Friday, August 03, 2007

Cambridge congestion charging

For the last couple of weeks the local paper has been consumed with the idea that Cambridge may soon be subject to a congestion charge. The initial fury gave way to rage which gave way to moderate apoplexy. The full gamut of emotions has been on display.

The Evening News did eventually get round to mentioning that some people were for it, which was nice, but it's worth looking at the detail of the plan to see just what has got them so irritated.

Firstly the size of the zone. It's the whole of Cambridge, including the bits the haven't been built yet. That's quite big.

Secondly it includes people going out of the city when the congestion is all going one way, inwards. Which means it charges people who are not contributing to the congestion.

Thirdly, the cost, a possible £5 per day to drive in the zone. That seems quite a lot if you have to pay this for work.

And lastly the fact that local residents will not be exempt from the charge. Which means you have no way of avoiding the charge if you have to use your car at the allotted times.

Oh, and of course a lot of this is predicated upon "improvements to public transport" that are as yet to materialise. You may doubt that they will ever materialise, however, I'm an optimist. I think that when we're under six foot of water they'll *have* to introduce a ferry or something. Surely.

Some of the suggested disasters that will fall on the city due to congestion charging are a little weird. Like creating a brain drain (from Cambridge, with it's top university and surfeit of IT workers?). I'll try to keep to real worries and advantages to the scheme here.

As someone who's open to congestion charging in principle aspects of this plan make me wince. One person even suggested to me that it was the Tory county council getting their revenge on Cambridge who didn't return a single blue rosette to the City Council. Obviously I would not put anything past the County Council them but I suspect this is not their primary motivation.

I suspect their motivations are pretty simple in fact. Money and attempting to solve the absolutely horrific congestion. I'm not sure we need to dig any deeper than that.

One of the things that irritate me about the anti-crowd is that whilst some of the concerns are very real - I do think the plan as proposed is flawed - they throw in all sorts of out of proportion nonsense. For instance, you wouldn't know it to listen to these people that the charge is proposed only to apply to peak times - 7.30 to 9.30. Not exactly draconian.

Bev Nicholson said in the CEN "They [anti-congestion charge people] wax anxiously about the shopping in Cambridge dying because no-one comes into it any more, even though it will only operate for two hours a day during the morning on week days. I have to say, given the state of congestion, it could do that now. We know that at certain times of the day streets are full of queuing traffic and it clearly makes it difficult to get anywhere.

The CEN's call for a referendum is very welcome although much of this would depend on the plan itself. Cllr Shona Johnstone, right, resists the idea of referendum for all the wrong reasons in my view, but it's true that the public need to be able to amended the plan so that it's sensitive to the needs of Cambridge residents and so that we are guaranteed a decent public transport system.

If we're able to do that then the plans may sail through, but as it stands many of those who want to see carbon emissions reduce would still vote against because the plan is just so harsh. A yes / no vote without being able to express an opinion on aspects of the plan would be an exercise in futility and tell us very little about whether the people of Cambridge want a congestion charge or not.

However, I agree with the former mayor of Cambridge, John Hipkin, when he says he believes the county council is "overbidding" on the charge - so it can scale back its plans at a later date to something more favourable. He said: "This notion of charging people to go out of the city between 7.30am and 9.30am is crazy. I imagine that will be eventually dropped, they are not contributing to congestion by leaving the city.

"The other thing that will be difficult to manage is charging residents to operate within the zone. I have some sympathy with the idea, with the school run in particular, it ought to be penalised if they could walk, go by cycle or use public transport."

It's a classic manouver on the part of councils. Suggest a plan that looks totally unacceptable, scrap the worst bits after public outcry and get what you want in the first place. Cunning.

Again from the CEN "John Short, from Lolworth, says the council is quite right to consider a charge."Traffic congestion in Cambridge is unsustainable. Something has to be done to change our behaviour. But the level of debate so far has been predictable and pathetic," he said.

"Consider the following - no-one using park and ride will have to pay the congestion charge; by the time it is introduced the guided bus service between St Ives and Addenbrooke's will be in service; many businesses will reorganise their working day so that staff can avoid the 7.30am-9.30am charging; and shoppers and shops will be largely unaffected as the proposed charging will end at 9.30am. Yes, we need to debate these proposals - but let us do so with some sense o f balance and not hysteria."

The council is bidding for £500 million pounds of central government money to fund transport improvements and the congestion charge zone, although being a member of the mighty Cambridge Bus Users Forum I'm aware that the council has so little purchase over what the private operators do without direct control over the buses I'm concerned much of this would be money squandered. But perhaps that's not warranted, I'll try to keep an open mind.

Martin Lucas-Smith told the Evening News: "Do Cambridgeshire residents really want to throw away £500 million of funding, which would give them genuine, high-quality alternatives to being stuck in traffic queues? This level of funding would totally dwarf current levels of investment. It would be free money on the table from the Government, assuming a bid would be accepted, as seems likely."

We really do need to cut down the traffic, to reduce emissions and to enable people to travel round the city without being subjected to the rush "hour" gridlock. It seems to me we have an opportunity here to push for one part of strategy to make this city less damaging to the environment, but we need to engage with the process in order to ensure that the plans do not inadvertantly do social harm.

If you live in Cambridge or its surrounds why not write to the council and let them know what you think?

You could also write to the CEN whilst you're about it


Beniex said...

I've got one question - how will the toll be paid? Will there be some checkponts, where drivers will pay it, or will the cameras be involved in this process?

A congestion charge is a good idea but as I can see from your note it's also controversial and sometimes it's transformed into something that is surreal.

Thanks for the info
a Green from Poland:)

Anonymous said...

>For instance, you wouldn't know it to listen to these people that the charge is proposed only to apply to peak times - 7.30 to 9.30. Not exactly draconian.

Not exactly draconian? That has the sound of being written by someone who does not have essential journeys at those times.

I no longer visit Oxford as it is such a pain in the arse to get to/around, and the general anti-driver policies.

Does Cambridge wish to lose my custom too?

Jim Jay said...

- How will it be paid?

At this stage there is no firm proposal. I suspect it will be similar to london with cameras taking snaps of your vehicle and people paying by phone / card whatever.

- Is it Draconian?

If it doesn't effect people's behaviour then it wont reduce traffic. Cambridge has an excellent park and ride facilities which are already in a lot of use.

I do make essential journeys at that time (going to work) but I walk. I am certainly very sympathetic to those who *must* use a car (probably a minority of car users but they certainly exist) and *must* use it at these times - I'd like to see a range of options for dispensations and reductions for special cases - but at the end of the day we need to reduce car use and a congestion charge can be part of that.

It may be inconvenient - but then so is bumper to bumper traffic and climate change.

Anonymous said...

I have considerable experience of the London CC and the only real benefit I find is that it's easier to find a parking space - overal traffic speed hasn't improved noticeably, you just spend longer sitting at traffic lights rather than driving between them.

However my over-riding objection to Congestion Charging in principle. is that it takes no account whatsoever of need to drive in the zone - If you can afford it, you're OK. - You only need to see the cars dropping wealthy shoppers around Bond Street etc.

Tradesmen are ripping off Londerners by adding a"CC surcharge" when doing jobs within the zone (ignoring the fact that they may be charging several customers in the same day.

The rush-hour-only scheme proposed for Cambridge doesn't consider parents taking children to the many schools within the city (I suppose the thinking is that if they can afford the fees, they can afford the CC as well!)

The Mole said...

Great comments about the charge and I really agree with what you say. Have quoted you on my blog along with a link from me to you.
Would appreciate if you would be kind enough to reciprocate.