Much in the UK press recently has been the government's discussion and embryonic pilot program for the “vehicle tracking and road pricing policy“, and the accompanying e-petition on the Number 10 Downing Street website. The concept is that in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and in turn reduce total vehicle emissions, the government are planning to institute a system whereby road users are to be tracked, and then based on the roads they use, and the times of day they use them, be charged a journey fee.

As the petition (and publicity) illustrates, many people are dead against such a plan, and I found myself uncharacteristically getting wound up (given that I don't actually drive) about it. The salient points swimming around my brain are as follows:

1) A policy such as this would introduce another unavoidable tax on motorists. Now, there already exist several taxes on motorists – both fixed/periodic in nature (registration/insurance/MOT/street parking permit), and use-based (fuel excise/London Congestion Charge). Some London councils have introduced a differential parking permit pricing system based on the emission level of the vehicle, and Gordon Brown in this year's budget raised road taxes for more polluting vehicles. I agree with discouraging people from using private vehicles where it's plausible, but it really seems like the poor motorist is being beseiged here. Were such a charge brought in of course it would affect non-drivers too in the form of increased goods and shipping prices. There's no way that businesses aren't going to pass this charge on.

2) I'm steadily buying into the No2ID argument, following some logical debate, and reading commentary from experts such as Bruce Schneier – so the idea that everyone in Britain will have their vehicle tracked and movements recorded and stored in a database really set off huge alarm bells. Such a system's fraught with so many “what if's”, so before even thinking about how so securely collect and store such data whilst making it safe from outside hacking and internal misuse, one has to pause to consider whether they're ready to place such a large scale and finely calibrated operation in the care of technology which still clocks stationary vehicles and trees with speeding fines.

3) Train/bus overcrowding: the logical progression is of course that people lessen their driving and turn more to public transport. England on the whole has an excellent transport system when it works, however there's no shortage of examples of times when it breaks down for all manner of reason (“leaves on the track” is still my favourite), and on commuter routes there's widespread overcrowding at peak times which I presume is due to rail network being run by private companies interested in cutting costs to maximise profit rather than providing sufficient services. Only last month rail bosses responded to complaints of vast train overcrowding with studies showing that “Research in the late Nineties…found that where there was a crowded or overcrowded train carriage there was no detrimental effect to people involved in crashes. In a lot of cases people were better off in train carriages where there was overcrowding.”. It seems quite unfair to force people into having to use an already practically inadequate system.

4) Environmental benefits: using one of the multitude of carbon emissions calculators out there, it becomes quite obvious that a year's worth of driving has approximately the same carbon atmospheric discharge as 3 flights from London to the Costa del Sol, or 1.5 trips to Tenerife. Wouldn't it then make more sense to stack exorbitant disincentives on people for taking on-a-whim flights to wherever they feel like ? Or, better yet, rather than simply adding a tax to discourage volume of use, have a direct and transparent carbon neutralising fee to accompany use, so that it's clear that money collected under the auspices of lessening environmental damage is actually going to managing that damage rather than being siphoned off into other areas of governmental coffers.

5) Impact higher on lower income earners: a guy I know (and let's face it – what we earn in our industry is probably significantly above the UK national average) recently bought a Toyota Prius, and the sole reason for doing that was for the cost benefits of no congestion charge and lower taxes. He said it in as many words – he bought it so it would enable him to drive into London without having to pay extra. So that's Environment: 1, Congestion benefit: 0 – although again, there's doubt about the overall carbon footprint of a Prius (sorry to keep using it as an example, but it's the most publicised hybrid out there) due to the extra materials & processes used in manufacturing its 2nd motor & battery pack. Plus, as far as I'm aware, owning a hybrid car's no guarantee that it won't be used in petrol mode, so it sounds like shaky ground.

But back to income – any sort of flat rate broad tax is going to affect lower income earners more than higher earners due to the tax being applicable to a larger proportion of their takehome pay. Say person A earns £10000 a year, and person B earns £50000 a year after income tax. Both have material annual requirements of £7000 a year, and at 10% VAT this brings their expenditure to £7700. Person A is therefore spending 7% of their income in VAT, whereas Person B is only spending 1.4%. More importantly, it only leaves A with £2300 to stuff in a mattress and not attract tax, vs. £42300 for B. Introducing a road use charge further erodes the pittance that A has left, whereas the cornerstone of my shaky argument is that B can afford a newer & more efficient car, and not only will a road use charge have less overall impact on their financial position, but they'll possibly be paying less per annum in operating costs and charges anyway.

Of course that's a really specific example and doesn't take into account all the rich buggers driving around old model Jaguar V16s and so on.

In summary, the vehicle tracking and road pricing policy sounds like an intrusive, unfair, unsound pile of bullshit, and it's just insulting that the powers that be try to justify it on environmental grounds when it's more clearly designed to get poor people off the road so that rich people can get to their weekend homes in Oxfordshire faster. Reducing private cars by replacement with public transport is an excellent idea, however is this really the right way to go about it ?

As I wipe the foam from my chin, it occurs to me that I haven't really made a dent on airing my understanding of carbon offsetting, however too much opinionated ill-informed rhetoric in one go is a bad thing, so you're free to go. For the moment.

2007-02-20 : What prat thought that was a good idea?
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