Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Cardiff Council considering congestion charging

(No I didn't simply try to create alliteration)

I wrote last year about a proposal from the Cardiff Civic Society for the Welsh capital to introduce congestion pricing, and I believed it was highly unlikely.  Indeed, beyond London, attempts to introduce congestion charging in other UK cities (notably Edinburgh and Manchester) have floundered due to widespread opposition (excluding the tiny Durham charge which is about protecting the small historic centre).   Cardiff will face the same issues of public acceptability.

Wales Online reports that Cardiff City Councillor Ralph Cook has said that Council officers have been asked to examine the merits of the idea.

The report indicates that a Cardiff congestion charge is likely to only apply at peak times and he is promoting the idea of only charging "out of town" motorists, suggesting a rather large cordon surrounding the city to capture long distance commuters. 

The purpose of the charge is apparently open, with one suggestion that it could help pay for maintaining the road network (which would mean a reduction in council tax (a tax on residents)) or pay for improved public transport.   Frankly, I think this is at the crux of the issue of public support.   

The biggest issue for most people facing congestion charging is "what am I paying for".  Toll roads that are new are accepted because they are new and motorists perceive they are using what they are paying for.   However, charging existing roads is problematic.  Giving Cardiff residents a cut in other taxes would make a big difference.

The politics are curious.  In the local elections a few months ago the Labour Party won back control of Cardiff Council from the Liberal Democrats.  Labour is promoting the idea, but the Liberal Democrats oppose it, even though the Liberal Democrats tend to be seen as the most pro-environment, pro-public transport and anti-car (the central government manifesto in 2010 pushed for a big cut in road spending to be redirected to public transport). 

Opposition is based on two points:
-  Local businesses will be harmed; and
-  Public transport isn't good enough as an alternative (an argument that is floated more often than it is valid).

A further report from Wales Online quotes "Professor Stuart Cole, from the University of Glamorgan’s Transport Centre".  He claims that it "wont work" without public transport, and that it can't be justified for revenue alone.  He also says that it would otherwise push employment to Swindon and Bristol and other cities on the main M4 motorway corridor towards London.


In itself, if it is imposed as an additional charge, he has a point.  The likelihood is that Cardiff will be seen as less attractive, especially if the money raised does not go into improving the highway network in ways that offset it.  The big risk for any city introducing congestion pricing is perception, rather than reality.  Yet of course it could raise more revenue and reduce congestion.  The goals are not mutually exclusive, rather they affect the level of pricing.  Revenue maximisation and traffic flow optimisation levels are unlikely to be the same. 

However, will it not work without more public transport?  Well this is an oft-repeated claim, because it is believed that those deterred from driving must all shift onto public transport.  This simply isn't true.   It remains a serious myth that those who used to drive into central London now mostly ride the bus.   This notion is patently absurd, as the sheer cost of parking in central London was such that it is highly unlikely that the demographic who drove would choose to ride on buses, which are significantly slower than driving.

According to research by Transport for London, what happens is more complex (see Table A.2).

Around 54% of motorists shifted to public transport, but 8% shifted to active modes, taxis or sharing rides with others.  Around 23% diverted their trips to avoid the charging area (using ring roads rather than cutting through centres).  Another 8% simply drove less frequently (took less trips) and 7% drove at different times.

A peak time only scheme is more likely to significantly increase the change in travel times.  For public transport, with congestion charging there would be more road space for buses, and the demand for private and the Council owned commercial Cardiff Bus operation to expand services.  Cardiff's suburban commuter rail service is already earmarked to be electrified in the next decade or so, providing ample scope for additional capacity.  

Yet there is unlikely to be much support from the public.  A local TV news bulletin indicates a great deal of scepticism. Certainly without either promising better roads or reduced other taxes, it is unlikely most motorists would support it.


Whether or not Cardiff benefits from a congestion charge depends on:

The design of the scheme:  The more likely it targets congestion where and when it happens, rather than be a blanket simple charge, the more likely it is to improve the city's competitiveness;
What is done with the money:  A significant proportion of any revenue either needs to go on improved roads or is recycled into council tax cuts.

A badly designed scheme used to direct revenue into politically totemic transport projects is unlikely to improve the competitiveness of the Cardiff economy, but a tightly defined one that is used to reduce other taxes or spend on long deferred (objectively) high value transport projects may do so.

 To do that, it actually needs to reflect on the experiences of more cities than London.

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