Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The "war on cars is winnable" doesn't need to be "a war"

An interesting, but lengthy article by Carlin Carr on a Scroll.In website puts forward the case for how cities can avoid being heavily congested by cars, and makes some valid points.

For Japan, yes here is a country with dense rail transport, albeit much in dense cities where such rail is profitable.  This has meant that rail travel is very normal for residents in major cities and between cities, bearing in mind distances between many of the major cities are not large, lending themselves well to fast rail travel.

What missing about the analysis around Japan is two key factors. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which literally monopolised government in Japan until the 1990s) has always been closely aligned to the construction industry, which was largely relaxed as to whether vast amounts of money were poured in roads, railways or airports.  In truth, Japan has overbuilt much of its infrastructure, with there being more than enough road and railway capacity outside metropolitan areas.  While the original Shinkansen lines have demonstrated positive economic results, more recent lines have not, as they simply reflect a belief that building infrastructure is good in itself.  It isn't, and Japan is, in part, paying for this now, with public debt in excess of 200% of GDP, and a stagnant economy.  It's worth noting Japan's railway system is privatised, and has always has an element of competition even before that.  The second point is alluded to in that all major national highways are tolled, and urban routes may also be tolled, but the national highway network is Japan is privately owned (under a PPP lease).  As such, the roads are managed commercially and tolls set to recover maintenance costs and the cost of the lease of the assets, so tolls have to cover costs and generate a return.  Yes the shaken (regular safety inspection and tax) does incentivise lower levels of car ownership, but it also incentivises rapid turnover of the fleet, with old vehicles not remaining in the fleet in large numbers because of the costs of them meeting safety and emissions standards.

Singapore remains the world's most sophisticated example of urban road pricing.  No other city charges by route, direction of travel and time of day with differential pricing based on congestion, and it works very well.  Yet many will point out that Singapore has specific characteristics that make it special.  One is that housing density is high, as a city-state, it is easy to develop the densities of travel that make public transport viable.  Singapore's metro, for example, does not require subsidies for operation and renewals.  Secondly, is that Singapore has a combination of a highly credible judicial system and public bodies for enforcement, and a culture of compliance that means it is easier to implement such a radical solution in the city-state. 

As far as solutions are concerned, there is plenty of merit in developing cities in countries like China and India providing heavily for pedestrians and cyclists, so that these options for short trips remain preferred, and then to focus on enforcing parking laws and in rationing parking by price.  Beyond that, regardless of whatever planning options are chosen, the future for rationing road space belongs to road pricing.

Of course, to do that requires some key elements to be in place, which includes the ability to robustly track down violators and to enforce violations meaningfully, which isn't always possible in countries where number plates and databases of owner records are haphazard.

However, my main point is that it shouldn't be seen as a "war" on cars.  Cars have a role in cities, it is just about how cities ration precious road space so they pay for it appropriately.  Of course not everyone can use their car at the same time, it's not physically possible and when they try, it creates negative externalities for others.

Rationing road space rationally!

Yet, if you pay to park and pay to use the roads, at a price that ensures an efficient flow of traffic, then it should be fine to use your car.  Disabled motorists might be given preferences or discounts to recognise that alternatives for them may not be viable, but overall the roads can be managed so that, like other scarce resources, their use gets rationed by price.  

The first step to doing this is to ration road use by basic enforcement of requirements around safety - that drivers have licences, that vehicles are safe to be on the roads, and for regular violators of safety related laws to lose licences.  It requires that parking laws be enforced where they interfere with road safety and capacity, but after that a rational approach to rationing road space used for parking and loading should be considered.  Charging for access, time limiting access for loading, setting aside spots for disabled vehicles and bus stops, all of these sound basic to those with well developed highway rules, but need to be the first approach for many developing countries.

Intelligent technology makes dynamic parking charges all the more possible, and from then we go to pricing.  Whether it be tight city centres, or major new capacity, or charging cordons, zones or by distance, it can be introduced in steps, and what it is about, is not just thinking about mode choice but route choice and time of day choice,

No planner can second guess the best option for anyone on a particular trip whether it be for themselves, family or for goods, but by pricing roads and parking rationally, these choices can appear, and can come from either using roads differently, or using other modes.

It's not about a war, it's about applying a rational approach to rationing a scarce economic resource, 

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