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Drivers deserve freedom of choice

COMMENT

The right to drive our cars where we like and when we like is about to be put under serious threat.

In London, Mayor Ken Livingstone says he has the technology to demand £5 from almost everyone driving on four wheels into the middle of the capital from 17 February 2003.

Meanwhile, professor David Begg and his Commission for Integrated Transport are yet to install their black boxes in our vehicles to allow them to charge for each journey we make in the UK. But the technology exists.

Both see pay as you go schemes as the solution to overcrowded highways, lengthy traffic jams and their cost to the economy. Aside from quality of life issues at stake, now that children's asthma is linked to how close they live to busy roads, the nation's health at large must be considered. But holding the moral high ground does not automatically guarantee you public support - vital when what is really being proposed is a new tax on freedom of movement.

Mayor Ken, I suspect, has a better chance of taking the public with him on this than CfIT.

There is no denying that the centre of the capital is horribly congested with traffic. No one would countenance demolishing swathes of buildings to make room for more roads.

And it is not just commuters who are being targeted, as it is a one size fits all charge. Plus there is a credible, if much neglected, public transport alternative in the Tube and the much underrated London bus network. If you are reasonably fit and not trying to deliver a fridge, you could even walk to your destination.

CfIT has a tougher job. It wants to shift traffic off the congested highway network rather than build more roads. Its charging scheme is skewed to price commuters out of their cars and onto public transport.

Fine in theory, except that there is not always a real alternative. When it does exist, it is certainly not cheap. Even if the 10 year transport plan does produce the goods, it is not likely to really challenge the car for flexibility and convenience.

The choice in one of the examples CfIT gives of 'Joanne commuting from Brighton to Croydon' is to pay a £2,300 a year congestion charge or £2,200 for a train season ticket. The problem is that this is £2,200 more than Joanne thinks she is paying at the moment. Her options are to cough up 15% of her disposable income overnight or change her job.

Repeat this across the country and we soon see that Begg's idea, though worthy, is going to be deeply unpopular.

This is not to say drivers won't be prepared to pay to travel on better, uncongested roads offering more reliable journey times. But they will be happier if they are offered a real choice between paying to use a new, free running road or driving for free on the old, congested route.

CfIT's solution could be under its nose. It should hitch its wagon to the highway widening schemes being proposed in the multi modal studies. People could then pay to use the new 'go faster' lanes, or choose to sit in the queues on the old.

The result would be to spread the traffic around, relieve congestion hot spots and introduce the public more gently to the idea of paying to use their highways. And, of course, the revenues from the multi modal tolls could even go towards improving public transport.

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