Move to avoid road tolls?

On the 12th of February, I received a note from a colleague in London who works for a transport industry magazine, and who certainly understands the argument for congestion pricing:

“[We were discussing the huge number of signatures for the online petition] against road pricing, and the seemingly gathering protest at road pricing in general. The petition has been signed by [my boss], who reckons it's up to the traffic industry to manage the road infrastructure, rather than price people off the road. He has worked out using figures available in Autocar magazine how much his daily commute will cost him, and he reckons it will force him to relocate to a house closer to his place of work. This will then be a more expensive area, so the cost of his house will be more and the council tax will also increase, as this is done on the value of his house. Firstly, what would you say to this chap? Secondly, what are your opinions of the Daily Mirror campaign, which is gathering support and quite a bit of TV coverage. This isn't good news for those in favour of road pricing because our UK government isn't as forthright as Ken Livingstone. They're after votes and road pricing is certainly not a vote winner."

My reply:

I tend to distrust car magazines since they would naturally want to see as many cars as possible on the road – same for automobile associations, but some such as our CAA have begun to soften their stance slightly in the face of the "green" conversation (but still say "no" to market pricing). What makes this harder for me, a Canadian, to answer, is that my sense is that Brits tend to have a lower level of trust toward their governments than we do, here. That is not a judgment, as there are reasons to distrust governments almost anywhere. Remember, I am a Libertarian.

I suspect your boss is over-trusting Autocar and under-trusting the DfT [UK’s Department of Transport]. Be that as it may, one of the problems in the wrenching but critically necessary shift from a fuel-tax-based system to a pay-per-use system is: how do you make that switch over? If it were done smoothly, all in one day (yeah, right!) then we need to remove the fuel tax. Did Autocar do that? I didn't see the article, but I cannot see how they could, since the program for ramping up road-pricing is front of mind in the UK, but the program for backing off fuel taxes is not. In the Oregon (US) trials, people paying road-fees are forgiven their fuel tax. Are there pilots to do that in the UK? I've not heard of any. If these are indeed missing then that’s DfT's fault.

The fact that pricing's benefits out-weigh the costs for all of us is a complex argument -- too complex for Autocar's readership and clearly too complex for politicians. My evidence? No one in these contexts takes the pains to understand or explain them. While they are available on line for all to see, who has time? I can barely keep up with it and this is all I do.

Addressing your boss’ consideration that he might need to relocate is equally complex. Here in Canada, near Toronto, one can purchase a spacious home an hour's drive from work at half or less of the cost and property tax of an equivalent property closer in. While I personally prefer living in an apartment condo right in town and not owning a vehicle, I now own a car and live near town and commute. Why? I went and got married and now have kids. A downtown apartment condo doesn't cut it for me.

But back to your boss. Relocation closer to work is one of the presumed longer-range outcomes (and benefits) of road pricing. Many in Canada buy a home far out of the city center because it is very cheap and comfortable taking an SUV [that’s a “Chelsea tractor” for you Londoners] into the city each day. Had we used congestion-related distance pricing instead of fuel-tax on cheap fuel ages ago, our ex-urban sprawl would not be as large, and we would have developed differently.

So in a sense, there was an unwritten "deal" made to your boss a long while back: "Get a nice home out of the city and just give up a bit of time to drive in." He did that. The drive got worse, but he's adjusted little by little. Now it’s a lot worse – and worse for everyone, including the economy itself. In fact, the worsening is finally seen as unsustainable. So now we're telling him there's a new deal: "Sorry, we had that wrong, we need you to drive less, now." No wonder he's in shock.

So much of our urban economy is organized around having decided the gas-tax transportation economy nearly a hundred years ago, that to unwind it is not only hard to structure, but almost impossible to understand in detail. The reason is that there are so many interconnections.

While we who study it are absolutely convinced the end result is far better than what we have now, most people just look at the presumed new travel bill and simply see less money in their wallet. Your boss is a bit smarter and took one thought-step further than most do, he has already looking at the “move into town” scenario. This could be a smart move. Has he considered that purchasing a more expensive property has other long-term financial returns? Presumably the property will hold its value. Indeed, if he is among first to respond this way, he stands to gain more than most. If he thinks property values are high now, imagine how they'd be skewed for the last family to depart exurbia. He should buy a nice property now and start advocating for what is going to happen anyway.

Regarding the signatures against road pricing [about 2% of the population], yes, it is disturbing. Absolutely disturbing. Right or wrong, ours are democracies. Few politicians would or could ignore that vote. The fact that so many people understand neither the problem nor the solution is the responsibility of government, I think. When you add distrust-of-government to this, we have a problem, indeed. But in the end we will solve this, because as the problem worsens, more and more people will begin to understand while spot solutions will increasingly show diminishing value. Anyone who thinks this is easy is more foolish than those that would ignore it.

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