Notes from London
Apologies for the lack of new postings, but I’ve finally returned to New York after a week in London and various outposts in the British Midlands. London is a fascinating place, traffic-wise, and I’ve a few lingering thoughts and questions.
That Petrol Emotion. As in the U.S., there was much grumbling over high fuel prices (and Glaswegian transport minister Tom Harris got in a spot of controversy when he suggested Britons were a bit too pessimistic about their economic prospects). What makes gas-grumbling interesting in the U.K. is that fuel prices are three times higher to begin with. Add London’s congestion charges, the U.K.’s higher user and licensing fees, and driving in the U.S., four bucks a gallon or not, looks like a relative bargain (which it is, when one considers the work by Mark DeLucchi that finds U.S. drivers under-paying their way on the road systems by anywhere from 20 to 70 cents per gallon). And speaking of relative bargains, Tim Shallcross, in an interesting piece in the Times of London, makes the simple, if often overlooked, point that gas, as a commodity, varies hugely in price around the world (more so than when compared to, say, beer). “If fuel for transport is so vital for the world economy,” he writes, “wouldn’t it make sense to have some sort of global standard price that we all recognise as fair and sustainable? Then we would all have the same incentives to use it efficiently and wisely.” But, until now at least, there’s been precious little incentive to use fuel efficiently and wisely in the U.S., and even less so in subsidized fuel hotspots like China or Venezuela.
Why Do London Taxi Drivers Hate the Congestion Charge? I spend a fair amount of time in cabs around the world, and I always have questions. Like Koranteng, I often wonder about the “eccentric” braking styles of their drivers. I also often wonder why taxis seem much nicer in countries outside the U.S., even countries with a lower standard of living, as in the Mercedes one sees in Morocco; or why the drivers often seem so much more professional elsewhere (e.g., the white-gloved drivers of Japan). Does our heavier reliance on the private car culturally or economically diminish the taxi market? Do the wages in the U.S. for drivers consign it to being an only entry level sort of job, and is there an ownership issue, in which cabbies here simply rent their rides and have no incentive to fastidiously clean and service them? (Theories welcome!).
But in London, I’m constantly puzzled as to why, when I ask drivers about congestion charging, they invariably seemed opposed. Unless I’m misunderstanding taxi-nomics, I’ve always thought drivers (because of the lucrative initial surchage) made more money the more passengers they carried. The quicker you can get one out, the quicker you can get one one in. Less congestion on streets means faster trips, and more passengers. Faster flower traffic makes taxis themselves more enticing for would-be customers. Less congestion also means drivers themselves spend less on fuel (though London’s black cabs only manage a rather poor 18 mpg). And drivers, who are exposed to higher-than-normal amounts of emissions, would see a personal health benefit from less congestion.
The most common response from drivers is: It’s not working. “London’s still congested,” they say. The obvious problem is the reliability of drivers’ own windshield perspectives, versus the hard data of traffic counts and flows (which do generally show reductions, if not always by envisioned targets). Another issue is the drivers’ antipathy, as a political class, towards ex-Mayor Livingstone, for making them do things like install catalytic converters on their vehicles at a stiff price. Are they going to show him any joy, no matter how much faster their journey? I generally found it fairly easy to get around town, as compared to New York City, and this despite the huge presence of road works that were going on. The photo below shows a typical project (London’s aging pipes are said to lose as much water as people consume). What would congestion levels be like without congestion charging, one wonders? Would these projects have even been possible without inducing a colossal miasma?
This entry was posted on Friday, June 20th, 2008 at 12:23 pm and is filed under Cars, Cities, Congestion, Drivers, Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.