“If, in five years’ time, there are not fewer journeys being made by car, then I will have failed”. Point one: deputy prime minister John Prescott said this in 1997. Point two: the latest official National Travel Survey shows yet another increase in traffic on Britain’s roads. Point three is not to wonder why someone as clearly incompetent as Mr Prescott is still in office, but to question whether the government’s latest proposal – for nationwide road pricing – is a step in the right direction, or not.
First, the facts. The average distance travelled by UK residents rose by 5% to 6,800 miles in 2004 and the average length of trip rose by 12% from 6.1 to 6.8 miles. Car travel accounts for four-fifths of all UK travel. Walking trips fell by 20% and the number of primary-aged children walking to school fell from 61% to 50%. The number of commuting trips fell by 7% but the average commuting journey length rose by 13%. The average time spent travelling around Britain has remained unchanged at about 360 hours per person per year.
Second, the Government’s latest response to what it perceives as ever-increasing congestion. It has announced a Transport Innovation Fund, under which an initial £18m is to be made available to local authorities over the next three years to support road pricing schemes. But this is just the start because transport secretary Alistair Darling has told Parliament that the funding will increase to £290m by 2008-09, and to an eye-watering £2.5 billion by 2014-15.“This will support smarter and better management of the capacity we have, “ said Darling. “And it will ensure we can plan ahead, preparing for the long term challenges we face.”
The transport secretary went on to justify his plans, claiming that: “Without radical measures, including more effective demand management, road congestion would get worse. That is why we need to look at whether road pricing would allow us to get more out of the network, especially at peak times.”But hang on one moment. Surely those latest National Travel Survey statistics show that this is a completely false conclusion? The fact that, despite more and longer journeys being undertaken, the average travel time has remained unchanged leads to only one sane conclusion: that people are already adapting their travel plans if congestion becomes an issue.
So, for example, while not everyone can avoid the M25 or the M6 during the morning and evening peak, those who can are choosing to travel earlier or later and thus avoid the worst of the snarl-ups. And increasing numbers of drivers are using Trafficmaster systems to get an early warning of hold-ups and choosing a different route. In short, the ‘market’ for road use is a self-regulating one, and the Government’s desire to impose what it sees as a solution makes no sense. Because, put in the most simple terms, if a particular journey is perceived as being likely to take too long, drivers will change their plans, making their own choice for when and how any particular journey is made.
Others have already suggested in no uncertain terms that road pricing is likely to be yet another Government stealth tax, rather than any serious attempt to reduce congestion. My instinct is that a national system which charges all drivers in direct proportion to the amount of use they make of the road network is both fair and sensible. But we don’t need road pricing to achieve this end: with the Government taking around 80% of the cost of every litre of fuel sold on the forecourts, we already have just such a proportional system operating at the petrol pumps.
Surely we can do something better with that £2.5 billion Alistair Darling wants to squander on road pricing schemes?
Squaring circles on emissions targets.Life is not going to get any easier for motor manufacturers and their design and engineering teams in the coming years. The EU is on the verge of announcing Euro 5 emissions targets and its consultation paper envisages a 20% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel cars, and a 25% reduction in both nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons in petrol cars. Interestingly, these targets will also apply to passenger cars over 2500kg, such as SUVs which up to now have enjoyed the less stringent emissions regime for light commercial vehicles.According to EU Commissioner Gunter Verheugen, these targets are “ambitious but realistic…the new emission limits will open the way to cleaner cars which is good for the health of citizens and the environment…industry gets a clear perspective and the time to prepare clean, high quality cars without endangering its competitiveness”.
Sounds fair enough, except that Euro 5 targets will have to be met despite moving goalposts in other areas of car design. For example, manufacturers are having to ensure greater pedestrian safety levels and this, according to PSA CEO Jean-Martin Folz, inevitably makes cars both heavier and less aerodynamic and therefore less fuel efficient. Folz also makes the point that demands for more recyclable cars again inevitably favours the use of more heavier steel rather than lighter plastics, which again militates against fuel consumption figures.
Meanwhile, it appears as if European car manufacturers are going to miss the voluntary target of average per-car CO2 emissions of 140gm/km by 2008, down from 185gm/km in 1995. Japanese and Korean manufacturers, who had agreed to reach the same 140gm/km target by 2009 – one year later – are reckoned by EU sources to be even further away from meeting it. Yet the EU still looks determined to press for further reductions, to 120gm/km by 2012.
To have any chance whatsoever of achieving this, manufacturers will have to do more than come up with ever-smarter engineering and design solutions; they will also have to wean consumers away from heavier SUVs which produce more CO2 then their smaller passenger car counterparts. And this will be difficult as the European SUV market is showing no signs whatsoever of declining. On the contrary, the next couple of years will see PSA Peugeot-Citroen, Renault and Fiat all joining the SUV bandwagon. So not only will yet more SUVs be coming onto the market but the three manufacturers who currently have the most fuel efficient fleets – the very same PSA Peugeot-Citroen, Renault and Fiat – will inevitably be seeing an increase in their average fleet C02 figures.
It should be an interesting exercise in squaring circles with the use of smoke and mirrors.