Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 214)




  200. There might be one or two.
  (Professor Begg) Perhaps, but I would disagree. When you do it in transport, people take a very different view. It depends on what the product is. If the product is car use, you are right and it could be construed as regressive. I the product is transport and getting people from A to B, it is actually progressive.

Mr Stringer

  201. On that point, you are redistributing from the not very well off to the much poorer, are you not—those people who have just been able to afford a car in an urban area, to those people who are confined to the bus? In that sense, for that group of people it is regressive.
  (Professor Begg) You are right. There are a number of re-distributions taking place on the income scale. The challenge for any local authority introducing congestion charging is to show that for those people who are priced out of their cars, there is an alternative. One of the concerns that we have expressed, for example, is that for people in rural areas there is very little alternative to using a car. That is why we have recommended a complete reform of the way we pay for road use. We think that people who are driving in urban areas should pay more because there is more congestion, and we should be able to provide good public transport there; and people driving in rural areas, causing less congestion, should pay less.

  Mr Stringer: You are driving down a road that I did not want to go.

  Chairman: Then I will pull you back. What was your original question?

Mr Stringer

  202. Do you think there are any comparisons between the London scheme and any other city in the United Kingdom, or whether it is unique?
  (Professor Begg) Comparisons in terms of the congestion charging scheme we have come up with in London?

  203. Would it be of any use, if it works, in comparing it to West Midlands or to Manchester or Leeds, or the other big urban conurbations; or is it so different that it will not be comparable?
  (Professor Begg) It is a bit of both. Everyone will be interested in whether the technology is working effectively. It will be interesting to see exactly what the reduction in demand with the £5 charge is. In other cities the traffic problems are different, less acute than London. A number of cities have the opportunity to put in park-and-ride around the cordon, in a way that is very difficult, if not impossible, to do in London.

  204. We know which cities we are talking about, although we are talking in abstract. We know what the ten great urban conurbations are in this country. Do you think there are any of those urban conurbations where congestion charging would be so damaging, in terms of destruction of jobs, because jobs would flee to out-of-town shopping centres, that it would not be viable?
  (Professor Begg) I would worry about urban conurbations where there is high unemployment, sluggish growth and competition from a neighbouring town close by; so I can understand, for example, why the three main towns in the East Midlands are nervous about pushing forward with this on their own. It is one of the reasons why we think that a regional agenda in Britain would be very helpful to traffic constraint, because it is very difficult for one city to do it on its own. One city where I think congestion charging should be given much higher priority is in Leeds, which has a very good economic growth record. They have delivered some really good changes in public transport. I think it will be difficult for them to reduce congestion without congestion charging.

  205. Your paper makes the case that 70-80 per cent of congestion is urban and the rest is inter-urban. Which do you think is most economically damaging, and have you any evidence about that?
  (Professor Begg) We would argue that it is congestion that is most economically damaging. Congestion charging, we would argue, is actually beneficial to the economy.

  206. I think you are missing my point, I am sorry. If you could remove congestion from our motorway system, inter-urban congestion, or you could move congestion from the cities, which would be most beneficial to the economy overall?
  (Professor Begg) The cities.

  207. Can you give us the evidence?
  (Professor Begg) I do not have hard evidence to give you on that, so I am giving you my view. One of the reasons for that is that there are a lot of measures that we can take to reduce inter-urban congestion, and the recent announcement by the Department for Transport that they are going to deal with the pinch-points and tackle some of the congestion hot-spots, is to be welcomed; but the difficulty is that so many of our motorways have to pass through urban conurbations that they are going to have to deal with that part of the journey at some point.

Tom Brake

  208. I have another public transport question. London Underground told me this morning that any new capacity they create on the tube is immediately filled by new generated journeys, journeys that did not exist before. Are you worried that any new capacity that is created to deal with congestion charges in London is very soon going to be filled by those new journeys as well as modal shift, and therefore the system will be even more congested than it was before?
  (Professor Begg) Is this new journeys on the road, because you are reducing congestion freeing up road space?

  209. This is new journeys on the tube, where people are using the tube because they have more money, more leisure time, and the tube service is there, and therefore the capacity very quickly gets filled up. You would then be putting on top of that people who were trying to achieve modal shift from cars to tube or other forms of public transport.
  (Professor Begg) I have no evidence to challenge the assumptions that have been made by Transport for London. They are making the assumption that there would be 20,000 extra public transport users during peak hour as a result of congestion charging. They are assuming that 15,000 of them, three-quarters, are going to transfer to the bus, where I do think there is a capacity. There is no doubt that it is going to be very, very difficult to create the capacity that is required on the tube and on the heavy rail, in a short time. I think your argument applies much more to road space than it does to public transport. All the evidence that we have seen would indicate that if you reduced congestion by improving infrastructure, where it is a road, or by improving public transport, you buy time; you free up congestion in the short to medium run, but by freeing up congestion, that acts as a magnet to attract additional traffic on the road. Just to back up that statement, it is interesting that if you look at a large number of cities in Britain, there has been very little change in peak-hour traffic volumes over the last twenty years; and that tells us that we hit saturation point in a number of our cities during the peak hours twenty years ago, and congestion itself was constraining the volume of traffic. The only alternative to this is to introduce the price mechanism, and then you will be able to regulate traffic at a given level.

Helen Jackson

  210. Do you think that the present models for congestion charging are sufficiently fine-tuned to differentiate between different classes and types of vehicle, first in London and then in other areas?

  (Professor Begg) Not quite. We have to bear in mind here that this is an experiment—I would argue a very brave experiment that is going to take place in London next year. We cannot see any alternative if we are going to cut congestion in the city. You are always going to have discrepancies on the level of exemptions and charges introduced, but at the end of the day that is a political decision. There are a number of transport professionals who would argue that the number of exemptions should be kept to an absolute bare minimum. There are transport professionals who would also argue that to be effective the charge should be higher. But the Mayor of London and the local politicians have got to make that tough political decision about how far they can go down that line and at the same time carry public opinion.


  211. What about the Government carrying public opinion? Has the Government done enough to convince the public?
  (Professor Begg) No. I think that Alistair Darling has been much more positive in accepting the need publicly for traffic constraint, arguing the case for congestion charging in principle. He has even been quoted in the Observer as saying that there is merit in the London charging scheme. At the same time, he is also right to argue that any politician has got to be concerned about carrying public opinion on this difficult issue.

  212. Are they doing enough?
  (Professor Begg) No, I do not think they are. I would like to see the Government spell out just how important traffic restraint and congestion charging is, if they are going to achieve their target for cutting the levels of congestion. I would like those people who argue against congestion charging to be asked what is their alternative.

Mr Syms

  213. I have this theory that a lot of congestion is caused by the massive growth of traffic lights, and certainly highway engineers these days, with roundabouts, which are meant to be free-flowing, tend to put traffic lights all over them, and then they keep them on 24 hours a day, so that when there is no traffic they are still operating. Do you not think we should audit some of the use of traffic lights and some transport measures, which might have an impact in reducing congestion?
  (Professor Begg) I wish it was so easy. If it were as easy as that, no-one would be doing congestion charging. Politicians do not want to introduce congestion charging—it is so tough. If it was simply a case of tweaking the traffic lights and trying to keep traffic flowing, getting rid of vans that are parked on yellow lines, it would be a lot easier. I am not saying that you cannot improve traffic flow by doing all of these things, but it would be wrong for anybody to assume that it would be a simple solution to a traffic congestion problem. We cannot get away from the fact that the basic problem here is too many vehicles chasing too little road space.


  214. Thank you very much, Professor—as always, not only very coherent and sensible, but very informative.

  (Professor Begg) Thank you for inviting me.

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