Congestion charge and public transport
Sir, – David McWilliams (“Introduce a congestion charge and make public transport free”, Analysis, January 18th) suggests that, “using basic economics, it makes sense to introduce a congestion charge for the privilege of driving at peak hours and at the same time to reduce to zero the cost to the commuter of public transport”, thereby reducing traffic congestion in our cities and changing commuting behaviour.
However, both measures may have other consequences as well. Your columnist uses the lens of property rights and compares access to city roads, now free on a per-use basis, to the costs of buying a house with a sea view, where the price reflects the demand for it. There is a fundamental flaw in this comparison. The house was built by private money whereas the road system was built by the State, using taxpayers’ money. Congestion charges deny the city streets funded by all to low-income commuters while not keeping wealthier drivers off the roads. Effectively congestion charges amount to rationing by income. The introduction of city tolling in France is currently under debate, with the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, adamant that any new charges should not simply limit access to the city to those on higher incomes.
The systems used in recent years in cities such as Athens and New Delhi, allowing car commuting by number plate, at least aims at fairness in allocating road space, even if rather cumbersome in practice and prone to abuse.
His second suggestion, free public transport, is also rather dubious in economic terms. Any service supplied free is liable to be over-used in that alternatives will not be seriously considered. Public transport capacity is already strained to the limit in Dublin. Offering it free would exacerbate that. David McWilliams justifies his proposal by noting that elements of health and education are free. Somewhat ironically, this comparison only highlights the risks of offering any service free. Attendance at GP clinics by children aged under six years has greatly increased since charges were eliminated, putting huge strain on medical resources. Would it not be better to reduce current charges to a very low level for these services, thereby making them affordable while not encouraging over-use? – Yours, etc,