Nissan QashQai

One of the benefits of car-free living is that because I hire a car every couple of weeks for the small number of journeys which can’t be achieved by rail or bicycle. I drive lots of new, mid-priced saloons. This means A Very British Dude is an excellent place to read a car review, by someone who hates driving, yet has plenty of experience of driving lots of different cars. What’s the point of reading a review by a driving enthusiast, if you’re not?

LinkI was disapointed when the guy at Luton Airport Hertz handed over the keys to a car advertised like a training shoe, in the “crossover” category. Basically this means it’s a Hatchback, designed to look like a 4×4 to give suburban mums a feeling of superiority from an elevated driving position, and the completely misguided feeling of safety and invincibility this brings. In short, exactly the kind of car I loathe, driven by tosspots I detest. A Nissan QashQai. Specifically a 1.6 litre, 5 door ntec+ version. However. For a country road shlepp on a wet bank holiday weekend, with toddlers and a bicycle, the car made sense.

It would take my canoe, if needed. (My standard measure of “big enough”). The seats folded flat very simply. The interior was well thought out, without stupid cubby holes, but instead well thought out stowage. Nowhere to put a mobile phone though which seems odd for a car so well set up. The rear visibility was dreadful with small windows leaving enormous blind-spots. This was only partially offset by a rear reversing camera, a toy I can’t see myself trusting.

So, what was my toss-pot wagon like to drive? There was no obvious hostility from other road-users compared to the BMW I hired recently (but don’t like to talk about). There were no rattles and shakes, and the whole car had a feeling of being well put together, justifying Sunderland’s reputation as an efficient car-plant. The road-holding was excellent, the ride was comfortable, the stereo was easy to use, and gave good quality sound. Radio 3 was playing music written before 1800 (no dischordant modernist nonsense) so when the M1 traffic slowed, I took the next junction and went cross country. Off the motorway, I found myself actually enjoying driving the bloody thing, pootling back across Bedfordshire, I saw the point of built in sat-nav, having never used a car so equipped before. So having already left the motorway, instead of taking the quicker A road route, I took the shorter, but slower twisty route through the villages.

The car cruises down a motorway or along an A-road pretty smoothly, but in the country, the engine was strangely gutless, and the gear-box was sloppy. But despite this, I liked the car. If you gave it enough revs, it was nippy enough. The elevated driving postition had surprisingly little effect on handling in the corners and I found myself chucking it into the bends with a bit of abandon. I may even have turned the traction control off.

I averaged 36.8 miles per Gallon, without driving like a pensioner. Funnily enough, this was absolutely identical to the milage I got for the same journey with a Fiat Stilo 1.2, which makes a mockery of the Government’s CO2 emissions banding for VED. £16 Grand will buy you a bottom of the range model QashQai, however I would go for a 2-litre engine and leather seats of the Tenka Trim, which will take the price well over £22,000.

This is a lot of money for a car which makes you look like a tosspot whose husband can’t afford the BMW X5 you really wanted, for which you’re having an affair with the Golf-pro. Which is a shame, because it’s actually a pretty decent little car.

Would I buy one? Probably not. But if you want one, you can spec it here but if I was in the market for a £22,000 skate shoe Nissan would have lost a sale for their shitty flash, which twice crashed my computer.

Road Pricing by Fuel Duty Rebate.

I’ve long argued the roads are mis-priced. For much of a 24 hour period, roads are underused, and therefore probably overpriced. For 4 hours a day there’s gridlock in every town, and for most of the period 9:15am to 16:00, the roads are full, but flowing and therefore the price is about right. The Government’s main means of pricing the roads is Fuel Duty.

I’ve also opposed GPS-based road-pricing systems for privacy reasons. But I believe people should pay a market rate for services used, especially scarce ones like urban road space.

Given that most of the noise about fuel taxes are coming from Hauliers, whose vans lorries are responsible for much congestion, especially when unloading in town centres, there is an opportunity to make the roads run more efficiently by getting hauliers to move stuff at night.

Hauliers operating vehicles of more than 3.5 tonnes must already log driver’s hours. There’s no reason why the same tachograph systems couldn’t be used to log fuel used as well, in order to secure a rebate (say 50% for the sake of argument) on fuel used at night.

If successful, Why not extend this? Everyone, not just professional hauliers could have the option to drive at night or get to the office extra-early, and save money by doing so. The Government would not be intruding, but by demonstrating which bits of your driving were at “off peak hours” the Government should refund some of its overcharge as a rebate. Let’s see if people take it, and we can then see the true price of people’s driving preferences.

Pigouvian Taxation, Externalities and Markets.

Tim Worstall, Writing at the ASI makes an interesting point about Pigouvian taxation. Namely that politicains will see them as a source of revenue rather than simply trying to disinterestedly find the level of Externalities to build into the price.

And I’m afraid that the more we see of entirely righteous Pigou Taxes the more we see of this behaviour. I pointed out in these very pages some years back that if we applied the Stern Review to petrol taxation then fuel duty should fall by 12 p a litre: since then it has risen another 5 or 6 p still using Stern as the justification. Air Passenger Duty was set (amazingly, by Gordon Brown) at the Stern level of some $80 per tonne Co2-e: it has been doubled at least since then purely for revenue purposes.

Of course that’s the “pigouvian” element of these taxes. But many taxes, such as land value and fuel duties are not just pigouvian searches for the correct price for the externalities. In the case of APD and Fuel, this “externality” is the price of climate change caused by CO2, but They are also part of the system of taxes which set the price on the use of a scarce resource: Road and Air space. Here the “correct” price is whatever the market will bear to ensure the (for example) roads run full, but not congested. So it’s possible to argue that road space (as priced by fuel duty) is too expensive for 12 hours a day (overnight when the roads are empty), far too cheap for 4 hours a day, and about right for the rest of the time when the road flow is high but laminar.

Taxation can be used to ensure a more efficient use of a scarce resource. A tax on the value of a property for example, will provide an incentive to buy a house no bigger than you need, encouraging Granny to move out of her 4 bedroom house earlier than she may have done, increasing supply for those who may well value these scarce properties more: Families with children.

There are NO upsides to income taxation. Given that the money needs to be raised somehow, wouldn’t it be better if our taxes helped ensure assets were used more efficiently? These are also taxes that can be avoided by changing behaviour, which makes it harder for a Chancellor to take a higher share of the national pie than people are comfortable with. Income taxes are an unavoidable punch in the face. A pound raised from pigouvian tax, even a tax set at too high a level is better than one on income or corporate profits, that reduces the supply of jobs.

Finally, the very fact that these taxes are deeply unpopular is a good thing. It is harder politically for the Chancellor to screw more out of drivers than he is doing. However he is under constant pressure to increase taxes on “the rich” (i.e. people other than “me”). If the basis of taxation moved towards consumption, the chancellor, rather than finding it easier to raise money and spend more, will find it harder as people change behaviour to avoid the tax, and agitate against it if they can’t.

Tell me that’s a bad thing.

Traffic and why “I Hate Cyclists”

Why do cyclists evoke such strong feelings from some drivers?

It’s not that cyclists behave dangerously. On any objective measure, cyclists are far, far less dangerous to other road users than cars. According to one study, In over 90% of the cases of death or serious injury to cyclists investigated in Toronto, the motorist was at fault, not the cyclist. Cyclists kill pedestrians substantially never, and when they do, it makes national news. It’s not that cyclists hold the traffic up. Compared to the endless queues caused by other cars, cyclists rarely cause any problems. It’s not that cyclists disobey the law more than drivers; other motorists routinely break speed limits, run red lights (motorists tend to do this as the lights are changing to red, rather than going early), and park illegally. Cars, not cyclists are the major cause of death in healthy people in the developed world. Yet the risks posed by cars to their occupants and everyone else are accepted, yet people seriously talk about compelling cyclists to wear helmets, something which would save few, if any lives.

So what is the reason for the extreme hostility cyclists experience? Ultimately it’s down to a series of subliminal messages experiences noted by a motorist’s hind-brain causing instinctive reactions that young, stupid, low-status men driving shitty cars in particular (as well as the kind of arsehole who thinks buying a BMW is something other than the behaviour of a cunt) are ill-equipped to handle.

First, there is a lack of understanding. Few people cycle. The laws of the road, and indeed the roads themselves are designed by drivers of cars, for drivers of cars. Other car drivers’ actions can be understood in context. Cyclists’ actions are not so comprehensible: nipping in and out of stationary or slow moving traffic for example, seems a LOT more dangerous to someone sitting in a car than it does or is from the point of view of someone on a bike. Ditto going through a light on red, when it’s safe to do so. A motorist understands and condones the “amber gambler”, but not the guy on the bike going through the crossroad during the pedestrian phase (obviously, without getting in the way of pedestrians of which there are often none). If more people cycled, more motorists would understand what cyclists are doing and why. Usually they’re getting out of the way of several tons of angry steel.

Cyclists flash through motorists vision. Objects, road markings, for example move across a motorists vision at “human” speeds, and they do so by design. The dashed white line on the motorway moves across a driver’s retina at the same speed as a human running towards you ten yards away. Other cars move towards you on the other side of the road rather slowly, before almost instantaneously accelerating through your peripheral vision and vanishing. Cars ahead and behind going the same way are almost stationary. Cyclists, pretty much are the only things which move faster than this relative to the driver. When passing a cyclist at speed, the car flashes past at relative speeds of up to 50mph. When a car is in traffic, stationary, cyclists flash past close to the driver at 15-25mph, often crossing the stationary motorists’ vision, unexpectedly and from behind, without aural warning. This causes involuntary endocrine reactions in the driver, increasing stress and reinforcing a subliminal message: cyclists are dangerous. This reinforces point one. This is also true of pedestrian’s reaction to cyclists.

Cyclists are people, and this is obvious to the subconscious, as well as the conscious brain. Cars, on the other hand depersonalise the person within. Look at the language used when discussing traffic. Often people will talk about the CAR doing x,y or z. Whereas people talk about the CYCLIST doing a,b or c. Cars are impersonal objects. Cyclists are people. When a slow driver holds someone up, it’s not subliminally felt as SOMEONE deliberately getting in your way, but as SOMETHING. A cyclist is a person, therefore when inconveniencing a driver, (however mildly) it’s taken more personally than when a mere object does so.

Finally, there is a message delivered by the very obviously human cyclist holding you up: He’s probably pointing his arse directly at you, perceived by the hind-brain, subliminally not consciously, as an extremely hostile act. Riders of upright bicycles report far fewer hostile interactions than those of racing or mountain bikes where the handlebars are lower than the saddle. Cyclists don’t mean to do this. It’s just a function of wind resistance!

The motorist is not consciously aware of these subliminal signals, but feels much more hostility towards cyclists as a result of the subconscious interactions and the result is the almost daily threats the cyclist experiences.

People are simply not designed to drive. Our lizard-brains simply can’t cope. The road environment and the cars on it have been made forgiving to the inadequacies of people driving cars, but it is something no-one can do successfully. Don’t believe me? Ask the insurance industry. Racing drivers, those who ACTUALLY can control a car better than anyone else are not considered a good risk. People tend to compensate for extra safety features in their car or any extra skill, by taking more risks. The risks are most keenly felt by people without a ton and a half of steel wrapped around them.

Ultimately, the feedback loop doesn’t work. Every journey completed without incident may be one in which you discombobulated another road user without knowing it, leaving no opportunity to learn from mistakes you never knew you made. Every “close call” noticed, on the other hand results in self-congratulation about an accident nearly avoided. This creates the belief common to all drivers that they are more skillful than they really are.

Sooner or later, cars will drive themselves and the problem will be moot. But until then, if you drive, assume you’re an idiot, barely capable of the task you’ve set yourself and drive accordingly. Drive like you’re drunk and there’s a police-car behind you. And if you’re not a motorist, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Either way, read this: Traffic, why we drive the way we do, and what it says about us. Tom Vanderbilt is not responsible for the theories about cars vs cyclists, I am. These are just the thoughts I had when reading his excellent book and extensions and extrapolations to the central thesis. He is more interested in the theory of traffic congestion, but his book will hopefully make more humble drivers of us all. It is a more fascinating read than it should be.

Cycle Safe

Today’s cycle-safe debate in parliament was attended by 75 MPs, not alas, mine. He was speaking to a handful in the main chamber on pensions.

So. Basically, everyone agrees with the Times’ campaign. Labour’s shadow transport minister basically laid out a list of cyclists’ demands. Of course she did, Labour can’t see a bandwagon without jumping on it. There was however one key concession mentioned by the minister for cycling (I did not know we had one). Cyclists are to be written into road design criteria.

That’s where campaigners have to focus. If we can get every junction, and where possible & appropriate every road, redesigned for safety for all road users, as and when they’re maintained, then in 10 years we will have a network to be proud of. Even transport for London are starting to take notice. There’s clear political momentum. Unfortunately, my experience of Tory councillors in particular is one of visceral, tribal, savage loathing of cyclists. Cyclists, you see are assumed to be Liberal Democrats.

Thankfully the biggest win of today (and it’s not much) is that the idea that Cycling is a fringe activity, for weird beards in sandals, with thermos’ of nettle tea, is a thing of the past. There was no money. Did anyone expect there to be, at this stage, in this economic environment?

London’s Brave New Cycling World. Will I Like It?

Dutch-style cycle infrastructure is on the way to London. It’ll be half-arsed at first but we’ll get there in the end. Making cycling a viable transport option’s got a kind of political inevitability, like smoking bans and compulsory “traffic light” badges on food, because cycling has developed a lobby, which is growing in power. (As I am talking about politics, whether it’s RIGHT is utterly irrelevant). I can see politicians being brow-beaten into jumping on the cycling band-wagon, and this is good. This post by “As easy as riding a bike” shows how the new infrastructure works. Bikes cross junctions on their own phase, without control, then when they’re out of the way, the Cars go. It’s all very Ernest, but one comment…

This may, of course, be more problematic with higher pedestrian movements, or with rather less civilised cycling behaviour…

… got me thinking. Herein lies the problem: The Current British cycling culture. I left London 6 years ago, when cycling for transport was very much a minority pursuit. As a result, I am conditiononed to be hyper-aware, and hyper-aggressive in traffic, because that’s what you needed to stay alive back then. Red Lights – pah! Much more important to get out the way. Cars – the enemy, who will be smashed for the slightest transgression. Helmets – for the weak. High Viz – symbol of supplication to the God car, and evil. In short, on the road, I have developed a War-zone mentality.

Will I use the new infrastructure when it’s built? I don’t use the cycle lane between Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road, though it’s the only near-Dutch standard infrastructure around. Why not? Because I know the road and it’s users and much as I fear a car, I can predict a car’s movements in a way you can’t predict the movement of an immigrant on a Halford’s cheapo, or tourist on a Boris Bike. Years of conditioning have got me bum up, head down, sprinting to keep up with the cars, I become as one, and I rather like it. I imagine new cyclists will start in on the bike lane, and some of the fastest and strongest will join me on the road. As I get older and slower and buy a Pashley, I may find myself pootling down the bike lane, as I do when I find myself on a Boris bike (which I suspect are made of the same stuff found in the core of impacted stars). But as it is, the smell of diesel fumes brings out the competitive, aggressive road warrior in me. It’s not just me, the Mayor is another paid-up member of the “muscular commuter” tribe, who regarded the daily dicing with death as merely adding spice to life. How did he describe navigating Euston circus underpass, or Elephant & castle roundabout?

“OK if you’re confident…”

Of course, it’s people like me & Boris who have put of the old and the young, the women, the parent off cycling. You have to be young, strong, fit and confident to be a “vehicular cyclist”. We’ve enabled road engineers to ignore cyclists by finding a way through the streets. We give the APPEARANCE to politicians, that cycling is an option to people aged 8 to 80, when it isn’t. Things which appear to the uninitiated as reckless were merely survival techniques as we navigated roads designed without a thought to the cycle, but this enabled to blame the victim when cyclists get killed (90% of fatalities are the Motorist’s fault). For example, I actively sought out the most congested routes on the basis that a stationary car can’t kill you.

Lots of new cyclists have joined the ranks since then, hordes of us now swarm up and down Old Street every day. And the future is clear – London, will become a cycling city and the rest of the country will follow (and be much better off for it). The newbies politely stop at red lights and pootle along, in the door-zone cycle lane thoughtfully provided by a road engineer who’s probably never ridden a bike in 30 years. These new cyclists, trusting in the magic blue or red paint are oblivious to the danger of going inside a lorry, up the carelessly placed filter lane, to the Advanced Stop Line, where you wait, to be passed by a driver at his most careless and stressed. I feel safer in the traffic, occupying a primary position (known as “in the way” to a motorist) and where possible a long way down the road when the lights change. However London, broadly lets the new cyclist get away with stuff I’d never dreamed of doing when I lived there, because transport cycling is becoming mainstream and even idiot occupiers of angst-boxes are looking out for people on bikes. Most of the time.

Are we vehicular cyclists going to be an anachronism? An de-mobbed, away from the cars, and into the cycle lane. We’ll be safe, but will we be missing the action & danger. Will I cope in the bright, shiny, new, safer, more polite world, for which we cycling activists have been agitating for decades, but which will mean, in practice, waiting patiently behind someone dawdling along on an upright? Is it hyperbole to think of General MacArthur’s “Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away“.

High Speed 2

What is the point?

The problem is one of capacity on the railways, something that could be most easily solved by longer platforms and longer trains, not speed.

Indeed the evidence suggests that the speed INCREASES the economic dominance of London, and rather than increasing the supply of Jobs in the cities it serves, may see even more of the UK’s economic output originate in London.

The economic benefits of shorter journey times are overstated, mainly because people can work on trains.

If HS1 is anything to go by, most people use the slow line, with only those on expenses using the high speed line. This is the market signalling how much value people put on a short journey time – they’ll take it, but only if they’re not paying for it. I can only add my own feelings on this: what matters is few changes. When you’re on a train, you can relax with a book, or do some work. It doesn’t really matter if the journey is 45 minutes or an hour and a half.

Of course commuters place a much higher value on time than the occasional business or leisure traveller. Which is why High Speed trains drain economic potential out of the regions: people can commute into London from farther away.

The money would be better spent upgrading existing track, rather than on a massive vanity project. But politicians like to cut ribbons on shiny new toys. A longer platform in Stevenage is more use, but less glamorous a photo-op.

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?

BBC complaint

Thinking Streets” was broadcast 3/1/12 21:00 and re-broadcast 15:30 4/1/12. I submitted the following comment.

In the opening vox-pop, two people openly said they would like to kill cyclists. I understand in the context of the program that this was to set up an idea that some think the roads are a “war zone”, but I can think of no other class of people against whom such a threat would be broadcast on the BBC.

I was deliberately knocked off my bike by a road-rage driver, who fled the scene. Despite a positive ID, he was never prosecuted. These attitudes are common. Your broadcast gives the impression they are acceptable. This is irresponsible.

Otherwise the program was interesting and engaging, though I disagree with your charicterisation of shared space as being common in the Netherlands. It isn’t. The Dutch seperate their traffic, with high quality, seperate cycle paths with ‘shared space’ in only a few small urban areas.

Let’s see what happens.

“Provide Parking!”?

The simple solution to the death of the high street touted by Internet bores* but barely mentioned by “TV retail Expert, Mary Portas”, in her recent report is free parking. Portas focuses instead on silly “use-category” legislation and other red-tape, while suggesting the high street must adapt to an environment where Online becomes the dominant channel, perhaps by allowing retail to retreat to a “core” town-centre, allowing shops to be converted into homes on the edge of the CBD.

I have had many arguments online, but none more heated, vicious and personal than when trying to get car-owners to admit to the externalities caused by car ownership. Any attempt to make the motorist pay for these externalities (most of which, such as congestion, only affect other motorists), is seen as an evil attack by shadowy forces in the “war on the motorist” or a “nudge” and therefore an anathema to the “Libertarian”. It isn’t a nudge, but just an attempt to get a market solution (something libertarians are supposed to support) to the problem of insufficient capacity on the roads. Motorists just can’t accept that even as expensive as it is now, the Car is ridiculously heavilly subsidised, and few if any externalites are charged at anything like their true cost. By far the most obvious and pressing is the issue of town-centre parking.

Why don’t councils simply provide more parking spaces? Well land is costly, and motorists are unwilling to move more than about 200m (in practice it’s often more like 50m) from their car. In fact, they want to park directly outside the shop, and they don’t want to pay for it. Yet parking spaces are extraordinarily expensive: several tens of thousands per space at ground level, more above ground, and hundreds of thousands per space below. Put the demand for free parking another way: motorists want to enjoy exclusive access to a piece of town-centre land with hugely expensive, single use, physically ugly infrastructure, for “free”. Of course, by “free” motorists mean they expect the retailer to pay for the pleasure of the motorists’ custom by providing these facilities out of their profit margin.

This is why councils are keen on Park & Ride. Land is cheap on the edge of town and a shuttle bus is cheap to provide. Generally speaking, given the amount of time spent circulating to find a space, most motorists would be better off driving to a park and ride and taking the bus. The problem is motorists hate being more than 200m from their car. Time spent looking for a space is ignored. Time spent on the bus isn’t (perhaps with good reason). Even if successful in the search for a space, you’re still imposing costs on others. The externality of parking outside a shop is to be found in the prevention of someone else doing so, and in the increased congestion as that person then circulates to find another parking space.

I wonder whether a variable pricing solution has any merit. Basically parking spaces should be costed on the number of free spaces in the immediate environs. If there are lots of spaces free on the street, or on that section of car-park, the price falls. If there are few free spaces, if you want to park at the supermarket’s front door, or take the last bay on a street for example, you pay much more. Set the algorithm, and let the punters decide. I would always park where it was cheapest. This could also be viewed as an efficient fat-tax as the obese always fight hardest for the most convenient spots for them to waddle fatly towards their doughnut emporium.

This is, of course a “nudge” and therefore unacceptable. Only providing what the motorist wants, free of charge (they pay “road tax” don’t you know?) is acceptable. Of course a retailer, who has to pay rents on the shop and rates for all that “free” parking, passes it back onto the customer in the form of higher ticket prices on the goods he sells. In response the motorist enjoys shopping as a leisure activity, browses the goods, has a coffee, and then goes home and buys whatever it was he was looking for, online. Thus the Motorists’ demand for free parking is contributing to the coming dominance of online retail.

The other reason that councils don’t provide unlimited free parking is that were they to do so, life would be made unbearable by congestion, as everyone wants to use the facilities at the same time. Roads have limited capacity and cannot get the people who want to park to and from their spots sufficiently smoothly. There’s a balance between road capacity and parking provision – there’s no point increasing parking capacity beyond that of the roads to sustain it. That capacity is limited by pinch-points, which in urban areas are often medieval centres with narrow streets. no-one is suggesting turning Cambridge into Milton Keynes are they?

Larger big-box stores will continue to carry the cost of high-street locations, but accept they will be mere show-rooms for delivery or eventual online order. The Greengrocer, butcher & fishmonger were killed by the supermarket, who provide the same service, cheaper and more conveniently. The town-centre shop is going to be (broadly) killed by the website. Just as there are a few butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers left, catering to a niche of foodies who demand extremely high quality and value the personal touch, it seems likely that the retail industry will be dominated by out-of-town for those who demand to drive, relegating the High-Street to specialist shops, many of which will operate significant online businesses. Here, e-bay is the shopkeeper’s friend, and the catchement area of the shop is expanded by the Internet. Ultimately, the High street will become a leisure and social destination dominated by specialist shops with wide catchement areas, often locaed in clusters, coffee, alcohol, food, and possibly entertainment and culture rather than retail. It will be up to imaginative town councils to find a way to keep the whole thing alive. Portas is right. Cutting the red-tape, expanding markets, and altering use rules to make them more flexible is a better solution than concreting over more of the countryside, or building more multi-storey car-parks.

Research suggests that retailers consistently over-estimate the importance of motorists and parking to their turnover, and underestimate the importance of users of other forms of transport. In particular, Motorists don’t spend any more than other customers, but they prevent users of other forms of transport getting to the shop, which could generate higher traffic. The fact you can park a dozen bicycles outside a shop more than makes up for any lost revenue due to “anti-motorist” policies such as pedestrianisation or shared-space schemes. Users of public transport, Cyclists and pedestrians can also enjoy a drink with their retail-therapy, motorists can’t.

The fact is the demise of Town-Centres as retail dominated spaces is absolutely inevitable unless people can be persuaded to get more than 200m from their car. If you value the high-street, as most people claim to do, you have to use it, and pay to park your car. (Or take a bicycle). Me? I’m not fussed. I like the Internet and never saw shopping as a leisure activity. I find ‘poundland’ which appears to be replacing Woolworths on in every town-centre depressing, but that’s a mere statement of taste. Meh.

*I am aware of the crashing hypocrisy.