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Cambridge scientist: Why GCP’s punitive road charge could the final straw - and what it should do instead

Opinion | A Cambridge scientist – known as Just another Cambridge scientist (@CamSci84) on Twitter – shares his view with the Cambridge Independent on the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) plan to impose a £5 road user charge to drive a private car, motorbike and moped in the city, which would pay for a revamped bus network with £1 flat fares within the city, and £2 flat fares from outside. Read more about the proposals here.

Traffic congestion in Cambridge
Traffic congestion in Cambridge

I’m a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University. I work at the West Cambridge site, and live in a village to the west of the city.

In these proposals from the GCP, the three major peripheral science-focussed employment hubs (West Cambridge, North Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s) are all caught within the congestion charging zone. They are readily accessible from the city centre via cycle routes and public transport, and from rural South Cambridgeshire and beyond via the motorway network. But even with the proposed expansion of bus services, each only has direct public transport links to a small fraction of towns and villages further out.

This means that, along with thousands of others, I will face a choice: I can either pay an extra £1,200 a year to continue my 15-minute, uncongested, direct car commute. Or I can at least triple my travel time first by taking the proposed hourly bus from my village right into the (highly congested) city centre, then a second back out to West Cambridge.

Like many other families with two full-time working parents forging a living on modest incomes in the UK’s most unequal city, we don’t have much money, but have even less time to spare. Juggling long working hours with childcare and school/nursery runs means that swapping to public transport simply isn’t feasible if it adds an hour or more of commuting time every single day.

The West Cambridge site from the air. Picture: Keith Heppell
The West Cambridge site from the air. Picture: Keith Heppell

It would be sadly ironic if this “green agenda” congestion charge ends up being the final financial straw which forces me to abandon my dream career and move to a better-paid job in industry somewhere, with far less opportunity to openly publish my research – much of which is helping combat climate change! In fact, I am already seeing some top-notch potential PhD students turn us down in favour of universities in more affordable cities, and I know several senior Cambridge scientist colleagues who are having similar jitters about their own futures.

There is an argument for charging road users who choose to take the car when similarly efficient and reliable alternatives are readily available. But while using financial incentives to help nudge people toward sustainable transport is one thing, punishing already struggling families for choosing the only viable option offered to them is just horrid.

[Read more: Who would pay the GCP’s proposed daily charge to use Cambridge roads – and how much would you pay?]

Getting people to embrace a greener future requires us to find ways to make it work for everyone, not just repeatedly hitting them over the head with a leafy branch like Basil Fawlty attacking his Austin 1100.

With the GCP’s proposals it doesn’t matter if you’re a trust fund millionaire spending the day cruising around the city centre in your V12 Lamborghini, a sleep-deprived nurse who’s just spent their savings on the down payment for a second-hand electric hatchback in an attempt to be a good citizen, or a destitute pensioner driving from King’s Hedges to the big Tesco in search of groceries and arthritis meds – you’ll all be charged the same.

So instead of this wide-reaching, poorly-targeted and punitive proposal, I would urge our elected (and unelected!) leaders to concentrate on improving viable high-capacity public transport routes between larger population centres. Scale back plans for highly inefficient and expensive rural buses, focus on achievable solutions such as P&R (by bus, rail, bike, even busway), and accept that for some people driving to parking spaces at workplaces around the city’s periphery remains the most sensible solution.

Stop with the endless consultations and just get the cycling greenways built ASAP – supported by plentiful secure bike storage at P&R sites, workplaces and the city centre. Get East West Rail finished via a northern route with a station at Northstowe (to free up some bus drivers and directly connect our fastest-growing employment site and residential district, among many other benefits), and look to extend the railway line through the city and on to Haverhill.

If Cambridge is to continue expanding rapidly, then it’s also worth seriously considering larger-scale transport solutions such as light rail and urban tunnels in the longer term.

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