Cars, Congestion, Health and Road Pricing…

I wrote a short blog on the subject of car dependency in 2021. Given the news today re a potential Road User Charge in Cardiff I thought a brief update would be in order…

I know that fuel duties and vehicle excise duties raise about £32BN each year for HM Treasury…and that roads can provide some economic benefits. However, we also need to reflect other costs and externalities – especially the negative health impacts – of our car dependency. Taking a more holistic view will help us appreciate that car use is, in effect, subsidised and that alternatives, especially public transport, have been undervalued in formal transport appraisal for decades.

So here are a few bullet headlines:

  • Poor air quality is a major health issue – especially in urban areas. This was a stark finding of a 2018 study by Kings College London who estimated perhaps 30,000 premature deaths in the UK each year resulting from poor quality

  • In April 2023, Imperial Collage’s Environmental Research Group published an evidence review of over 35,000 studies over ten years and found air pollution causes harm at all stages of life. The review found air pollution harmed foetal development during pregnancy and could cause low birth weight and miscarriages, as well as a low sperm count in men. It also found air pollution could stunt lung growth in children, cause asthma, and affect blood pressure, cognitive abilities and mental health.

  • In addition, there are approximately 170,000 Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs) in the UK year, 25,000 serious injuries and 1700 fatalities (5 a day on average – including 1 cyclist!) costing the UK, according to the DfT, over £30Bn a year. If the railways did that they would be closed down; we have become de-sensitised to the damage cars are doing to us all

  • In many cases the “economic benefits” anticipated by building additional road capacity are lost because of the congestion resulting from induced demand as a study by David Metz, the ex Chief Scientist of the DfT, found in 2021. It is becoming increasingly clear that increasing road capacity just generates more car trips; and it is 20% of traffic that cause 100% of congestion – so better to encourage that 20% to use an alternative. On that basis it is more useful to spend scarce capital funds on increasing public transport capacity to provide an alternative to car use. It is also clear that the “economic benefits” of the existing road network are often compromised through congestion. Perhaps we have gone past the point of diminishing returns re: the economic benefits of increasing road capacity?

  • Road expenditure (inc maintenance to deal with wear and tear) also costs the UK about £12Bn each year and we know there is large backlog of pot-hole maintenance to address! Funding for roads should perhaps be more focussed on road maintenance and less on new road capacity (we already have enough)

  • Car use is the single largest contributor to carbon emissions in the transport sector – about 60%. Despite this stark reality, the car industry is now making and selling bigger and heaver cars, including SUVs, (often wrapped in a financial service product!), requiring more energy to move, exacerbating our carbon emissions challenge. Our collective Net Zero obligations require a reduction in car use of the order of 20-30%

  • Mass volume, out of town, car-based corporate supermarket retail and the consequential demise of local independent shops (and now the perversity of drive through coffee shops) is the primary cause of the sickness afflicting some of our local high streets (along with internet shopping) as this independent report found for WG in 2021. Then add out of town offices and 000s homes built on green fields forcing you get in your car every time you want to buy a bag of sugar! We need to properly embrace Transit Oriented Development.

  • Remember if a “car driver” is able and decides to use public transport, walk or cycle instead of driving, that results in fewer car trips and so less wear and tear on the road, less congestion, fewer CO2 emissions, better air quality and fewer RTAs…and lower costs for all of us. Would those opposed to more Public Transport and Active Travel (and cycle lanes, etc) prefer more traffic and congestion? Furthermore, there is clear evidence that more Active Travel has major health benefits and reduces the burden on an already stressed healthcare system.

It seems to me that we have a collective blind spot with cars and a failure to recognise the wider societal and economic costs of the apparent “freedoms” they provide. Given the above, especially the negative health impacts and carbon emissions of excessive car use, it is clear that the direct and indirect costs to society of car use exceed the fuel and excise duties collected and that the economic benefits of the existing road network are often compromised as a result of congestion. Furthermore, we are now observing that economic benefits associated with increased road capacity are often transient.

No one is proposing no roads and no cars, rather a just a little more honesty and equity in how we fund transport, manage externalities and allocate the use of road space. On that basis some form of Road User Pricing (or as I prefer to call it “a reduction in the car use discount”) is economically and socially justified and is also effective at reducing congestion; so as many other places have done, we have to seriously consider road pricing. There is also a strategic need to address the long-term weakness of transport appraisal which as a result has typically “favoured” road building over public transport. Martin Mogridge identified the market importance of “road pricing” as far back as the 1960s !

PS – thanks to all the SM challenge I get, it helps.

PS#2 Of course we need more PT alternatives in place first; these might help re context in Cardiff.

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