28 July 2014

Forgotten Posts from the Past: Planning transport

Yes Labour and the Greens always share a grand plan for transport that wont be met of course, because the targets bear little resemblance to what transport users want.  You see you can take two views about what transport users want.  You can take what they do, in response to their own demands and the price to meet those, or you can ask them what they want, and they'll usually want to pay less for a lot more.  It is the latter approach that guides what is the eco-socialist view of transport - which is that the system should be driven by what planners think is good for everyone, not by responding to demand according to what people are prepared to pay for.

Labour's 2008 transport policy had a range of goals which pretty much sums up the banal attitude to this:

- Cut km travelled by single occupancy vehicles in urban centres by 10% by 2015.  In other words, too many people are driving in their own cars in cities, and they should either not do so, or take someone else with them (it doesn't mean empty buses).  A target to reduce congestion would be to meet something people want, but no it is a statement that driving in your own car, on your own, is inherently bad, even if you bought the car, paid for the petrol, insurance etc (including the tax to pay for the road).  Too many people are being bad by driving themselves unnecessarily!

 - Increasing the movement of freight by ship and rail to 30 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. Whatever THAT means, because it could just be an increase in freight tonne km, which could happen anyway with a booming economy. However if it is about mode share, then there is no chance this could happen without taxing others to subsidise freight movements by more expensive modes.  The assumption is that moving freight by sea and rail is better, because of less pollution, but it ignores that the reason it doesn't happen as much as planners want, is cost. It simply costs more.  There is no quantification of the benefits of this mode shift, given it will cost money to achieve it, it is simply part of the quasi-religious belief that sea and rail transport is "better" than road transport, not anything based on evidence.
- Increasing walking, cycling and other active forms of transport to 30 per cent of trips in urban areas. You unfit slobs, walk! I tell you walk! Of course a good way of doing this would be to eliminate public transport subsidies, then more people would walk and cycle, as the main competition for public transport is walking and cycling. Yet Labour wants to double subsidies (euphemistically called "funding") for public transport.   Why 30% of trips?  It's a planning target.  It would improve physical fitness yes, it would also reduce demand for public transport so there could be savings there and delays in expanding road capacity, but how do you "increase" this?  Does pouring taxpayers' money into infrastructure make a difference?  Who knows, as it isn't evidence based.

 The truth is that the government cannot predict transport demand, technologies or geographical changes in demographics and businesses. The government's biggest influence is owning infrastructure it could see free through commercialisation and privatisation, but no, it wants to specify the "right level" of funding when it doesn't know where demand is heading.

and of course why is Labour pursuing most of this? "The targets are tied to a plan to halve per capita greenhouse gas emissions from domestic transport by 2040."

ah there you go, it's simple, you've all been very bad, now stop moving about unnecessarily by the "bad" means of transport, and move the "good" way.

Unfortunately, transport is one of those sectors that politicians and planners think they can organise better than users and providers.  They ignore that much of the transport sector self organises itself very effectively.  The entire road freight sector functions and delivers goods without the state doing anything beyond basic safety regulation and the provision of highways.  Airlines provide flights with again little government involvement beyond safety regulation, and the negotiation of air services agreements with other countries (more and more of which are open and liberal). 

So ask yourself why politicians think they can do this better than the market?  For a while I thought it was about boys who hadn't grown up, who like building roads and railways, but it is more than that.  It is because most sectors of the economy are beyond the wit and understanding of politicians to manage and interfere with, but transport has features that make it different.   The historic provision of roads by government and the charging of road use by taxation rather than tolls is one dimension, but also transport is all pervasive.  Virtually everyone uses it in one way or another, and the infrastructure and vehicles that provide it are highly visible and pervasive.  Finally, transport has been one of the two bogey sectors for environmentalists for quite some time.   Internal combustion engines do produce poisons, and building corridors means clearing land for them.  Both of these give ample scope for the public health and the conservation minded to oppose them.

Finally, the truly simple minded can easily be persuaded - like the Soviets were - that it looks much more efficient to pack hundreds of people into a train than to have hundreds of people driving - the problem is that the complexities of where people start and finish their journeys, the costs of getting that train to them, are too much for those who believe in the fatal conceit of state planning.

and that's where the Greens and Labour fall over.  They don't understand that people, by and large, don't want to do what they want to make them do.

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