It’s a question often asked of environmentalists who live out in the sticks: how do you reconcile the need to cut down on car dependency with the need for cars in rural areas?
The question is borne out of a failure to view taxing transport in a sensible way, a failure that’s been highlighted by the recent spate of panic buying of petrol and diesel with a possible tanker drivers’ strike on the horizon.
Let’s consider the environmental impact of cars for a minute. A car that drives one mile in the country makes exactly the same contribution to global warming as the same car driving one mile in a big city. But that same car’s emissions of polluting gases (as opposed to climate-changing emissions) do much more damage in the city than in the country. This is because the impact is on human health, and there are a lot more people per unit area of ground in cities than there are in rural areas, so more people are affected by the pollution.
This goes hand-in-hand with another crucial point: that putting all your eggs into the basket of raising fuel taxes isn’t good for the environment or the economy. Fuel tax is a blunt instrument that penalises car drivers who have no alternative the same way as those who have three bus routes and a train or metro station within walking distance of their home.
This has been amply illustrated by the discrepancy in queues for filling stations in cities and rural areas. The queues were much bigger in the sticks than in the towns. Why? Because in the sticks an empty tank means a loss of mobility, while in the towns an empty tank means you have to use public transport. Some urban dwellers may not want to use public transport, but at least it’s there. In many rural villages of East Sussex, you’re lucky if you get a two-hourly bus service, and lucky to get any bus at all on Sundays.
This is why local and national governments must bite the bullet and seize a greater role for congestion charging in our large cities. It’s about making those who have the most plentiful alternatives to the car pay the most for using their car. The congestion charging schemes in London and Stockholm have been a great success in reducing car traffic and generating revenue to improve public transport. It won’t work everywhere because you need a certain density of population to achieve it, but the principle is right and in conurbations it has been proven to work.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against fuel tax. Even in areas where there is really no alternative to the car, the price of motoring must be high enough to make people use their cars in a smart way, for example by planning their day so they do two or three things with one car trip rather than make two or three trips.
But if we’re to take the view as a society – as we surely must in an economic downturn – that we can’t provide enough public transport to serve the needs of all our rural villages, then we have to make motoring more expensive for those who have access to alternatives. It not only makes sense – it’s also equitable, as it works towards a system where everyone pays a reasonable price for the transport that best suits where they live.