current affairs politics transport

Why ending the ‘war on motorists’ is bad news for drivers

The government has announced an end to the so-called 'war on motorists' this week, with a series of new pro-car policies. But are they actually counter-productive, and in danger of making things worse for drivers?

On monday the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced that he was “ending the war on motorists”, by lifting government imposed restrictions on parking. In case you were wondering what this war is, ‘war on motorists’ is tabloid-speak for encouraging public transport. Until this week, there were pricing guidelines on centre of town parking, and limits to the number of parking spaces in new developments. Those have now been lifted.

At the same time, millions of rail commuters have seen their ticket prices rise. The coalition government has abolished a rule that forbids train companies from raising their prices faster than the rate of inflation. Many rail passengers will spend hundreds of pounds extra every year as a result, as prices went up by an average 5% at the new year.

Quite aside from the government’s claim to being the greenest ever, there is no logic to making life easier for car drivers and harder for train passengers. Last year a survey showed that a quarter of rail commuters were considering driving instead of taking the train, because of the rise in prices. I doubt the numbers will be that high, but those thousands of extra drivers are still bad news for those queueing their way into work on our congested roads. Aside from the political benefits of this week’s moment of tabloid populism, the government’s new pro-car policies are likely to make matters worse for motorists.

The trouble with motoring is that it is subject to the ‘network effect‘. A network effect, or network externality, occurs when additional users of a service affect the overall value of that service to others. A postive effect can be seen online – the more users there are signed up to Skype for example, the more friends you’ll be able to contact for free and the more useful Skype becomes.

The effect works in reverse when it comes to motoring. The more people decide to drive, the more cars there are on the roads and the worse the road network becomes. It’s more congested, and needs to be repaired more often. The more cars on the road, the less efficient driving becomes as a mode of transport. Road widening efforts or more car parking provision are expensive and self-defeating. The new regime announced this week will make parking cheaper and make more spaces available, but if that encourages more people to take the car instead of the bus, the increased competition for parking spaces immediately negates the benefit.

Ironically, the best thing the government could do for motorists is promote buses and trains.

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