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Transport after the Pandemic John Huggins

March 6, 2021 8:56 PM
By John Huggins in GLD Challenge magazine 2020-21

Transport after the Pandemic John Huggins


We Need a Plan:
We are trying to deal with two serious problems related to transport namely air pollution and climate change. Air pollution is the more immediate as it is killing people every day, although only recently has it been recorded officially as a cause of death. Nevertheless action to deal with both problems needs to begin immediately or, as soon as climate change allows.

We hear much about targets, deadlines and goals, relating to both pollution and climate change, from all political parties, but what is missing, in most cases, is what we need to do in the short to medium term in order to meet them.

Public Transport
During the pandemic everyone is being urged to avoid Public Transport because of the difficulty of social distancing. Instead, they are being encouraged to walk or cycle. This has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging some people to drive private cars for journeys for which they would previously have used public transport.
After the pandemic we need to persuade these drivers back on to public transport and go further and persuade all drivers to use public transport where that is a reasonable alternative to the private car. We need both a carrot and stick approach with the carrot coming some time before the stick in order to keep public opinion on our side.

We will have to freeze all fares at their current level for at least two years. Also we have to bring all bus and train schedules back to their pre-pandemic frequency as fast as possible. Then we will have to consider where we need to increase public transport in order to persuade more motorists out of their cars. London is well served by public transport, but other towns and cities are not, and many rural areas have no, or little, access to public transport.
On the railways, we need to concentrate on the short to medium term. We cannot wait for long-terms projects like HS2 to solve climate change and pollution problems. We must improve the existing railways to connect our great cities, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east and up to Newcastle in the north. We must also improve the ability for people to get in to our towns and cities by public transport from their surrounding area. Where possible this should be by improving the existing rail system to make it faster and more reliable.

Rural Areas
Trains will not be a solution and buses and mini-buses will be required in substantial numbers. At present, in rural areas, public transport is often non-extent or so infrequent to make it not a serious alternative to the private car. Many people who live in rural communities do not really earn enough to afford to buy and run a car. Nevertheless these people are often forced to buy a car in order to get to their place of work. The only alternative for them is to buy an old car which is likely to be both heavily polluting and a producer of a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide. They will only be persuaded out of their cars by a massive improvement in affordable rural bus provision.

Electric Vehicles
We are often given the impression that all we need is a seamless transition to electric cars and then travel can continue as now. Many people will not be able to install charging points at their homes and will be reluctant to leave their cars at public charging points without supervision and a solution for them remains to be found.
Electric cars are going to be heavily dependent for battery charging on whatever marginal generating capacity is available at night. By definition that will not be solar power, and wind power will not normally be sufficient, which means that for some time to come we will be dependent on natural gas-fired power stations. Without gas, imagine the situation on a cold winter's night when the wind around the British Isles is light. This is not an unlikely scenario as meteorologists tell us that very cold weather is often associated with light winds, despite our "experience" telling us that cold and wind go together. In the long term we will hope that batteries and other forms of energy storage will be developed, but until we can rely on energy storage on the massive scale required natural gas will have to be relied on for marginal generation. We must hope that, in the interim, carbon capture and storage can be developed to mitigate the effects on climate change.

The Private Car
As well as the transition to electric cars, we need to reduce the overall number of cars and, more importantly, the total mileage covered by private cars each year. As already mentioned, electric cars will often require natural gas power stations to charge their batteries but also electric cars still produce much pollution from tyre and brake dust, particularly in the form of the tiny particles that cause much lung damage. More research is needed into developing materials for brakes and tyres that do not produce as much tiny particle pollution.

Road Pricing
In order to reduce pollution in our towns and cities, it will be essential to introduce some form of road pricing. The congestion charge in London has been a start, but it suffers from the flaw that the charge is the same, for a vehicle travelling once into London, parking all day and travelling once out again, and a vehicle that spends much of the day in London travelling from one place to another. The road price may vary at different times of day, but it is important that the prices are known in advance so that motorists can make informed decisions.

Taxation, whether in the form of vehicle tax, fuel tax, congestion charging, pollution charging or road pricing, will always be a critical element in the battle with pollution and climate change and it is useful to consider what are the main drivers behind any particular tax. The first is that all governments require revenue to pay for all the things that the population wants them to do (and the population is happy to pay for). The second is to pay for something specific like the Health Service (although the link between National Insurance and paying for the benefits provided is somewhat tenuous) or tolls on bridges and motorways. The third is to dissuade us from doing something like the taxes on smoking and alcohol.
Any taxes on motoring will contain an element of all three. The transition to electric cars would leave the Government very short of revenue if electric cars were virtually exempt from taxation as is the case at present. There will, therefore, be a requirement to still raise taxes from the motoring public. There will also be requirement to pay for all the roads, bridges and tunnels and their maintenance. Even electric car drivers will need to be dissuaded from using their cars to reduce pollution and reduce the use, although limited, of fossil fuels in power stations.

The Plan - Now
Any plan, although having long-term goals, must show a distinct path to reach those goals, starting with action on day one.
The plan will have many elements including: increasing tax on petrol and diesel, subsidising public transport, road pricing, subsidising electric vehicles (in the short-term) and, doubtless, many other elements of tax and subsidy to persuade us to change our ingrained love of the motor car.
The burden of these changes will fall disproportionately on those on low incomes and necessary adjustments will have to be made to state benefits and the minimum wage, but that is a subject for another day.

by John Huggins