The Invisible Visible Man
Thursday, 2 March 2017
It’s a scene that’s growing steadily more common. Provisional figures show there was more traffic in 2016 on Great Britain’s roads than in any previous year and that traffic volumes rose 1.2 per cent on 2015. The rise is all the more impressive for occurring against a backdrop of falls or only slight rises in traffic volumes in London, much the biggest city. There are indications wherever one looks that steady falls in the price of fuel, vehicles’ improving fuel economy and a series of other cuts in the price of driving are pushing ever-greater numbers of motor vehicles onto the country’s roads.
Yet I’m just as struck by the poverty of the debate about how to tackle this crisis as I am by the sheer unpleasantness of the conditions. Whereas the UK a decade ago was engaged in an earnest – albeit ultimately unproductive – debate about how to charge for road use, there is currently no serious debate about what to do. It has become expected at each budget or autumn statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will continue the freeze on fuel duty, even though it has contributed to an 18.9 per cent decline in average petrol prices over the last three years. I have heard little debate about the policy challenges presented by the exemption of a growing proportion of the UK’s car fleet from vehicle excise duty.
It’s a fair commentary on the intellectual vacuity of the current discourse on the subject that one of the main problems Chris Grayling, transport secretary, identified as a challenge for the UK’s road system in an interview in December was “excessive” use of speed bumps. This is the rhetoric one should expect in the immature, early stages of a government, when ministers are caught up in the simplistic solutions they dreamed up while still in opposition. By their second terms, most governments have started to recognise unpleasant, underlying realities and begun to tackle them. It seems clear to me that the abundance of cheap leasing finance is contributing to the misery by making it ever cheaper for drivers to get hold of very large and very powerful cars, whose effect on other road users is particularly intimidating.
As long as the problems go unaddressed, however, roads in most of the UK will continue to clog up with cars, efforts to encourage cycling and public transport will grow steadily more fruitless and the actions needed to redress the balance will grow ever more extreme.