Livingstone's congestion plan is the crudest sort of means testing
Monday January 27, 2003
The first Guardian motoring correspondent I knew, long ago, was a fierce, fizzy Irishman with one unique qualification for the job: he didn't like cars or car manufacturers much. He was the automobile equivalent of an education correspondent who loathed the NUT, or a health correspondent who couldn't stand doctors.
Still, that's transport in general and cars in particular for you. The only thing I really remember about my father, dead over a half a century now, was the second-hand cars he'd come home with every six months, smiling broadly and disappearing under the bonnet. The battered Wolseley, the chugging Opel, the converted Morris van... I could never get very excited. One old tin can after another. But if I want to guess what my dad was like, I need only watch my brother today; for the genes are with him, ceaselessly roaming the forecourts with a copy of What Car? in his jacket pocket, a flying Dutchman in search of a low-mileage Datsun.
Does Ken Livingstone share his dream? Obviously not. Ken remembers being a six-year-old on the Streatham Hill bus to school, just as he remembers to turn in his taxi expenses (nudging ¡ê6,000 a year) on time. He's not a motor romantic. He's a user with somebody else picking up the bill. He said that something had to be done, got elected - and in a couple of weeks' time will deliver his congestion charge. The first of many, if it works. The Marie Celeste of traffic management if it doesn't.
And because this is cars again, it's emotion again, because everybody not only has a view but a screaming, shouting conviction that he's doomed to succeed or fail front of stage.
Do I feel passionately about saving the planet for Ken by putting ¡ê5 a day into the future of buses? Not really. We're all self-interested when it comes to transport, happy to entrain when that's easy, happy to bike if it's quicker and cheaper, happy sometimes to walk a bracing 35 minutes. I don't have to go the four miles into central London every day any longer. I can afford the occasional fiver. I'm lucky. But luck is a finite commodity.
Look around at the Elephant and Castle as you queue to swap your 63 bus for a 68. Millions of Londoners don't have a car, according to Mayor Livingstone's experts. They must wait in line in the bitter void. They must beat unavailingly on doors shut in their faces. They must, if they're that young mother with a sleeping baby in a pushchair, wait and wait again until a bus with the space to take them arrives. Nothing easy; nothing particularly cheery or convenient. And the back streets around the bus stop tell their own story.
Mean streets in the canyon between tower blocks, crowded with parked cars. Forty years ago, when they were built, council tenants didn't own cars, so planners left no room to park them. Now they fill both sides of the road, a perennially clogged artery. They send their own messages to the politicians. They say that the missing-out millions want one, too.
Which is the root problem with Ken and his charges. I've done the main thing. I've spent two fruitless hours on cclondon.com (a clunky congestion of a site still warning of things that happened four months ago) trying to register and finally found a nice human being at the end of a phone to do it for me. I'm ready for blast-off, for all the camera and computer glitches that Capita - who brought you teacher security vetting - have turned into an art form. I'm ready for the roads around this ring to seal solid for a while.
But it's the long-term logic that escapes me; and any remote sense of fairness. This is road rationing by price, by the crudest sort of means testing. It hits mothers taking their five-year-olds to school at Charlotte Sharman, 50 yards over the Elephant boundary, the same as it hits a company CEO in his Jag; it hits my local nurse taking her working kit to surgery the same as it hits John Prescott out for a spin. It hits plumbers and electricians and small shopkeepers struggling to keep Tesco at bay.
It is, quite blatantly, on the side of the big battalions. The tenement flats behind Waterloo are part of this "centre". Knightsbridge apartments are not. Costcutter in The Cut is central. Harvey Nicholls is excused fur-lined boots. The effect, constantly, relentlessly as ¡ê5 swiftly becomes Ken's hinted ¡ê10, will be to drain the heart and the variety out of the city, leaving it to the accountancies and lawyers, the chains, the supermarkets.
And the rationale? Not really congestion, but not really pollution, either. You can skip the charge if you've spent ¡ê1,800 extra on a gas engine conversion, or if you've bought a nine-seat mini-bus. You can unleash a swarm of mopeds - or take a ¡ê15 black taxi, with its pothering diesel engine and stopping in bus lanes without a care. (Oh! The lobbying clout of the black-cab trade.)
This is a charter for the rich who don't care, for firms blithe enough to bung it on to their fees, for unions powerful enough to make the employer stump up. It seals the haves in a status quo cocoon and freezes the would-haves out. It is about giving Ken Livingstone a little of the resource Gordon Brown denied him, not making London a better place. It shuns the need for proper investment or - as Europe has shown - the fairness of the greater pedestrian precinct.
A botch; a blight... but surely "something must be done"? Of course. Just as long as - in our familiar emotional spasm over cars - we don't sound like George W, lecturing New Delhi on the perils of transport delight.