Dead Men Left

Friday, February 25, 2005

Congestion charging: response to Lenin

Following Edinburgh's rejection of congestion charging, Len revealed that he wasn't too keen on the scheme in London in any case. "Congestion charging works; but it's the wrong policy" because, although traffic is down 18% in the charged areas, being a flat-rate charge the scheme unfairly hits poorer car users hardest. Objections varied between the moralistic claim that no-one in London needs a car, and the (more plausible) suggestion that the poor don't own cars anyway.

The first is easily dealt with: outside of the ranks of mobile, child-free, and young, getting by in London without a car can be real strain. It's not life-threatening not to own one, but with public transport so bad, so expensive and sometimes so non-existent - try, for example, navigating across south London, east-west, rather than north-south - the choice to use a car is hardly a disgraceful materialist indulgence. I've got little time for lifestyle arguments like this; if you want people to stop using their cars, improve public transport.

However. We have to recognise that, first, improvements take time; and, second, there are huge costs associated with car use that are not well reflected in the price of using a car. These side-effects can be seen everywhere: for example, children from in the poorest socio-economic group are 5 times more likely to be killed in a car-crash than those from the richest. Why? Because those on lower incomes live in areas with lower house prices, and lower house prices tend to occur, amongst other things, where there are busy roads nearby.

If we look at car ownership in London, there's a clear relationship between deprivation and not owning a car. The ten boroughs with the lowest levels of car ownership are all in London and they are overwhelmingly also the most deprived. Charging for car use obviously excludes those without cars, and so congestion charging should have a slightly progressive element.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated the impact of the congestion charge across different income groups in 2000, prior to the scheme's introduction. (I've not seen any similar study conducted after the c-charge started operation.) Ignoring the unreliable data for the very poorest, it's clear that the charge would have some progressive effects, up to the middle-income earners.

After that, it starts to become regressive: those earning more would pay proportionately less for the scheme. This is due to the distribution of incomes in London, with concentrations of the richest households at present just outside the congestion charge zone. It's one of the reasons the Mayor wants to extend the current scheme westwards, to capture these areas, and - of course - one of the reasons why this is so bitterly opposed by the Tories.

This won't be enough, however, to reverse the regressive impact in the top part of the income scale. Whilst I don't agree with Lenin's stated opposition to congestion charging, there are obvious ways to improve the scheme: rationing use, permits for essential workers, and increasing charges for larger, more expensive cars would all be sensible measures.

None of this is enough, of course. Having spent years rattling every morning on dilapidated rolling stock beneath one of the greatest concentrations of wealth on earth, Lenin's conclusion is spot on:

There is more than enough money in this country, and especially in London, to pay for a better, more efficient and cheaper transport system. Come on, Ken. Instead of whacking more on council tax, why not put a tax on some of those obscene mega-profits sloshing around the city? ...Windfall them. Reclaim some of those ill-gotten gains and build that bloody Crossrail at long last.

(...and some more tramlines. Trams are great.)