06 June 2005
How to make it so there are no more jams ever again

The government’s announcement that it is thinking of introducing satellite-based road charging, oh, sometime in the next decade or so (how often have we heard that announcement?) has certainly stirred things up in the blogosphere.  Both Andy Wood and the ASI have pointed out the dangers inherent in the state having so much information at its disposal.  Snafu rejects the idea entirely and thinks we should all get used to jams.  VOTF thinks that fuel tax is all you need.

I think jams are bad and charging the cure.  One way of achieving this is to wait in the hope that the state, which owns the road gets its act together.  Another is privatisation.  We already have one private road in this country: the M6 Toll.  It charges and traffic flows freely.  And you don’t have to have your details recorded by the state.

Our main routes, the motorways and A-roads could probably be privatised very quickly.  While some might find that they are priced off the road others might well find that new bus and coach services price them right back on and others might well find that employers are willing for them to change their working hours so that they can get in when rates are lower.

However, this is dealing with a situation where there is a finite quantity of main routes.  Why should that be?  Whoever owns the M25 is likely to make a bomb.  But why shouldn’t they suffer a little competition?  Of course, if we were to allow people to build new roads we would have to relax the planning laws.

That’s the main routes.  Urban routes, alas, are a different matter.  Try as I might I have never been able to imagine how you could privatise urban roads without recreating something very similar to the state which is precisely what I am trying to avoid.

Urban areas are built with the right level of road space for their time.  I bet riding down Fleet Street was a pleasure in the 17th Century.  Unfortunately, no one predicted the rise of car ownership.  One answer to this is congestion charging.  We are trying this in London but is far from clear whether traffic speeds are picking up.

The other alternative is, if the old urban areas are found wanting, to build new ones.  This is the big idea of South California academic, Peter Gordon.  As he points out: people like sprawl (to use the pejorative term).  They like it domestically and, as jobs move out of city centres, they like it economically.  And because they are new developments they tend to have the right amount of road space.  Only today he points out that the cities that have grown the fastest in recent years tend to be those with relatively insignificant centres. 

But if we were to do it in Britain we would, once again, have to relax the planning laws.

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  1. The problem with sprawls (which just doesn’t occur to car-owning sprawlophiles) is that anyone who, for any reason, doesn’t have access to a car is completely marginalised.

    The dilemma is that the optimal design of a city for car users and public transit users is completely opposite. 

    Public transport requires businesses to cluster around transit nodes, each of which needs a critical mass of homes and businesses to be economically viable; this is best achieved through relatively high density. 

    Car users require the complete opposite; low density with no congested nodes.

    I’m sure it’s possible for a city to achieve the optimum balance of the two. I suspect America has gone the way it has not because of pure market forces, but as a result of political decisions to subsidise road usage and let public transport wither away.

    Posted by Tim Hall on 06 June 2005 at 10:47pm

  2. Is there anywhere where the government has created an internal market in traffic? By that I mean allocating (or selling) people credits (based on mileage, I guess) and then letting them buy, sell, and trade them amongst one another? So if someone like me, who doesn’t own a car, is allocated X mileage per year, I can flog it to someone else in my local area on an eBay-like bidding system (online and by phone).

    It’s past 2 AM, and this post shows it, but I’m curious to know if this has been attempted anywhere.

    Posted by Jackie Danicki on 08 June 2005 at 05:11am

  3. Urban road privatisation might work if ownership was given in the form of shares to the people who had property alongside the road.

    As most people, like most shareholders have no wish to take part in the day to day running of roads or businesses the actual running (policing/repair) could be contracted out to road running businesses.

    Payment to use the roads could happen in a number of ways
    1)Tolls.  Easy on big roads like motorways and some A-roads.
    2)Subscription.  Rather like people join the AA or RAC for breakdown cover paying a road subscription could cover a number of roads at certain times.  Big penalties could be enforced via for e.g. stop checks to catch non payers.
    3)Voluntary donations.  Maybe not for big roads but smaller roads needing little maintenance could be funded by shareholders and public/business donations.

    I don’t think it likely that many big roads would be shut off although a number of smaller roads might become out of bounds for normal motorists.

    Posted by Daniel on 10 June 2005 at 08:59pm

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