Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Jams today, jams tomorrow

(February 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.271, February 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

London’s congestion charge will do little to solve its transport problems

On 17 February London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, introduces his £5 a day congestion charge for anyone who drives into central London between 7 a.m. And 6.30 p.m. The charge is already generating enormous controversy – and massive speculation as to whether it will work.

The issue is clearly not as important as that raised by the anti-war demonstration two days before. But it is not a marginal question either. People are spending around 50 percent longer travelling to work than half a century ago. Traffic fumes are continually damaging people’s health, much more so in poor inner city areas than in rich suburbs. And although poorer families are much less likely to own a car (let alone two or three) than the rich, their children are much more likely to be knocked down by vehicles.

It is not just a problem for London. Traffic can virtually grind to a halt, even in quite small towns, anywhere in western Europe during rush hour. And the worst pollution and congestion anywhere can be in the burgeoning cities of the Third World.

The car culture is in many ways a logical conclusion to the market philosophy that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and their families’. We can supposedly solve all our problems of getting from one place to another individually, propelled by our own private internal combustion engines, without worrying about any form of collective endeavour. Any restriction on that is an ‘attack on freedom’.

Thatcher embraced it enthusiastically, as she pushed through endless roadbuilding programmes, slashed investment on railways and the tube system, and deregulated and privatised the buses. New Labour, after brief hesitation, is now unashamedly charging in the same direction.

The end result, of course, is that the chaos, the hold-ups and the frustration get worse by the year, with road traffic in London going no faster in 2002 than horse-drawn journeys in the 1890s. Just as the rush to profit from capitalist booms always ends in slump, so the rush forward of the car lobby ends in the perpetual traffic jam. The point has been reached where even the bosses’ CBI, representing the great capitalist interests who profit so much from the car economy, is now worried.

Livingstone’s scheme has led to coalitions, in favour and against, that bridge traditional divides of left and right. Backing it are the top business interests organised in London First, many Greens, a section of the traditional Labour left and, covertly, many New Labour leaders of out-of-London councils who will copy it if it works. Against it are the right wing tabloids, the Tories and a number of unions, some of whose members will find it more expensive to get to work.

What position should socialists take? We cannot in any way tail an anti campaign led by the Mail, Express, Sun, the Tories and the car lobby. But we cannot back Livingstone’s plan either. It suffers from two fundamental, linked faults – it is class based and will do little for the environment.

The charge, like the poll tax of a dozen years ago, hits the rich and the poor equally. Those earning £2,000 a week are not going to be deterred from entering the central zone by an extra fiver a day. After all, at present they have to pay at least £4 an hour for parking unless they have privileged access to company car parks.

It is drivers on average wages and below who will face the choice between staying outside the central zone or suffering a drop in their living standards.

Livingstone says he is going to improve public transport with money from the congestion charge. But his advisers boast that London is set to become the business centre of the world, and his plan for traffic, like his plan for multiple skyscrapers, is tailored accordingly. Just as railway seats are graded into two classes, public transport in Livingstone’s London will be in three classes.

First, those able to afford taxis, which will be exempt from the congestion charge and allowed in most bus lanes, even though they use up as much road space and create as many unhealthy fumes per passenger as any car.

Second, those who use the tube who, with the return fare into the inner zone and back at a minimum of £4, will be paying out nearly as much as the congestion charge.

Finally, there will be the buses for those not easily able to pay the tube fares. There may have been some marginal improvement in bus services and some cheapening of fares, but those who opt for this will still find themselves waiting in the cold for buses before facing delays caused by roadworks, traffic queues and taxis clogging up the bus lanes.

Posters advertising the charge boast that it will reduce traffic by about 17 percent. In other words, it will leave 83 percent of traffic unaffected. A disproportionate amount of this will be made up of the bigger cars owned by the rich – Jaguars, Rolls Royces, 4x4s. Much of the other 17 percent will be siphoned off into rat runs through the main working class residential districts that skirt the central zone. Any improvement in pollution and the greenhouse effect will be negligible.

None of this means that socialists should abstain from the arguments about the charge. But we have a case of our own we should argue.

A complete reorganisation and expansion of the provision of public transport is needed, with an end to privatisation. This will not, in itself, do away with the need to restrict car use. There is simply not enough room in central London for everyone who might still like to drive in to do so.

But rationing should not be based upon ability to pay, any more than rationing of food should be in famine conditions. There are some groups with greater needs than others (the disabled, those carrying pre-school children, some key workers). The rest should be given equal and free entitlement to the maximum number of journeys a year that are compatible with the health and wellbeing of everybody else.

Sometimes capitalism creates things that, used in a different way, could solve some of society’s worst problems. Livingstone has set up elaborate technology for restricting entry into city centres. If it works (still a big if) we should call for it to be used to restrict entry according to need, not income. That is something that could tap union opposition to some of the features of Livingstone’s class-based scheme – and sink the car lobby of the Mail, Express and Sun.

Last updated on 27 December 2009