To prevent autonomous vehicles clogging our cities, we need to talk about road-pricing

Here we go again. Image: Getty.

Every policy has its time and its age.  With the advent of autonomous vehicles, traffic jams could be solved for good. But it is arguably more probable that the opposite will prove true: autonomous vehicles might have us drowning in road congestion.

Even without autonomous vehicles, urbanisation and motorisation have always been the main drivers of traffic jams – so it’s unsurprising that it’s around cities and in larger metropolitan areas where we find the highest levels of road congestion. These places with already strained capacity will also experience the largest increases in autonomous transportation.

Today, for each minute in rush-hour traffic, car users spend an additional half a minute stuck in traffic jams. Take Paris and Brussels for example. Around the EU parliament, the average driver unnecessarily wastes 104 hours a year stuck in traffic; while in the French capital, the morning commute takes 68 per cent longer than necessary and 2 per cent longer than last year.

A handful of cities bravely started fighting the jam-surge by cordoning their inner cities and charging for entry by car. But the tale of one of these, London, clearly demonstrates why such ‘cordon’ tolls are inadequate now, and especially for a time of autonomous vehicles.

London implemented a toll in 2003 and as a result, downtown car travel demand dipped slightly with travel times substantially improving. Fast-forward to 2017, the toll has been adjusted upwards several times, but travel times are worse than ever. Why? Because the toll does not account for the distance and time driven.

And so, some commuters faced with the toll made the most convenient choice and switched from their private car to ride-hailing services such as Uber. Since simultaneously parcel delivery services soared and construction decreased road space, streets are clogged once more.

This causes two problems. First, bus travelers, who are in the majority in London, suffer from this decision. Second, a few years down the road, when an autonomous vehicle trip might come at transit prices, demand for these autonomous cabs will explode – and, as a result, so will jams.

Autonomous vehicles need not be the sword of Damocles; with some ingenuity they could instead be our savior. But it will take political leadership to find a better solution than Julius Caesar, who in ancient times went to the extreme and forbade all day-time cart-travel in ancient Rome.

To a policymaker, road pricing is a toxic political endeavor. In Brussels, for example, just the publication of a study on the topic sparked an online petition against road pricing, which garnered more than 170,000 signatures in only 10 days. While road pricing is a sound policy, public mistrust towards the policy is evident.

The potential misuse of the substantial revenue for partisan political interests is one concern. Related is the fear that, during the political implementation, a well-meant policy is turned into another hidden tax – or merely a costly instrument to charge foreign drivers as in the case of a recently announced German highway toll. These concerns can fully be met given the correct setup and clear communication of the policy.

The most important, but usually tacit, emotional response for favouring a state of congestion over a system with tolls is that congestion affects people of all incomes equally. Road pricing, by contrast, is perceived as the upper class trying to gain another advantage over everyone else.

But the truth is far more subtle than this. Thirty years ago, wealthier people started moving back into inner cities that were finally cleaner and safer, which led to the exorbitant housing prices in downtowns. Today, as a result, the wealthier can live closer to work and commute less.

That means it is a mix of the middle and lower incomes that are spending the most time in the car, breathing exhaust instead of working or enjoying time with their loved ones. Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City summarises perfectly how long commutes do tremendous social harm: a commute of more than 45 minutes, for example, increases the probability of a failed marriage by 40 per cent. Other research shows that long-term exposure to fine-dust pollutants increases the risks of dementia and coronary disease by up to 10 per cent.

Even when we exclude the social harm road congestion does, the mere economic loss to society is staggering and estimated to be more than 1 per cent of GDP by the EU commission and the World Health Organization. This translates to a €165 billion annual loss for the EU28: a figure that for now just keeps on growing. 

The cure is not a bitter pill but a well-proven, readily available and low-key remedy in the form of a GPS locator and an app that could easily be implemented in any modern smartphone. A number of recent studies demonstrate that even in cities with the worst congestion, peak tolls of between 10 to 20 eurocents per kilometre would let you arrive at your destination on time and – best of all – allow more people to travel by car than currently. The revenue can then be spent on providing better and cheaper public transit as well as updating bicycle infrastructure and pavements for families.

Across the political spectrum, sensible road pricing is the elephant in the room. Tellingly, the words “incentive”, “pricing” and “tolls” were completely absent during the recent European conference on autonomous vehicles in Brussels.

Don’t abandon hope yet: it is rumoured that road pricing is once again part of the Dutch coalition discussions in Amsterdam. What’s more, heavily affected metropolitan regions such as Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo have demonstrated in the past that they can implement sensible road policies.

Today, road pricing should be on all policy makers’ minds. In the autonomous not-so-far future, it’ll be the job of industry and the public to force the politicians’ hand

Martin Adler is a transport and urban economist, VU University Amsterdam researcher, and fellow at Policy Network.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.