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. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



June 2008

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