Friday 5 August 2011

Cardiff congestion charge? No, not yet

Cardiff in Wales is not typically seen as a large city with a chronic traffic congestion problem. It has a population of around 340,000. The car is the dominant mode, but it does have an extensive bus network and diesel suburban passenger rail system.

However, Wales Online has reported that the Cardiff Civic Society has a long term vision for the city which it claims will make it more desirable. It proposes that central Cardiff be car free and that a congestion charge be imposed over as much as half of the area of metropolitan Cardiff bounded by the city’s bypass roads. It wants the city’s ring road to be finished, a park and ride network to be established and a light rail system. The objective is clearly focused on shifting transport in the city away from cars, but is also concerned about a so-called “zero Carbon” goal of reducing CO2 emissions (quite how it gets to zero is more intriguing).

It is ambitious indeed, it expects a reduction in traffic in the charged area by about 25-30%, dependent in part on improvements to public transport to meet the park and ride system. The assumption is clearly based on the reductions in car traffic experienced at the start of the London congestion charge, so would need some more thought.

Responses have been mostly negative, as people “don’t understand how it could work” or believe a new road and light rail would relieve congestion anyway. However a former top city planner thinks the ideas are “profoundly thoughtful”.

As much as I am supportive of the ambitious, it is clear this has little political traction in the current economic environment. The Guardian reports that Council Leader Rodney Berman opposes it, largely because it wouldn’t get public support, but also because he believes that “At best these proposals are fanciful, but at worst they could have a disastrous effect on the economic viability of the city centre”. He obviously believes car access is important to the city, and that if it is that severely constrained, it will chase business away. If any charge is introduced as new revenue, without cutting other taxes, he may have a point, particularly in the current climate.

Some details would need to be considered. Firstly, whether the charge is an area charge (meaning all movements within it are charged) or cordon (leaving people within the area to drive as much as the like, as long as they don’t leave), as this will effect whether residents would need a discount (as large areas of suburban Cardiff would be affected). I might dare to say that the proposed idea is far too blunt for Cardiff, and that it may be better to start with such a charge in the area proposed for being car free. That would not make a lot of money, but it would reduce congestion and may prove the concept to locals. Beyond that, and I think a less blunt charge, which may have different zones or charge for distance, may be fairer and more effective.

It could also be more acceptable if there was clarity that net revenues from a congestion charge helped pay for the completion of the ring road, and perhaps offset other taxes.

This blog doesn’t exist to argue about the other transport components of the package, but I will give the Cardiff Civic Society credit for courage. For a UK association to propose congestion charging for a city in the current economic climate, and a political climate so hostile to the idea generally, is brave. Whilst I may argue over the details and may disagree with other parts of the package, it at least shows some strategic thinking about what might be done. However, I doubt Cardiff will see congestion charging for at least another ten years.

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