Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fuel Duty Rise Postponed

You never know where you are with this government. One minute they are sternly soldiering on with dispensing the bitter medicine of austerity, and scolding us that getting the deficit down is the number one priority. But now, less than two months on from the budget, Generous George is cutting fuel duty, and getting the deficit down is - erm - the number two priority. And this is just when the UK's deficit-reduction targets are in danger of being missed due to weak borrowing figures. “We are on the side of working families and businesses," said the Chancellor. The same Chancellor that said in February, "Any tax cut would have to be paid for...what we are not going to do in the Budget is borrow any more money to either increase spending or cut taxes...We can’t have any deficit finance measure in that sense because getting the Budget deficit down which is now happening is an incredibly important part of keeping economic stability in Britain."

So why fuel duty? Why not cut VAT? Fuel duty only helps families who rely mainly on the car to get around. And it helps most those who drive high mileages in big, thirsty cars. In other words, it is regressive. And it conspicuously doesn't help those who have been hit by above-inflation increases in rail and bus fares. Or those who choose more active modes of travel.

What is also curious is the timing. The oil price today is $92/bbl, compared to $125/bbl in April. So the pump price is coming down of its own accord. It would have made a lot more sense to cut duty in April than it does today.

Depending on whose figures you use, this tax cut will cost the government somewhere between £0.5bn and £1.5bn, which will of course be added to the deficit. That, as I've written before, is money that could be spent lessening the nation's dependency on fossil fuels, instead of cementing it in. Increasing active travel would improve health, reducing NHS costs. It would reduce travel costs, thereby increasing the amount of disposable income that families have. The problem with making anything - including motoring - cheaper, is it makes it more attractive. Do we really want to be sending the signal that people should be continuing with their car-dependent lifestyles, secure in the knowledge that the Government will carry on cutting fuel duty in response to the fact that the oil price is going up? The reason the oil price is going up is because we're burning through the world's reserves at an increasing - and unsustainable -  rate. A fuel duty cut might be easier to justify if it were accompanied by measures to reduce oil dependency, but it isn't. Or tax cuts could be targeted in a way that doesn't benefit rich, profligate motorists in gas-guzzling SUVs more than those who drive low-emissions vehichles and do so as sparingly as possible.

Meanwhile, in other news,  a report says that British children are among the unhappiest in the world and "spending too much time sat unsupervised in front of televisions, games consoles and the internet in their bedroom instead of playing outdoors". Goodness me. And I thought kids loved PS3s and the web and all that. “Children are living increasingly sedentary, media-saturated lives and are spending less and less time in contact with the natural world. This is having profound consequences for our children’s health, especially with regard to what has been called the ‘modern epidemic’ of obesity.With increasing fears about traffic and stranger-danger, children’s freedom to play outside has been profoundly restricted and yet statistically the most dangerous place to be is actually in their own home and bedrooms, especially with so many children now having access to unsupervised digital technology." Bedrooms are dangerous? Who'd have thought it? I won't be able to sleep at night for worrying now. Maybe I'll sleep in the garage with my bike instead.

The BBC's response to the fuel duty cut was to go to a petrol station and ask a bunch of motorists what they thought of it. Unsurprisingly, issues such as obesity, oil-dependency, traffic danger, energy security, climate change, square-eyed children or even the need to reduce the deficit didn't come up. Although we don't like to admit it, we're leaving all of that to our children and grandchildren to take care of - and somehow I don't think they'll thank us for leaving them to play computer games in their bedrooms while we screwed up the economy and the planet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Safer Cars and more Dangerous Drivers?

Not many people are old enough to remember when the 70MPH limit was introduced. Casualties on motorways went down by 20% as a result. Motoring groups such as the car manufacturers, AA and RAC tried to campaign against the limit, but it enjoyed public support.

But of course that was in the days when motor vehicle technology was pretty crude. Brakes, tyres and safety systems have improved immeasurably since then. Who would want to go back to the bad old days of mobile deathtraps? Well, according to the Government, old cars aren't as bad as some people think. They've decided to exempt vehicles made before 1960 from the MOT test. That's because while they account for 0.6% of vehicles on the road, they are only involved in 0.03% of casualty incidents. In other words, they are about 20 times less likely to be involved in collisions than modern 'safe' cars. If that's not the definition of irony, I'm not sure what is. Even taking into account that classic vehicles typically drive considerably fewer miles than your average car, that's quite some discrepancy. Could it be that their owners are compensating for their cars' lack of grip, unpredictable handling, vague steering and weak braking by driving more carefully and anticipating better?

All this rather casts doubt on the Government's idea that the 70MPH limit should be raised because vehicle technology has improved since it was introduced. The fact is that while vehicle safety is superior compared with 40 years ago, the technology of the most critical part - the driver - is exactly the same. And it's human error that is to blame in most collisions. Not only that, but safety improvements tend to be consumed as performance benefits, according to risk expert John Adams, so the response of a significant number of motorists to safer cars has been to take more risks. They can concentrate on their phone call or their facebook updates while driving, secure in the knowledge that airbags will protect them from the consequences.

Unfortunately, cyclists are not protected from the consequences of risky driving. There's been an increasing weight of evidence that cycling casualties are going up while car occupant casualties are going down. Many people are familiar with the grim statistics from London, where since 2004 the number of cyclist KSIs (killed/seriously injured) has climbed from 340 to 467 annually. In Norwich, there were 7 cyclists KSIs  in 2009/10 and 10 in the year ended 30 April 2012. In Cambridge, there was a 14 per cent rise in the number of cyclists killed or injured in incidents on the county’s roads during 2011 - meaning that one in five serious road casualties was riding a bike.

The government cannot keep telling us to ride bikes, or telling us how it's comparatively safe, while allowing the consequences of irresponsible road use to fall more and more disproportionately on those who create the lowest risk. Cyclists make up a greater and greater proportion of the injury toll on Britain's roads with every passing year, and that is a grave moral wrong.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Going Dutch - Sunday Politics

The Sunday Politics show had a piece about 'Going Dutch' yesterday (10 June). It featured an interview with Jacques Wallage, the former mayor of Groningen, and a debate in the studio featuring LCC's Mustafa Arif and motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss. So far, so predictable - the BBC rather lazily setting up a hackneyed cyclists-vs-motorists dogfight. It didn't work. Sir Stirling was rather ill-prepared - although clearly sceptical about the idea of segregated bike lanes, the most incisive comment he could offer was "I think it's a great idea but I don't think it's London the density of vehicles is higher than anywhere else." No-one pointed out that traffic density and congestion is a problem that can be solved by getting people out of cars and onto bikes, and one reason the problem exists is because people don't see cycling as a safe alternative to car travel.  As the reporter in Groningen put it, "because so many people have been put off driving, in the suburbs the traffic flows incredibly well...Groningen [is] easy to drive, beautiful to cycle." Mmmm. Traffic flow. Where have we heard that before? I wonder if TfL were watching?

Sir Stirling's second gambit was "they should start teaching children lane discipline, that sort of London, there are bicycles all over the place". At this point he gestured to illustrate a weaving bike. How about a lane discipline course for children, on the Vauxhall Gyratory perhaps?

A little more worrying for campaigners is the lack of commitment by the politicians in charge. Bob Neill, a Local Government minister, was also on the show, and when asked if there should be more segregation between bikes and motors, said "I think that's a question of horses for courses...different situations will apply in the centre of Westminster say, from in my patch in Bromley...I'm very keen to see more people cycling." He went on to enthuse about how much investment Boris has put into cycling, and how he's a regular cyclist himself. Neill was allowed to wriggle free of the debate about safety. Yeah yeah, everyone loves cycling. The point is that the investments in cycling that Boris has made in the past have done very little to improve safety, because he's put traffic flow as a higher priority. Has that actually changed?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Jubilee - Where did it all go right?

The Jubilee. What a disaster. Road closures. People unable to get around. Businesses going bust. Shops running short of stock. Food rotting in warehouses.

That's what should be happening in London in 2012, given that - as TfL are so fond of telling us - we're so dependent on the road network operating at maximum capacity and traffic flow is so critical.

But surprisingly, everything seems somehow...normal. Only better. The road closures around Buckingham Palace, St Pauls Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster have enabled people to appreciate these historic buildings in a much more pleasant environment than the usual noise, pollution and danger that surrounds them. The public space has been dedicated to events that make people appreciate everything that is great about London. I bet tourists are more likely to return as a result, and local people are loving their city more.

While no doubt some businesses have experienced logistical problems, in general the economy is expected to be boosted by £1bn as a result of the Jubilee and Olympics.

The fact is, there is no magic formula that tells you how much roadspace you need for motor traffic in a 21st century city. Businesses and people are very good at adapting their travel patterns to what's available. But one thing is certain: no-one visits London for the roads. For visitors, driving and parking in London is expensive, slow and unpredictable and navigation is difficult. For non-driving tourists and locals alike, traffic is a turn-off, and is likely to suppress business: no-one wants to eat, shop or pass time near busy roads. I suggest however that tourists like to cycle. And in London we have Bike Hire - an under-used asset that many people would like to use but are put off by the traffic. Compared with motor traffic, bikes are far more benign, producing less noise and danger, no pollution, and consuming less roadspace. Go to Hyde Park and you'll find lots of visitors on Boris Bikes - but the enthusiasm tails off away from the segregated paths of the parks.

So why not boost London's attractiveness for all by setting up segregated bike paths on selected traffic-free or low-traffic streets? Because every motor journey is essential, and the capital's economy will simply fall to pieces? That assumption is being proved incorrect in 2012, because people are being forced to reduce the amount of motor journeys, and the predicted armageddon hasn't yet happened.

It's time London, TfL, and the Mayor abandoned the twin myths that there's a linear relationship between the amount of motor traffic and the economic health of the city, and that the current level of traffic is the optimum. While clearly there's a need for some motor traffic, and some motor journeys are essential, it doesn't follow that more equals better, and we're seeing this year that the city can cope with less and be asuperior place for it. In fact, London would likely lose less productivity to congestion if there were less traffic year-round. Instead of obsessing about traffic flow, we could put our minds to improving the efficiency of road use - reducing the number of empty vans running around, giving people better alternatives to private car and taxi use, and so on.

It seems pretty obvious that the economic health of any city is linked to quality of life. And quality of life is linked to the quality of public spaces. A restaurant or a shop or residential property on a traffic-free street is worth a lot more than one on a major thoroughfare. We're told that we need to attract talented people to the UK. Lower taxes may be one way of doing it (we're assured), but no-one wants to have their kids growing up in a noisy, dangerous, polluted city no matter how low the taxes are. So let's consider that far from being a naive, green, lefty idea, better public spaces and a more intelligent approach to traffic management is good for business and essential for London's long-term future as one of the world's great cities. And in 2012, we're living through an experiment that proves it can be done.