Transport and the lock-in problem

Posted in affluence, politics, transport by thenextwavefutures on 1 August, 2010

Politicians are reluctant to confront the economic and environmental costs of transport. The task: to reduce the demand for mobility.

I probably don’t write about transport as much as I ought to, and that was brought home to me at an event on The Future of Transport in Leuven in Belgium, at which I was also a speaker. There’s a case for regarding transport as a climate emergency, given that it accounts for about a quarter of Europe’s carbon emissions, and that in the last decade (unlike pretty much every other sector) emissions from transport have continued to grow sharply. And before I continue, even if you’re a climate sceptic, this represents a significant policy issue: the transport sector (at least, the non-human powered transport sector) is 97% dependent on fossil fuels. As these become scarcer, more expensive, and more prone to interruption, we will have an incipient social and economic problem which is serious enough to prod policy makers.

So why, so far, has transport proved all but impervious to the policy and economic signals which have influenced change in other sectors? The reasons can be portrayed as complex, but they come down to a few systemic factors:

  • Transport is too cheap. At the Leuven event, Matthew Ledbury of CER presented data which suggested that if car users paid their full external costs, the price of car travel would go up by 50%.
  • Too much of car pricing is as a fixed cost, both at purchase and in the shape of tax and insurance payments which are unrelated to the extent of use. As one speaker put it, owning a car is like going into a supermarket and “discovering that everything is always on special offer”.
  • We are locked into a set of legacy infrastructures that have taken a century to build up; changing it is slow and expensive.
  • There are some significant organisations, such as the car companies, which are effective in delaying change. The influence of motorists, and organisations which speak for them, are also disproportionately influential with politicians.

The transport lock-in problem

All of this, of course, is a recipe for lock-in. Politicians fiddle with change, but are reluctant to increase either the absolute costs of car travel, or the relative costs of car travel against other transport modes, despite the strong evidence on external costs, for fear of antagonising a significant share of the electorate (though not a majority in much of Europe). This is amplified by the dependence of newspapers on the auto industry – not that advertising would ever influence editorial in such a crude manner. And there’s also a problem with disconnected behaviour from governments; the British government is currently cutting public transport subsidies while leaving fuel tax unchanged, thereby decreasing the relative cost of car travel.

The economic signals which might lead to change don’t, therefore, materialise. The conventional wisdom that driver behaviour doesn’t respond to price signals is wrong, as we saw during the oil price spike, but they don’t respond to the wrong sort of price signals (or signals which have been muffled by the high fixed costs of ownership).

Breaking the ‘culture of contentment’

In general, we have the problem of the ‘culture of contentment‘ identified by JK Galbraith almost 20 years ago; a noisy and affluent plurality will block changes which affect their immediate lifestyle and convenience even when the changes will improve outcomes for everyone, the affluent included. (California has been running a large scale experiment to find out how this works out in practice. The answer is: not well).  And if there is a secret to breaking out of this destructive cycle, this seems to be the clue. Progressive politicians need to find leverage points which reframe the perspectives of the ‘contented’. In London Ken Livingstone did this by positioning a city centre car tax as a ‘congestion charge’, getting businesses onside, and also immediately – and visibly – improving bus services. Belgium may pip the Netherlands to become the first European country to introduce large scale road pricing because it is currently used as a large European freeway but sees little fuel duty in return (this is cunningly captured by Luxembourg, where fuel is cheaper).

Given the scale of the problem, the objective ought to be to reduce the overall amount of transport. But this tends to get derailed by claims about choice (which are broadly illiterate in terms of the political science and philosophy they draw on) or of economics, where it is claimed that transport is a cause of competitiveness (the growth in transport correlates with the overall growth in economic output, but the causal relationship is not demonstrated, certainly at current levels of output and affluence.) The negative impact of transport on individual and social well-being tends to be under-recorded.

Technologists, meanwhile, continue to argue that improved efficiencies will take care of the problem (which frames the issue as one of performance standard setting and emissions regulation), disregarding the repeated finding that Jevons’ Paradox holds good 150 years after it was invented. Improvements in efficiencies lead to greater consumption; if it costs half as much to travel, we’re likely to travel twice as far.

Reducing the need for mobility

The only certain way to reduce transport demand is to reduce the need for mobility. Most transport is actually about access, and a combination of virtual connectivity, and changes in urban land use and land take are moving the balance away from the car, if slowly. The increasing energy costs we’re all but certain to see over the next decade and beyond will help.

But none of this is fast enough, given the climate emergency and the role of transport emissions in exacerbating it. In the shorter-run, and certainly in the next decade, limits will need to be put on personal mobility, to break the overall trend of increasing demand and increasing transport consumption. This could be done by rationing or by pricing. [Or – update – by improving  the options around mobility to disconnect it from car use.]

There will be political push-back, of course, but road pricing is a progressive measure (car use, like air travel is strongly correlated with income), and there are broad social benefits to reducing car use, such as improved individual and public health and greater social cohesion. There are signs that this is increasingly understood. Congestion charging is spreading, and I had an email recently which reported that a Vancouver city planner got a standing ovation last month from a crowd of 2500 with one bald statement: “Quality of life is inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend in your car.”

The long run alternative – the deep social and economic disruptions caused by un-managed energy shock and climate change – is orders of magnitude worse. No-one’s going to be arguing about freedom of choice if we end up in that world.

The presentation I gave in Leuven was based on a transport scenarios project I directed [opens pdf]  for UK Foresight in 2005. It can be found on Slideshare. The picture at the top was taken by me and is available to use on a Creative Commons licence.

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16 Responses

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  1. Damian Hockney said, on 2 August, 2010 at 4:31 am

    You say that businesses came onside in regard to the London Congestion Charge. This is not true (unless you count the businesses who charged millions to implement the Charge, removing any profit). The numbers of small businesses, for example, declined rapidly and remarkable in the C-Charge zone in the two years after implemention, while increasing in numbers outside of the zone. The Western Extension is now being removed specifically because of the damage it has done to business. Bus services did not improve because of the C-Charge. More buses were added because of greater spending on them (which was not a direct result of the C-Charge). The C-Charge failed to make a profit in that period, and the only way of raising money was to create a fining system which was deeply unfair (creating artificial cutoff times during which the telephone payment lines would not respond and landing you with a very large fine when you mysteriously got through one minute after the cutoff time!). Also (crucially) this matter of fines and the arbitrary increases in the charge ensured that both other UK cities (Edinburgh and Manchester) which voted on imposing such a charge decided to reject the multi million pound propaganda campaign to encourage them to support such a charge. Apologists and propagandists for the C-Charge ignore these facts at their peril. The public will not put up with endlessly increasing taxation at a time when they are earning less, their jobs are under threat and the subsidised have it all paid for by the state anyway.

    • thenextwavefutures said, on 2 August, 2010 at 8:37 am

      Well, the CBI seems a reasonable barometer of business opinion, and it states :

      “The CBI has supported the principle of the congestion charge scheme as part of a wider package of measures to improve the transport environment in the capital as a whole. From the outset we pressed for improved public transport services and adequate funds from central government – these have been addressed to some extent.”

      My point was that the congestion charge was introduced as part of a package (more buses, improved support for cycling) and as part of a solution to a problem (congestion) which was regarded as economically damaging. Personally, I’m sceptical about the financial numbers which are conjured up about the costs of congestion, but business leaders insist that they’re real. There have been slightly improved outcomes for pollution as well (though London

      The votes in Manchester and Edinburgh, I’d suggest, were evidence that people will not willingly vote to pay for a benefit (effectively, subsidised travel, given the external costs of car use) which they currently get for free; and the effectiveness of the motorists’ lobby. In Stockholm, the congestion charge vote passed – because there was a trial period first and the benefits of the scheme (less pollution, clearer roads for people who wanted to use them enough to pay for them) were clearer.

  2. Sean Corker said, on 2 August, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Your comment about the Stockholm C charge referendum is misleading. Of the 14 districts of Stockholm only the central district covered by the con charge zone (narrowly) voted yes. The other 14 voted no but were ignored. Effectively those who would be paying the charge were disenfranchised.

  3. Damian Hockney said, on 2 August, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    The CBI is laughably unrepresentative of business. It is known for self serving ‘surveys’ and it is a bureaucracy which supports government of the day. For example, when businessmen were surveyed independently about the euro, they were against it by a massive margin for the UK. The CBI did a self selecting survey (which was later slated for being unscientific, false and self serving) claiming that business was “in favour”. They did this because the bureaucracy of organisations like the CBI wish to curry favour with the government of the day. It would be more accurate to look at what happened when businesses undertook studies in the aftermath of the introduction of the charge.

  4. Damian Hockney said, on 3 August, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    …just take a look at the 2004 Imperial College study commissioned by John Lewis, a long established department store chain with its flagship store in the heart of the City’s West End. It pointed to out of line drops in sales in central London and the need for drastic changes to the charge…John Lewis chairman Stuart Hampson made the point at the time that: “We’ve always made it clear that we support efforts to reduce congestion, but Imperial College’s findings highlight the dangers of introducing radical change without fully considering its consequences. We do not believe that it is prudent to embark on extending the zone, or to introduce similarly blunt schemes to other cities in the face of today’s evidence without further study.” Of course, the Mayor extended the scheme, added 60% to the charge, only months later and made it more difficult for visitors, failing even to drop the charge at the time of the London bombings when business was sometimes 80% down in central areas. ANd of course emergency vehicles attending to victims were, yes, charged and then fined for non payment! All in the interests of “congestion” (ie “ever greater taxation”).

  5. […] Transport and the lock-in problem (via thenextwave) Posted on 4 August 2010 by The Editor Politicians are reluctant to confront the economic and environmental costs of transport. The task: to reduce the demand for mobility. I probably don't write about transport as much as I ought to, and that was brought home to me at an event on The Future of Transport in Leuven in Belgium, at which I was also a speaker. There's a case for regarding transport as a climate emergency, given that it accounts for about a quarter of Europe's carbon emiss … Read More […]

  6. The Editor said, on 4 August, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I hear what Damian is saying, but I also believe that cars should pay their full price, both when entering/moving or just sitting there in a catatonic state (aka parking). And certainly no doubt that the London CC experience has been flawed in many ways, though I would guess that the odds are they it is unlike to get any better given the various tendencies to try to patch and jiggle it.

    You have done a nice tight piece on this difficult and important topic, which is why we have featured it as well on World Streets today. We are getting the good voices on these issues, now all we need to do is find the ears.

  7. Ian Perry said, on 4 August, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I am one of the many who has swelled TfL coffers by paying fines to TfL over congestion charge payment, as did my company when they forgot to add my vehicle to the automatic payment system. The popularity of the Congestion Charge scheme has suffered due to the mismanagement and ruthlessness of TfL and their partners of the payment system. I was not one of the 30% of the public who wanted to keep the Congestion Charge scheme as it was, but nor was I one of the 41% of the public who wanted to scrap the Western Extension Zone. I was one of the many who wanted the payment system made simpler and user friendly!

    I know some of the business people who “howled” at having to pay the congestion charge to drive to their business each day. However, they had failed to realise that by registering their vehicle at their business address, they were entitled to a 90% discount……

    Is business within the congestion charge zone “suffering” due to the congestion charge or the declining population density? Much of inner London’s residential property has been bought up by speculators and the worlds “elite” as second homes. If you are living in central London, you do not need a car and why would you ever drive to the shops and restaurants when you can walk?

    I wonder how many of John Lewis’ customers arrive at their West End store by car – 40% of Londoners do not own a car and many West End shoppers are tourists from other countries! Would John Lewis have published research by Imperial College if it did not show the result they wanted? I believe not.

    TfL has another money making scheme. They provide free parking in London along main routes outside of “peak” hours. Like many, I stopped in a parking bay for a few seconds shortly before the 10am and received an £80 fine – stopping (even to do a U-turn, is only allowed after 10am. A TfL camera showed me “stopped” for 8 seconds!
    What is clear is that those with a vested interest will turn out to vote against congestion charges. Those who are not car owners are less “organised” and less inclined to lobby or vote on this issue, perhaps because they do not see immediate benefit to themselves.

    Despite sharing a dislike of TfL’s customer service with many Londoners, I see the benefits of the Congestion Charge Zone and realise that public transport fares will have to go up as a result of any lost income from it – with a fare rise of 7% being speculated at the moment – because TfL is running out of money and is poised to lose income from the Congestion Charge…

  8. Ian Perry said, on 5 August, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Damain has brought back many memories of my time in London. Emergency vehicles fined, drivers fined for pulling over to the side of the road to let an ambulance past – and the photographic evidence showed the ambulance with blue lights flashing…

    Think of the strongest words you know, and many Londoners (and I) will have used them to describe TfL. TfL is tainted, impersonal and those at the top, talented and as nice as they may be, have no idea (I hope) as to how many of their CUSTOMERS feel towards them and TfL. I’m convinced that the former Mayor, Ken Livingston, lost thousands of votes due to TfL.

    What TfL does sounds (and could be) great – but to appreciate them, you must not live in London!

    I wish I could fine TfL workers for their mistakes in the same way they fine their customers for their misunderstandings of TfL rules and mistakes – they’d pay to work!

  9. Damian Hockney said, on 6 August, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Ian Perry is right that the way in which you enforce road pricing and increased taxation of transport is a major part of how it will be perceived. The lack of transparency in Transport for London (TfL) has been a major issue and its statistics are effectively politicised and almost impenetrable – many many experts have criticised the opaque accounting. But do not believe the stories about “lost income” from the scrapping of the Western Extension Zone. What you have indeed is “lost income”: but also a massive reduction in costs as well, because it was always made clear that the Western Extension would not be profitable for many many years (and many experts not connected with TfL said never). If Londoners are saddled with set-up costs and contract costs, that is clearly the fault of TfL and the politicians. Remember that the TfL board are political appointees and carry out much of their business in total secrecy. And just look at the facts that you CAN garner – the heroic and colossal costs of administering and running the scheme, the failure at any time to guarantee “profit” for transport, the doubling of price in the charge at a time when much of private business has been squeezed.

  10. Damian Hockney said, on 6 August, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Oh, and the question of Londoners, business and cars – London business is not actually about Londoners or it would not be in London (!). Much of the small business in London is now niche and catering for those living outside in the very wealthy suburbs and countryside who do use their cars. It may be fashionable to sneer at upmarket hairdressers, flower shops, chocolatiers, farmers markets etc, and the growth of shops who provide items for $40 which might cost $10 elsewhere (!) but these are a mainstay of London job creation and they are the ones most affected by the C-Charge. They began to concentrate in increasing numbers in the capital, with the affluence of the 80s and the demand for exclusive products. A 55 year old upmarket customer from 25 miles out of London in winter will NOT travel on dirty crowded trains in the dark (ie at 4pm onwards), with long walks or taxi rides home at the end of the journey after a visit to London to spend hundreds or thousands of pounds on services and products. The C-Charge has notably confused people who do not use it regularly and the horror stories of people missing the signs and having their cars impounded have fed into a fear of the unknown and damaged marginal businesses in the zone. A small number have actually stopped coming into London because of the C-Charge. The politicians do not want you to hear these things, which appear in all their private studies. Ian, you would be amazed at the degree to which the big spenders in the stores do actually use their cars. I don’t, and you probably wouldn’t, but the effects on the margins are considerable.

  11. Eric Doherty said, on 9 August, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    The assertion that Europe’s problem with transport emissions has to do with past ‘legacy’ infrastructure is weakly supported at best. “We are locked into a set of legacy infrastructures that have taken a century to build up; changing it is slow and expensive.”

    The fact is that Europe and UK governments have continued to spend billions on roadway expansion every year, and will probably do so again next year and the year after. It is not expensive to stop building freeways, in fact it would save billions every year that could then be spent on reducing emissions.

    Sometimes when people find themselves in a hole, they talk about path dependence rather than stop digging. Enough with excuses for deliberate climate crimes.

  12. […] * You may also want to have a look at Andrew’s related peice on “Transport and the lock-in problem“. […]

  13. […] * You may also want to have a look at Andrew’s related piece on “Transport and the lock-in problem“. […]

  14. […] * You may also want to have a look at Andrew’s related piece on “Transport and the lock-in problem“. […]

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