Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

Manchester Congestion Charge – Why I Voted “No”

From a purely selfish point of view, these proposals do nothing to make my life better. The places I might go by public transport are basically the city centre, Salford, Eccles and Sale. There is an excellent bus route from outside my flat into the centre of town, and the other three journeys currently require that I go into the city and come out again. This wouldn’t change under the new proposals.

Conversely, the proposals would make my life a little worse. My local supermarket is the other side of the inner charging boundary, and it so happens that the time at which I routinely do my weekly shop is such that I’d be charged for doing so. The one problem I have with the current bus service into the city centre is congestion along the first mile or so of the route, caused in no small part by the fact that there are so many buses around (which is why, on the whole, I don’t mind living with it). The proposals involve adding more buses to this route, making this congestion worse.

But I don’t like to make my decision on a purely egocentric basis. Let’s consider some of the details of the proposal:

  • More buses (although how many more isn’t clear), 60 miles of segregated / priority bus routing
  • 125 miles of cycle routes and 2,500 additional cycle parking spaces at train and tram stations
  • 62 new trams, capable of carrying an additional 30,000 passengers during the morning rush hour
  • 3,400 new park-and-ride spaces, 1,400 of them at tram stations
  • Space for an additional 2,950 rail passengers during the morning rush hour

To put this in perspective, Greater Manchester has a population of about 2.5 million. If it were circular in shape, it would have a diameter of 25 miles. It is, on other words, a fairly big place: 60 miles of bus route is not quite enough to circumnavigate it; 125 miles of cycle path is just enough to provide ten spokes connecting the circumference to the centre, with about 8 miles between the endpoints.

The 2001 census puts the workplace population of the region at 1.1million, so the problem of the morning rush hour is, roughly speaking, that of 1 million people trying to get to work. The true figure is probably rather higher, since this doesn’t count people who live in the region but work outside it, but it does include people working night-shifts etc in the morning rush so we can take it as a reasonable estimate.

Providing space for 3,000 more people on trains (not 3,000 people concurrently; a total of 3,000 additional passenger journeys) doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference in that context. Travelling into Manchester by train in the morning right now is not just cramped, it’s positively intimate, and a few more seats isn’t going to change that.

30,000 additional tram passengers is more like it. The difficulty is that the tram stations are few and far between, with about 70 stations serving an area of just shy of 500 square miles. Of course, one can drive to the tram station and take advantage of the new park-and-ride facilities; but 30,000 people can’t, since there are only 1,400 new spaces, and given that people typically travel to work alone, this amounts to just 1,400 new tram passengers.

This is quite apart from the fact that tram prices compare very poorly with other forms of transport. If I visit my friend in Salford, and we decide to head into the city centre for a drink, we can do so by tram – at a cost of £3.80 and a fifteen minute walk. A taxi, door-to-door, costs about £4.50.

As for the buses – well, it’s hard to say what sort of difference “more” buses will make. What is interesting to note is that most of the bus companies in the region are owned in whole or in part by Stagecoach – so the proposals pour more money into the pocket of Brian Souter, whose associations with the BNP and the homophobic Church of the Nazarene are well documented.

Nonetheless, these are undoubtedly improvements and will make some difference to the number of cars on the road; but it doesn’t feel like £2.7bn worth of difference.

So how will that £2.7bn be spent? It seems likely that it will be split four ways: land and property will have to be bought for at least some of the new developments (land and property in areas, incidentally, where it has long been known the councils will be looking to buy). Some will be spent on support systems like signs telling us when the next bus is due and toilets at stations. Some will be spent converting property on or near stations to shops (at least if the refurbishment of Piccadilly station is anything to go by – the same number of platforms, trains, toilets, left luggage spaces, ticket offices and information points as before, but a nice new Marks and Spencers). The rest will be spent on actual transport facilities – buses, trains, trams, things like that. What the proposal fails to tell us, though, is just how much money will be spent on what we might consider core improvements (eg, things that actually carry people from one place to another) how much on other facilities (eg, shelters to wait in because there aren’t enough things carrying people from one place to another) and how much of the £2.7bn will end in the pockets of the local property magnates.

All this aside, however, there is the question of where that £2.7bn will come from. £1.5bn is on offer from central government and “£1.2 billion would be borrowed, which would be paid back through a mix of congestion charges and public transport revenues.” (from the notes distributed with the ballot paper)

To put this in context, the ten authorities in the region spend about £6bn per year; the loan represents 20% of the authorities’ annual budgets. So, while it isn’t exactly a path to penury it will nonetheless be a significant factor in council finances. The proposals don’t tell us anything about the interest rates on the loan; about default penalties or the deferred repayments; about the repayment schedule; or about guarantees, insurance and collateral. What it does tell us, though, is where the money will come from to repay the loan – the congestion charge and fares on public transport.

Even if we are optimistic, and think that interest rates won’t rise and the council won’t default and the banks will play nice and that generally, everything will go to plan, there are really only two ways this can go down.

Possibility one is that the congestion charge has the desired effect and pushes more people on to public transport. In this case, the revenue from the congestion charge will come down over time. Now, for this to happen, people would have to pay less on public transport than on fuel and congestion charges. The fuel cost of making a journey by car is small compared to the cost of the same journey on public transport (my city centre journey is £1.05 by bus or 30p by car), so this basically means that the cost of public transport would have to be less than the congestion charge. Perhaps a little more for those drivers conscious of their fuel costs. What we can say with certainty is that the gross increase in income to public transport would not be much more than the gross decrease in congestion charge income. The cost of collecting the congestion charge would not decrease, so the net decrease in congestion charge income would be about the same as the gross. On the other hand, the net increase in public transport revenue would be rather less than the gross. If the congestion charge succeeds, the council will have less money to pay off the debt, and may have to raise either the congestion charge, or public transport fares, to do so.

Possibility two is that the congestion charge does nothing to push people on to public transport. This will, of course, make the whole exercise rather pointless, but the problem doesn’t end there. With no additional passengers, but more services and lower fares, public transport will be less profitable than anticipated (since presumably the financial plans assume some success for the charge). So again, the result is a likely shortfall in the money available to pay off the debt, a shortfall that can only be made up by increasing either fares or the congestion charge.

One hopes, of course, that there is a happy medium, a balance between private and public transport use which provides sufficient income to pay off the loan comfortably; and we would assume that any such balance could take a more or less broad range of values. The gamble we take, then, is that the actual pattern of use will fall into this range. The difficulty is that the proposal doesn’t tell us what sort of gamble we are taking, or even whether the people proposing the charge have considered the question.

The truth is that the congestion charge is the sort of thing that appeals to all my tree-hugging, pro-environment, anti-car instincts. I really ought to be voting for it. There are just too many questions.


Filed under: Politics

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The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
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