Cambridge Congestion Charge Debate

anpr07:21 Friday 12th July 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Plans to introduce a congestion charge in Cambridge are back on the agenda. It’s one of the proposals in the 2030 Vision, a plan of Cambridge’s future, which is backed by councils, businesses and the University. It’s taken two years to gather evidence. Now the report says that a congestion charge is the only way to solve the city’s traffic woes, and a great way of raising cash for public transport improvements. Now when the charge was introduced in London you remember, it cut traffic by 18%, and delays were down by 30% within the first year. Well to discuss the pros and cons I’m joined by Robin Heydon from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, which set up Unclog Cambridge. Good morning.
ROBIN HEYDON: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: So, the case for the congestion charge. Off you go. Go on.
ROBIN HEYDON: It’s very simple. Road space is limited. Currently it is free, which means that anybody can use it at any time they want. So if you’ve got somebody who’s retired who’s popping to the shops, why wouldn’t they drive in at half past eight in the morning, and delaying all those business people who’ve got important meetings that they’re going to be late for because they’re stuck in traffic?
PAUL STAINTON: Well that’s why we pay our road tax, so we can drive in, isn’t it?
ROBIN HEYDON: Well Vehicle Excise Duty which is a charge against polluting vehicles, not actually a charge for using the road.
PAUL STAINTON: The tax on petrol and everything else. Isn’t that what we pay it for, for the road, so we can drive on it?
ROBIN HEYDON: Unfortunately most of the roads are funded by general taxation, not those individual taxes. Of course if we want to try and build our way out of congestion, which side of Huntingdon Road are you going to knock down? Is it going to be the University colleges, or all the very nice houses?
PAUL STAINTON: Well you say that, but why should we pay more?
ROBIN HEYDON: Because road space is very very limited. We’ve effectively got the tragedy of the commons here. We’ve got this shared resource that everybody is acting independently, and using rationally in their point of view. But it’s to the detriment of everybody. The whole of Cambridge would benefit by having a congestion charge that prices road space at the level of congestion at that point in time. So the roads might be free at ten thirty in the morning when you want to pop to the shops. But they would be more expensive at seven thirty in the morning when businesses are trying to do deliveries.
PAUL STAINTON: Well let’s speak to Vanessa Burkitt as well who wants to get in on this conversation. She’s owner of Catherine Jones Jewellery in Bridge Street. Morning.
PAUL STAINTON: So what’s wrong with a little congestion charge then? As Robin says there, it would free up the traffic. It would cut down congestion. It would raise some cash. A fiver a day to get into Cambridge. Be alright, wouldn’t it?
VANESSA BURKITT: Ok. Let’s think about what the catchment area is here. It’s not just the immediate vicinity of Cambridge. We have people coming in to the city from very very very far afield. Huge numbers of issues here. The congestion charge in my view is an incredibly 20th century idea. It’s not visionary. And what I was expecting and hoping from 2030, the 2030 Vision, was something much more creative and much more imaginative. It’s not so much moving people into the city, it’s moving people around the city. There have been phantastic ideas of tunnelling under the city so that people, once they’ve got into the city, can move around it. But I understand from Robin’s point of view that what he’s about is cycling. That’s what he’s talking about. But you can’t do all your shopping if you’re living out in Soham or in Hitchin or St Ives or wherever it is, and then ride back on a bike. That’s one issue. The thing I was really concerned about, reading the document too, was it says, and it states in the document, it “does not reflect official data”. If you’re going to make a plan for a huge city you’ve got to take data into account, otherwise it’s just views and visions, and it’s not based in anything in particular. And the document goes on to say “although the context of this document and the findings of the 2030 Vision may not necessarily reflect the opinions of our supporters, we thank them and we’re appreciative of their input in the system.” So I don’t know quite what this document is based on, if it’s not based on either data nor does it reflect the opinions of the supporters.
PAUL STAINTON: Robin I think you’ve taken some big hits there.
ROBIN HEYDON: Well, there are some things that I would agree with. If you are coming in from Soham, and you’re going to do lots of shopping, then yes, a car is probably the best way of doing it. But would those people drive in at half past eight in the morning to go shopping? Or would they wait until half past nine when the congestion charge would effectively be zero pounds?
VANESSA BURKITT: Ok. If it’s half past eight to half past nine, that’s going to be an additional cost to all the businesses who rely on being able to drive into the city for their work. Already we notice we’ve got huge numbers of buses. My shop as you said earlier on, Catherine Jones, is in Bridge Street, right next to the Round Church. We’re in the heart of the historic city of Cambridge. That area is already absolutely full of buses. You couldn’t put another bus on the roads there. So you depend on people nipping around and getting into the city around the buses. You can’t add more.
ROBIN HEYDON: So the question of course is that if you get all these cars coming into Cambridge, which one of the green parks that we have today would you pave over and build a car park on?
PAUL STAINTON: Parkers Piece?
ROBIN HEYDON: Would you do it on Parkers Piece?
VANESSA BURKITT: Yes. Underneath.
ROBIN HEYDON: Underneath? So you’re going to rip up Parkers Piece and build an understorey car park there? How many billions will that cost?
VANESSA BURKITT: But the whole issue is that the car parks in Cambridge are full because people want flexibility. And we’re a small market town. We haven’t got the interchange of transport that you have in a metropolis like London, or anywhere else where the congestion charge has been implemented. We haven’t got an underground system. We haven’t got a bus system, or we haven’t got a tram system. What we’ve got is what we’ve got. It’s a tiny city.
PAUL STAINTON: So you were expecting something bigger? I flippantly floated the idea of concreting over all the roads and putting trams in and out of Cambridge and big park and rides on each corner of the city a few weeks ago, and I was pooh-poohed for it. But that sounds like a Big Idea to me.
VANESSA BURKITT: It’s a much bigger idea, but a congestion charge as I said seems to be tremendously old hat, and immediately a huge impact of extra costs on all businesses.
PAUL STAINTON: How are you going to win the businesses over Robin?
ROBIN HEYDON: It’s interesting that in the early days of the London congestion charge, before it was brought in, the delivery industry and a lot of those industries didn’t want the congestion charge, because they saw it as an extra tax. But now they’re fully in favour, because they realise that actually paying a small amount of money to get priority access to those roads meant that they could do those priority jobs, get to meetings on time, do the deliveries, much more efficiently.
VANESSA BURKITT: Robin, London and Cambridge are two completely different propositions.
ROBIN HEYDON: What’s the difference between having limited road space in Cambridge and limited road space in London?
PAUL STAINTON: The congestion charge though Robin, a few years ago, was ruled out because the public didn’t support it. Why would they support it this time around?
ROBIN HEYDON: Well there needs to be an argument that goes out to the public that explains the benefits of congestion charging, and not just the costs of that.
VANESSA BURKITT: But going back to your previous item ..
PAUL STAINTON: Very quickly if you would.
VANESSA BURKITT: ..smoking’s bad for them but they still do it. Can I just ask you both one question? How many pincodes and passwords do you have to operate your life now? Whether it’s your online banking or whatever it is? Can you remember how many you’ve got?
PAUL STAINTON: What’s that got to do with it?
VANESSA BURKITT: I’ll tell you exactly what it’s got to do with it. Barclays yesterday in a personal meeting, a private meeting, said that their online banking business was too complicated to use, and they were going to increase and put more effort into face to face meetings with people who bank with Barclays. Now if Barclays are finding that the Internet, which everybody thinks is the only way forward at the moment, if they’re already discovering that it’s detrimental to their business, and detrimental to the service that they can provide to people who bank, in favour of getting people into branches, a company as big as that is already changing away from the virtual world and back to the real world, it’s going to mean more people trying to get into their branches, and you’re going to put a congestion charge on it. It doesn’t make sense to give that a disincentive.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’ve got all those extra people … very quickly from both of you now if you would … we’ve got all these extra houses being built on the outskirts of Cambridge, more flats being built inside Cambridge. We’re going to have more and more people coming into the city. Is congestion charging going to stop that Robin? Or is there another idea that we need to think about?
ROBIN HEYDON: There’s only two things you can do. One is to increase the road space, double-decker, six-lane wide freeways across the top of Cambridge colleges, across the backs. Or you do a congestion charge. Road space is free. People are using it any time they want. And that’s what’s causing the problem.
PAUL STAINTON: Vanessa? How would you solve this problem? Cambridge streets are going to get even more clogged up. Very quickly, how would you solve it?
VANESSA BURKITT: As I said before, a much more imaginative scheme of getting people, moving people, around the city, rather than moving them into the city. And the travellator, and the tunnel under the city has been costed, and it has been proved, and in fact it was put forward during debates for 2030.
PAUL STAINTON: Thank you very much. I doubt you two are ever going to agree on this.