Think before you sign that petition

Stationary traffic on Britain's main M1 motorway. Photo: Steve Bowbrick
I like road pricing but it’s a big, important policy and – inevitably – it’s a proper curate’s egg. To start with we need to understand what’s good and what’s bad about it.

The good parts:

It’s subtle. Much subtler, for instance, than the sledgehammer of general taxation.

It’s direct. Tweak the price for this evening’s rush hour and you’ll see the effect tomorrow (politics notwithstanding). Achieving the policy’s goals (reducing congestion) should be possible.

It’s green. It’s about reassignment of capacity and reduction of load and it requires a better understanding of demand. All of this is good.

It explains itself. Nothing like a forty-foot illuminated road-sign with a price on it to communicate public policy.

The bad parts:

It’s not progressive. Worse, making it progressive would require huge violations of privacy (connecting government computers to provide discounts for pensioners, for instance).

It’s a potential privacy nightmare. The instinct of officials and legislators is always threefold: capture everything, link it with everything else and keep it forever. That erodes liberty and damages public trust.

It’s also a potential public IT money pit (we’re good at those).

It’s politically difficult. No one likes new taxes, everyone assumes it will duplicate existing taxes (difficult to argue with, that one) – and then there’s ‘the motoring lobby’.

It’s indiscriminate. It will punish people who work in low-skill, labour-rich businesses – employers won’t have much incentive to provide flexible working hours so these workers will just have to fork out for rush-hour charges.

It doesn’t address the underlying problem. In a modern, growth-oriented society (i.e. all of them except North Korea) demand must continue to grow. Providing alternatives to congested roads will become even more important once incentives to stop using them are in place.

It ought to be:

Accountable. Prices should be set by a body you can vote for – a local authority or central government – not by the Highways Agency or a new Quango.

Not Big Brother. Everyone knows that you can make even big real world systems like this one ‘blind’, with a parsimonious data policy: recording only the data needed, connecting it with other data only in an emergency and dumping records as soon as they’ve been used, for instance. It’s just that the instinct of Governments and officials is always to go further. A project like this could be an opportunity to show that public IT doesn’t need to be elephantine, intrusive, broken. How about a system designed from scratch as an exemplar of Big Brother-Free data policy? Fat chance, I suppose.

Simple: designed by a couple of geeks in a room, not by KPMG or Accenture. Design goals like: small, elegant and simple should come ahead of mega-contractor priorities like: redundant, integrated, comprehensive. The totalising instincts of the big boys have got us into enough of a mess over the years. We could take this opportunity to reverse a malignant trend.

I wonder if the big petition might provide the kind of opportunity for a debate about road pricing that Big Brother provided last month about racism and bullying. If it does, I’d say that’s a small victory for Number 10’s openness and readiness to host dissenting voices.

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On the buses

Red Routemaster buses in Oxford Street, London, in 2002
Roitemasters in Oxford Street

The Routemasters are like jellied eels or Hawksmoor Churches or those people who swim in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. They’re eccentric and they say something about London’s weirdness and complexity and also its attachment to worn-out ideas and things. History tells us we won’t miss the old buses as much as we think we will, though. They’ll go the way of smoking carriages on the tube (or that pub on the platform at Sloane Square tube). In a few years they’ll be a folk memory – and besides, the bendy buses are already acquiring their own myths which will smoothly replace Routemaster stories over the next decades (they’re so huge: they’re like two tennis courts joined together. You could film an episode of Strictly Come Dancing in one half easily).

Like most people, what I’ll miss most is the conductors and not only because both my parents were conductors on Routemasters in the 50s. In those days the conductor was very much the junior crew member. Lots of drivers from that period were war-scarred veterans who’d learnt to drive in a tank or a military ambulance or a truck and joined the buses on demob. These men were worldly and full of stories and they often took their young conductors under their wings. My parents still talk with a lot of affection about their various drivers from that period, men who brought the wisdom and stoicism of the battlefield to the buses and weren’t really bothered what jumped-up inspectors and managers had to say, what with having seen off the Nazis and all that.

They’re not all Routemasters, you know. We call them Routemasters now like we call vacuum cleaners ‘hoovers’. Stick your hand out and stop the next bus geek and he’ll tell you that there were loads of other brands of double-decker, half-cab, open-platform buses on the road back then and that, whichever one you worked on, they were all hard work. No proper heating, no power steering, no automatic transmission, nowhere to stow a pram or a suitcase.

Fifteen years ago I went down to the London Transport Museum and bought my Dad an old conductor’s ticket machine for his birthday. It was a thing of beauty: made from shiny aluminium, worn smooth by years of service. It was heavy and had a satisfyingly chunky action (“whizz-whizz-clunk”). Of course, when I gave the thing to him he said: “Never used one of these. This is a model G. Very unreliable. We used the D in my garage”.