faster than 20-30mph: These externalities which reduce the qualitiy of life for those around them are principally Noise, pollution and danger, which are reduced to almost nothing when the speed drops. This is the reason most residential streets are being closed off at one end to prevent “rat-running”. The campaign for 20mph zones in urban areas isn’t a war on the motorist, but an attempt to help people who live there, live with cars safely and without stress. Intelligent road design can achieve this without further stressing the motorist. The point is, where the road design is intelligent, the average motorist doesn’t notice it. I do, because I am a road design bore.

So, motoring & parking charges are seen as “sin taxes” on what most people regard as a necessity. They aren’t. Nor are speed limits below what you think “safe and reasonable” or traffic calming measures a politically motivated restriction on your freedom. They’re mostly about demand management and safety. This is why the Tax Payers’ alliance is wrong on ‘Sin Taxes‘ which according to them “either work, or raise revenue. They can’t do both”. They can, of course, it’s just a question of where any particular tax is on its laffer curve, something the TPA is fond of pointing out in other contexts. If a 5% rise in tax leads to a 2% drop in use, you have raised money AND had an effect. In any other context, a market-pricing system for use of a scarce resource would be lauded by the TPA, but not, it seems when applied to the motorist, which is bizarre. Because the TPA are firmly of the (correct) belief that market price-setting anywhere and always leads to more efficient use of a resource, and therefore greater wealth for all.

So. All this stuff I’ve been writing about these last few days isn’t about a “war on the motorist”, nor is it particularly about cycling. It’s about a fair crack of the whip for all means of transport, which all have their place in a sophisticated, decentralised, efficient means of getting people to the right place at the right time. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The UK is too car-centric, and needs to invest in alternatives, mainly to make the car itself work better. A benefit of fewer cars in our town centres MIGHT be a more pleasant and relaxing environment for us all.

I mentioned three countries more densely populated than the UK – The Netherlands, Belgium and Japan. All have embraced the bicycle as a means of urban transport, and both invest heavily in public transport. They do this because in parts of the world where lots of people live together, there just isn’t room for everyone to drive. Motorists know this, deep down, and fear the loss of their privileged position in the hierarchy on the road. That is why any comment which involves addressing the necessity to control traffic is dealt with in such an angry way. Humans are irrationally loss-averse, and blind to opportunities. Just as benefits recipients fear the changes to the benefits system more than is reasonable, the motorist fears any alternative to the car more than is reasonable.

Note, I am not suggesting YOU can’t use YOUR car, merely suggesting that government has a role in providing safe alternatives, even if you’re a libertarian. If you’re a libertarian, you should be in favour of market pricing mechanisms. This isn’t government promoting anything, nor is it isn’t a war on the motorist. Can we really go on sitting in traffic for hours (when I say “we”, I mean “you”. I’m long-gone)? Wouldn’t it be better if, on a sunny day, you weren’t put off taking a bike to work for a change because of a perceived danger? It’s about giving the options, not taking them away. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an incentive for your employer to allow you to work at home? Do we really ALL need to make the journey to work at the same time? Without a pricing mechanism which captures at least some of the externalites, you will not have the most efficient use of resources, and we’re all poorer for it.

Finally, and much more broadly, we have the wrong basis for taxation. Why do we tax jobs, leading to fewer jobs; why tax profits, we want more; why not tax externalities instead? Pigovian taxes make more sense than income taxes because the tax can create a positive outcome in more efficient useage of resources. Wouldn’t that make sense?

24 replies
  1. Obnoxio The Clown
    Obnoxio The Clown says:

    "The govt has a role in providing safe alternatives"

    So, after 100 years of the govt picking winners (cars) to the detriment of all else, you now think they can do a better job if they just take your advice?

  2. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Obnoxio. It's not about "taking my advice". It's about attempting to get a market for road space, which will lead to a more optimal use of resources than flat-charging, represented by the fuel tax.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I've just been into town and back on the bus.

    On the inbound leg the bus was held up behind five cars because the 'bus gate' traffic light was red. Strange? There are only six buses an hour and I was on 'it' so what was up? A cyclist had chosen to use the bus lane and had tripped it. One cyclist, 400 yards of road space. Eventually the bus caught up with our hero of the road, who proceeded to check our journey four more times as he hogged the bus lane. Finally he became a wheeled pedestrian to avoid the one way system and we didn't see him again.

    Walking through town I had to use the roadway because the pavement was blocked by a nest of bikes lashed to street furniture outside the railway station.

    On the return trip we travelled at about 2 mph for a good half mile, because a lycra lout thought the bus lane was reserved for him. Plenty of 'externalities' there not being paid for!

    Get these 19th century contraptions off the metalled road and OFF the pavements!

  4. matt
    matt says:

    Think it was Reagan who said of governments economic view. 'If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.'

    still applies i think

  5. matt
    matt says:

    wtf, how can a bicycle 'hog' an entire bus lane. Blame planners if that is the case, ditto for train stations. 2mph???? slower than walking therefore b@@@s@@@t

    what a prick

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I've got an idea, since you don't have any actual stake in this entire conversation …

    quote:"Can we really go on sitting in traffic for hours (when I say "we", I mean "you". I'm long-gone)?"

    … why don't you leave your ideas for increasing taxes on motorists even fucking more at the fucking door mate?

  7. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Anon. Seeing as you clearly didn't read the bit about CUTTING the cost of motoring outside rush hour, you're clearly too stupid to understand the post.

    Please fuck off until you can walk and chew gum at the same time. There's a good chap.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    But considering that there are alternatives to the car at the moment, and that people are choosing to ignore tham and stay in their cars despite the congestion and the cost, surely the market has spoken.


    Mr. Pants.

  9. Mark
    Mark says:

    The war on the motorist is real, very real. But you don't agree so there's nothing to be gained from arguing that particular point further.

    However, I would question the use of the word "market" in this context, because I'm not quite sure where the "market" is. You can certainly decree "prices" (i.e. taxes) but how do you know how much to charge to reduce traffic by X?

    X of course, will need to cover the requisite army of enfocing prodnoses and legions of managers and consultants – plus pensions, perks, probably vitally necessary cars for a few etc. And like all good capitalists I'm sure they will factor in sufficient "profit" as well to cover all the other vital services we (i.e. they) can't live without.

    If you start interfering surely its not a market any more?

    Fuel tax a flat tax? Come on, how much you pay depends on the size of your car and how far you drive.

  10. Single acts of tyranny
    Single acts of tyranny says:

    Well this was a bit of a mixed bag. I cringe when I hear someone start talking about externalities. Usually it just means the person talking conflating something they really hate with something they dislike and caling for taxes or bans accordingly.

    And this whole "the government should provide alternatives" stuff. Really? Isn't all government action coercive theft of one jind or another and buses can never be as convenient as cars, as you surely must know. apart from anything else, you don't end up sitting next to someone aggressive, insane, smelly, fat etc etc.

    Also, road building has been more or less abandoned in recent years and now everyone is all shocked and stunned that the roads are becoming more clogged. The 'argument' went, if you build more roads, people just use them and thus you are stimulating traffic. This radical misunderstanding if the nature of demand gained purchase. That and Swampy and his mates at the Newbury bypass making utter cunts of themselves adding vastly to the costs.

    But road pricing is sane enough in theory. It makes a lot of sense to price roads more expensively at rush hour and make them much cheaper thereafter. Two major problems however. First, you know that thieving governments would just jack up the costs to collect revenue and not to price roads in such a way as to optimise traffic flow. Second, if it is done via GPS tracking of cars (and I am note sure this government computer system would be a triumph), the government knows where you go, every second of every day!

    Thanks but I will stick with my traffic jams.

  11. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Single acts of Tyranny.

    "the government should provide alternatives" stuff. Really? Isn't all government action coercive theft …" You distrust government SO MUCH that you'll only let them build roads, not cycle paths?

    Odd. And if I may say, selfish.

    Totally with you on road pricing. I am against GPS based methods. However cars are stationary 95% of the time. Parking is a good way to capture the same effect, without the surveillance.

    I am not against roads. By-passes make sense. No town should have to suffer through traffic, and no through traffic should have to suffer towns – everyone wins.

    The whole point I am trying to get accross to the Motoring libertarians who mostly read me is a cycle lane or bus benefits the car, mainly because it's fewer cars on the road.

    IF people can be persuaded to try making some short trips by bike, congestion will ease (plus a whole host of other benefits). That ain't going to happen with current road design which is usually unbelieveably hostile to all but the most aggressive cyclist (like me).

  12. Simon Jester
    Simon Jester says:

    "England (see comments) is the world's 3rd most densely populated country"

    England is more densely populated than Japan, but would be about 30th on that Wikipedia list. It depends on how you define a microstate, but a number of other countries that can't possibly be considered such are ranked higher, including South Korea, Bangladesh and Taiwan.

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    "you clearly didn't read the bit about CUTTING the cost of motoring outside rush hour"

    yes Jack, I did read the post, but cutting the cost of motoring when noone wants to bloody motor ain't much help is it?

    so whilst your idea may sound wonderful to a non bloody motorist, perhaps in reality it aint much bloody use to anyone except the exchequer, mhhhmmm?

  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    My hometown is well provided with safe cycle lanes, seperated from the footpaths and the road carriageways. All paid for by the local council tax payers.
    You might think cyclists would be glad of this, and makes use of the cycle tracks. A minority do. The majority ignore the designated tracks and ride on the main roadway, causing problems for motorists, or on the pavements causing danger and injuries to pedestrians. I now regard most cyclists as anti-social, irresponsible yobs.

  15. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Monty. I don't cycle on the pavement, and most people who do are scum.

    As for the generous provision in your home town, most cycle tracks in this country are either painted onto the edge of the road, and are usually full of parked cars, or take you past parked cars (in the much-feared "door-zone") and are therefore ignored by experienced cyclists as abso-fucking-lutely lethal.

    These white lines painted on the side of the lines are rarely wide enough, and merely encourage motorists to think "cyclist in his place" allowing them to squeeze past.

    If the cycle lanes you believe are part of reasonable provision are off road, they are usually shared with pedestrians, and are abso-fucking-lutely impossible to navigate because pedestrians don't stay in "their" half.

    In the extremely rare event that the cycle infrastructure is of high quality, it doesn't go anywhere.

    Crap cycle infrastructure is worse than none. And almost all the cycle infrastructure in the UK is utter crap.

    Try to put yourself in the cyclist's shoes, and work out WHY they do what they do. It's usually (and this includes running the occasional red-light, and "hogging the lane") because of safety.

  16. Weekend Yachtsman
    Weekend Yachtsman says:

    No complaints with most of this, for once 😉

    Couple of thoughts though:

    1. Usage-based road pricing, if it's to be regarded as fair, needs to be instead of the existing tax regime, not as well as. Just bumping the price of fuel, and abolishing vehicle excise duty, would do the trick; it would also discriminate against gas-guzzlers, avoid the surveillance issue, and be very hard to avoid.

    2. Cycling as an alternative, is only useful for the young and fit, and for those who live in equable climates – ie, not Scotland or the NW of England or Northern Ireland.

    3. For conventional public transport (buses and trains) to be acceptable, it needs better policing (or nicer people!). If the average punter has to put up with uncontrolled drunks/loonies/neds/football fans they're just not going to bother.

  17. Claude Butler
    Claude Butler says:

    Oh what a good idea lets live in the 19th century. Stop making a twat of youself Jackart we know you like cycling and 99% of the population doesn't. Get over it or move to Sark.


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